The Most Exhilarating Ride of My Life

57th St. Hill - Sioux Falls, SD

Saturday – June 25, 2011 – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – approximately 7:20 am.

Less than 15 minutes after leaving Yankton Trails Park and heading westbound on 57th Street, I was struggling to maintain momentum.  An image flashed through my mind of a T-shirt that I’d seen a month or so before during the Mayor’s Ride to Work Day in Orlando.  It read, “DLF > DNF > DNS – Dead Last Finish is greater than Did Not Finish which greatly trumps Did Not Start.”  We were barely out of the gate on the final 65 mile leg of the “Ride With Larry” and I was sucking wind.  They simply don’t make hills like this in Florida – and it wasn’t just one hill, it leveled off for a moment and then the angle steepened as it approached Minnesota Ave.  Up front, leading the pack and gliding effortlessly around the first turn was Larry Smith – a 62 year old, 20-year Parkinson’s survivor, who had already ridden over 240 miles over the past four days on his Catrike – and he’s moving along like his hair’s on fire!  The training that I’d undertaken back home simply didn’t prepare me for a hill of this size, especially without any advance warm-up.

So, I did one of the last things that I wanted to do – I put my foot down, dismounted, and pushed my bike the last 30 yards to the top of the hill.  At that point, I remounted, caught my breath, turned to my son, Brian, who was riding along with me and said, “Let’s Ride.”  Very motivational, until I glanced up Minnesota and realized that we had one more hill to conquer before the road flattened out.  It was going to be a looooooooong day!

For those who have read my postings before, you know that I love capturing every detail.  I’ve been told that my motto should be, “why use one word when five will do.”  I simply don’t want anyone to miss any part of a story.  And this day was quickly turning into one heck of an adventure.  I’ll try my best to “high point” my Ride With Larry experience, because – and this is called a “commitment” – I’ve realized that there were so many lessons learned both leading up to this day and all throughout it, that I will be writing a book to chronicle, process and synthesize this event.  For now, enjoy the “Cliff Notes” version.

John with Electra Townie 21-speed rental

The road did level off and Brian and I got into a pedaling rhythm.  We had rented bikes from Harlan’s Bike and Tour.  http://harlansbikeandtour.com/ They’d come highly recommended and with good reason – their staff are some of the most knowledgeable that I’ve ever encountered.  They made sure that our bikes fit us perfectly and that we were completely confident in the equipment.  Brian was riding  sleek Bianchi Iseo – whch he noted several times throughout the day as being “much nicer” than his bike at home.  In spite of several warnings from cycling friends, I had rented a 21-speed Electra Townie.  Why you ask?  Simply because that’s what I ride at home and it’s easier on my back and shoulders.  I know the limitations for climbing due to the bike’s weight and unique “flat foot technology” design, but I figured it was better to go with the beast that I knew than try to undertake this journey on something that I hadn’t ridden.

Brian with Biachi Iseo at SAG trailer

The goal for the day was to ride from Sioux Falls through Beresford (about 35 miles) and continue on to Vermillion (another 30 miles).  Larry and Betty Smith live in Vermillion and a celebration was planned for 1:00 pm sharp.  Everyone later agreed – even for most of the experienced cyclists – six hours to cover 65 miles was “aggressive.”  For a 59 year old, pleasingly plump rider on a less than ideal machine, it was going to be a “challenge.”  That led to my decision to humbly take advantage of a few SAG rides.  I later named the drivers of our support vehicles my “angels of mercy.”  I had broadcasted to the world that I was undertaking a 65 mile bike ride – a number that is impressive, in fact it would have more than qualified for a “metric century” since 62 miles equals 100 kilometers.  My last training ride in Florida I had completed 45 miles with 95 degree temperatures – thought this would be a piece of cake with the cooler weather.  Due to the time constraint and certainly wanting to take part in the final push into Vermillion, I accepted the SAG’s hospitality.  In fact, the rides gave me an opportunity to get to know Leland Smith (Larry and Betty’s son) and his girlfriend, Sarah – both of whom do great work with non-profits in Washington, DC; as well as get to know Emi from Hawaii – also known as the “fifth” Theiss sister (Betty’s family) who is President of a non-profit health support group.  Betty even rode with us at one point.  She’s a strong cyclist but as the primary organizer of this event, she had to stay ahead of the pack.  I had a very meaningful conversation with her about Larry’s DBS (deep brain stimulation surgery) – part of my networking effort to catalogue PD information that I may need one day.

For anyone that is now reading this that may be disappointed to find out that I didn’t have my “cinderella day” and stay in contact with the pedals for the full 65 miles, I extend an apology – but the sum total experience of the day made up for it.  I “offically” logged 34.68 of the toughest miles that I’ve ever ridden.  There were several more serious hills to climb throughout the day which I scaled without ever setting my foot down again.  The 8 – 10 mph breeze at the beginning of the day ramped up to 18 – 20 mph as we clawed our way into Vermillion proper along Highway 19.  I feel very pleased with my physical accomplishment and know that I could have done more time in the saddle given additional training (though I did log 150 miles in June in high Florida heat, but just not enough time on hills), a more appropriate bike, and sufficient time to complete the route.  But just like dealing with PD, you simply have to play the cards that you are dealt.

Bring up the Catrikes

A highlight of the day was when we met up with the lead group about five miles outside Beresford.  Many of the riders had stopped for a rest break.  When they started back up, Caroline (one of Betty’s sisters) called for me to ride to the front next to Larry.  We had a blast, just chatting away and joking – he’s a really funny guy.  After our “private moment” – difficult to have privacy with the documentary film crew driving ahead of us with the camera and microphone capturing our every word – we were joined by some of the other Parkinson’s patients.  One of those riding a trike was Wendall, who by the way is 95 years old!  He rode the whole route – other than a bit of an assist from one of his supporters who hooked up a rope to help him get up some of the hills by gently pulling him while Wendall continued to pedal.  Shortly after that moment, one of the guys send back the call, “Bring up the Catrikes” and all of the little three wheeled speed demons raced to the front.  They still had 40 miles to go and these guys were playing “dodge ’em” with these nimble little vehicles.  (Professor Steve from the Univesity of South Dakota told me later that he’s been clocked at 55 mph on his Catrike).  When they all moved forward like an attack squadron, I drifted back and swore that I could hear musical strains of “Flight of the Valkyries” playing across the South Dakota plains.

The group stopped briefly in Beresford and additional riders joined us.  In total there were about 80 – 100 cyclists altogher.  We picked up more hills south of town but I was mentally and physically prepared by that time.  Brian and I went screaming down one hill and I glanced at my bike computer displaying 22 mph at the bottom – a new record for me.  We virtually glided up the ensuing climb on the other side.  We passed Betty on the way down the hill and thought it was great that she’d stopped to cheer people on – turns out that she had a flat tire but since she’d already called for a replacement bike, she didn’t want anyone stopping to help her so she played cheerleader instead.

Note to self - clip out first before stopping

Shortly after that climb we crossed over a road and Brian realized that we’d missed a turn and asked me to stop.  I obliged and pressed on my brakes – forgetting one important thing, I was clipped in to my pedals.  I frantically tried to unclip, but started to sