These words are like birds

Once, when I was little, I was trying to write something, and I couldn’t find the words. My grandfather came up to me and said “Are the words like birds?”  It was the perfect description, and it’s where I’ve found myself for the last few days. No matter how carefully I sneak up to the ideas and stories of what happened on the rally, the words that would let me tell you fly off as soon as I get too close.  I can see them as they swirl around and away, but they take off as soon as I am near to them. I’ve managed to catch a few, but I’m not sure they’re in order.

I was confident about this years rally.  Did I tell you that? Could you tell? It was to be my third, and I knew from the two before what it was going to be like, and I trained and I worked hard, and I packed really smart, and I thought that all that preparation was going to make it the easiest time ever.  Please note that I did not say I thought it would be easy. I don’t think the rally can be easy, but I thought that I was totally prepared, and it would be a challenge that I was ready to meet.

I don’t know how to catch the right words to explain this.  I was wrong. The rally this year was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I said that to a friend a few days ago, he boggled.  “Really? Harder than being a mother? Harder than having a baby?” I nodded.

Let me tell you how it started. We met downtown on Sunday morning, the whole rally. Crew, riders – hundreds of us gathered up, and we took a few pictures, and then we were off.

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Getting a group of riders that size out of the city is a little tricky, so we had a police escort. We’d ride out as a group, with the police blocking and holding intersections so that we could just ride through them. Enthusiasm was high, and Jen and I pushed off and started to ride, excited to be finally underway. Our little balloon deflated a few kilometres later when Jen’s bike made a bad noise, and her seat came loose. We pulled over, and she got out her tools, and we stood there, Jen fixing her bike as fast as she could, the whole rally passing us by.

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By the time she had it fixed (and thank heaven she’s a resourceful woman who knows how to manage her own stuff and had tools)  we were last. Not last by a little – last by a lot. It wasn’t a good start, and we were a little dejected, but resolved to try and catch up. We started to ride again, and were immediately halted by a red light. We weren’t with the police escort anymore, so we had to stop. I signalled the stop – called “Slowing” and started to brake. As I shouted “Slowing!” I heard a voice behind me yell “OH NO YOU’RE NOT!” and a cop sped past me on a bike, and yelled “We’re going to get you caught up – SADDLE UP LADIES!”

That police officer rode like the wind, rushing ahead to every light, blowing her whistle and holding every intersection so that Jen and I could speed through, then charging past us to get to the next one, while we rode like the wind to join the group again. That cop was awesome, and she was funny, and she was kind, and she didn’t have to do that – not at all, and Jen and I were so grateful (and sweaty) and while we didn’t know it in that minute, “SADDLE UP LADIES!’ was to become the attitude that we had to take for the rest of the ride.

We reached camp triumphantly that night, if a little sore from the speeding we’d done earlier, and we pitched our tent and settled in with our team, and had dinner and sat around knitting.

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Over the course of the evening, the sky darkened, and we all started watching the sky and checking the weather on our phones and it wasn’t long before we heard thunder, and saw lightning, and we all battened the hatches, covered our bins with tarps, and did the best we could to sturdy up against the coming rain.  A few minutes before that rain started, crew from the rally came around and talked to us. The storm was going to be bad, they said. Worse than they’d thought, and could we all please take care to make sure that we were as prepared as possible? There was – they said, a tornado warning, and while a tornado was unlikely, they let us know that if we were worried, we could go to the trucks  and take shelter inside. Then the rain started, and the rally all climbed inside their little tents, and tried to sleep.

Nobody slept. The storm was incredible. Here in Southern Ontario, we have thunderstorms all the time. They’re common, and as torrential as they can be, there’s one thing we know about them – they don’t last. They’re intense and amazing and huge and then they’re gone. I know we all thought the same thing, cowering in our tents… It couldn’t last.

Wrong again. The storm raged all night. The whole thing. Even with your eyes closed you could see the lightning, and the thunder was so loud, and the sound of the rain beating on the tents was incredible and I can tell you it was more than a little scary.  In the morning it was still raining, and not just a little. The rally emerged from their tents into the cold and the wet, and Jen and I discovered we’d been lucky – our tent hadn’t leaked. The same couldn’t be said of Pato’s tent, or of Amanda’s. They’d spent the night sleeping in puddles, with soaked sleeping bags and clothes, and nobody had gotten more than an hour or two of sleep.  We were cold, and worried, and we went to breakfast to find out what was going on.

Not much, was the answer. The generators weren’t working, so there was a cold breakfast, and no hot drinks. (Fear not for the coffee. Jen and I – having been screwed by a non-functioning generator the year before had taken matters into our own hands to guard against just that moment. I’d packed a camp stove, fuel and a pot, and Jen had a french press, and we made pot after pot for anyone who asked.)

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Usually we pack our bins up and go – but that morning we waited. Road safety was out surveying our route to see if it was safe for us to ride, and we were waiting out the lightning. Cold and wet, we huddled together under the big dining tent, everyone mostly worrying about how this was all going to work. it wasn’t just that we were facing a day of riding in the rain, it’s that we were facing the longest day of the rally – 130km, a challenge at the best of times, and even harder to face in bad weather, with only the prospect of a wet tent and clothes at the end of the day. We waited, and waited, while the rally leadership did an amazing job of trying to figure out what to do.

A long time later (it always seems like a long time in the rain) we had an answer. We had a choice. The riding was going to be hard, but it was safe if we were going to be careful, so if we wanted to, we could ride. The words “wanted to” hung there for me. Wanted to? What other choice was there? There was an answer for that too. For the riders who didn’t feel safe, or were too tired, or too wet, or whose stuff was too wet, there was an alternative. You could get on your bike in the rain and the wind and the cold, OR you could wait, and a bus was coming, and the bus would take you to a community centre where you could dry yourself and your stuff out, and HAVE A HOT SHOWER. That was the choice. Ride, or skip it, and be warm and dry and clean.  I stood there, wet, and cold, and muddy and I took about nine deep breaths.

It is hard for me to explain what went through my mind then. I knew nobody would be hard on anyone who didn’t ride. The conditions were awful, and we were all sleep deprived, and things were horrible, and there was nothing wrong with getting on the bus. Hell – it was probably smart to get on the bus, but I stood there, and all I could think of – really, was you guys. I imagined myself writing this blog post, and I imagined telling you I’d taken the bus, and I imagined all of you being really understanding and supportive and totally getting it, and then I thought of all the money you’d donated, and I knew what I was going to do, and I wanted to cry. I didn’t look at Jen. I knew she was thinking the same thing. I had agreed to ride my bike to Montreal in exchange for donations to PWA. I hadn’t agreed to ride my bike if it was nice, or if it was easy. I’d agreed to ride my bike.  I took a few shaky breaths, and then we had a quick team talk about what to do. In the end, Jen, Ken and I walked to our bikes, and Amanda and Pato decided on the bus – in Amanda’s case, she didn’t feel that she was an experienced enough rider to be safe under these circumstances (boy, did she turn out to be right) and in Pato’s – he had to deal with his stuff. His tent had been such a mess in the night that he’d had to evacuate to a truck, and there was no way he’d be able to ride the next four days if he couldn’t get all of that sorted. We all agreed that this was the right and safe thing for everyone, and we left… along with just half of the riders, the half that thought they could somehow cope, or had stayed dry enough to manage.

The minute I got on my bike I wondered if I had made a mistake. The ride was the trifecta of evil for cyclists. Cold, wet, and a persistent and strong headwind to slow you down.

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No matter how hard we rode, we couldn’t get any speed going on, and we’d just accepted that it was going to be an impossibly long, hard day when we remembered the hills. It was the day of the hills, and my heart just about broke. Somehow, we rode to the first break, and that was when we remembered that on day two of the rally, there’s two breaks before lunch. You ride 40km, and then 30, and then 20, and then you get lunch, and we’d been held back in the morning so long that the combination of the late start and the already late lunch meant that it was going to be 3pm before we got lunch, and that’s a crazy thing if you had breakfast at 6am and have ridden 90km.  I don’t know how we did it. I really don’t. My saddle had started to hurt me badly (screw you – squirrel who ate the old one) and by the time we got to I was starving, cold, wet, and my will to live was being destroyed from the crotch up.

Pato and Amanda and everyone else were already all there (what with the bus and all) and they welcomed Jen and I in, and tried to get us some lunch, and road safety tried to talk to us to see if we were okay, and then they said that if we wanted to – we didn’t have to ride the last 40km.  That if it was too hard, if it was just too much, then we could stop. I didn’t really talk to anyone. I felt like if I opened my mouth to say anything it would all well up and out, and I didn’t want that. I was trying to be tough. I listened to the other riders, and I listened to another big part of them decide that they couldn’t go on, that 90km in those conditions had felt more like 150 already, and that they were going to have to stop. Then I turned around, I went into the porta-potty, and I cried.  I think Jen did too.

When I came out I had something to eat, and that helped. I had a cup of hot coffee and got a little warmed up, and that helped too. Then Jen and I talked it over, and decided that we would try. That there was “only” 40km to go, and it couldn’t be that bad and that we’d invested so much that it was – for us, a hell of a time to get off the ride, and we joked about how the great thing about riding in the rain is that nobody can see you cry, and we decided to do it.  As we were walking back to our bikes, past the glory of the bus, someone on road safety came up to us, and told us that they’d be right with us, driving by often to make sure we were okay, and that if at any point we needed to stop, all we had to do was say the word. Just raise a hand off the bike, signal the crew, and whammo. We’d be in the car and they’d drive us to the end. No shame.

I looked him in the eye, and I felt like crying again. “Don’t say that.” I said.

“What?” he asked, looking at me like I was a crazy person, which by then, I probably was.

“Don’t offer me a way out.” I turned away from him, and I don’t know if he heard what else I said, but it was something like “I”m not strong enough.”

The next two hours were a blur. Hills, and rain, and Jen and I struggling, and road safety driving by, and encouraging us, without, thank wool, offering us a ride again. We went up and down and farther and farther and we finally got to the last set of hills before the Ferry. That’s how that day ends. We take the Glenora ferry across, and then it’s an easy 8km from there. Once you’re on the ferry, you’re pretty much done. I don’t remember those hills really well. I remember thinking that my feet had been in my wet shoes for so long that I was pretty sure I had trench foot, and I remember thinking that they would probably hurt if they weren’t numb from the cold. I remember thinking that there couldn’t possibly be another hill, and I remember being deliberately and carefully cheerful with everyone that I encountered. The world was a fragile and terrible place – it could only help to be as nice as possible. At some point in there we realized we were “being swept.” The sweeps are team leads who are assigned the task of riding slower than the slowest rider. It helps road safety know where the “end of the line” is – when they drive back as far as the sweeps, they know they’re the last riders, and it makes sure nobody gets left behind. When you’re the sweeps, you lag back – hanging behind the slowest riders.  If you’re being swept, you’re the slowest.

I don’t mind telling you, that was demoralizing. Jen and I have trained hard, and worked really hard to be strong riders, and we thought we were – or I’m here to tell you, we sure as *&%^$ wouldn’t have set out that morning. To realize that we were the slowest? Our hearts broke a little, but we kept going. We did the last hill, somehow – and came around the corner to where the queue for the ferry was, and we just about fell off our bikes. The ferry goes every 15 minutes. There were about 25 riders. Jen and I might have been slow, but not by much! A few minutes later, we realized who we were just a bit slower than… Strong riders. Gazelles. People that we know are excellent on a bike, tough as nails and fast as the wind.

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I gathered everybody in for a megaselfie. Jen and I couldn’t believe it. We all stood there, on the ferry, and everybody, these fantastic riders talked about how it had been their hardest day ever, that it had really been a challenge, and that they were tired, and it had been really, really tough, and that they’d thought about the bus the whole time, and it was so… great. I wasn’t even the only person who’d cried in a porta-potty. We felt heroic.

The rest of the ride wasn’t easy either. Not that last 8km, nor the four days that came after. It rained four out of the six days, I really did think that I was getting trench foot, and day two wasn’t the only time I cried. I shed a few tears on day five, when it was our turn to sweep, and Jen and I had to do it in a thunderstorm – riding slow and wet, and we would have been so sad, except for a big chunk of our team decided to sweep with us, and we were so impressed with the kind of people that they were that it carried us the whole way. (Sort of. Damn it was cold.) I cried when I was so proud of Amanda and Pato that I could barely breath, amazed that people so young would be willing to do something so hard for other people, and I cried when I wondered if really, they understood that they were making a real difference in the world around them. I cried when Jen and I were complimented on our leadership, because we tried so hard to do a good job, and it was so amazing that the team appreciated it.

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I cried (not in front of her) when I was so proud of Jen, the best co-lead I could have ever asked for. Strong, courageous, brave and cheerful in the face of everything.

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I cried (on the inside) when our whole family team was wearing top fundraiser jerseys, because I was so happy that what we were doing had raised enough cash to really make a difference, and because I couldn’t believe the amazing support we’d had from our family, and friends, and knitters everywhere.

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I cried tears of joy when Pato and Jen figured out how to carry enough beer for all of us.

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I cried when I had not one, but TWO flat tires on the last day.

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Finally, I cried when we arrived in Montreal – because it had been so hard to get there, and I couldn’t believe we all had.

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Back to the beginning, when I told you that this was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and my friend couldn’t believe that I didn’t think that childbirth or parenting or crisis had been harder? It’s true. Those things are hard. Crazy hard. Stupid hard, but this beat it all, simply because it was optional. Childbirth might be hard, but really, you don’t have any choice. Once you’re pregnant, there’s only one why that it can end. Somehow, some way, a baby is going to come out of your body, and no matter how it does that, you’re in it. There’s no way out. You can cry and be afraid and it can be hard, but it’s going to happen to you anyway, whether you’re brave or not. Parenting? Illness, crisis? Same deal. You’re in it, and nobody rides by in a car while you’re trying to deal with it all and asks if you’d like a ride past all the hard bits. You’ve got to do it, and you do. We all do, somehow.

That moment, when they said I could choose – I could take the bus, or I could ride, and I chose to ride, will be with me for a long time, and I’d like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. If it wasn’t for you, I might have gotten on that bus, and then I wouldn’t feel the way I do now. Proud, and tired, and knowing something new about myself and my friends, and my family.

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Thanks for everything, and see you tomorrow. I’m going to have (another) nap.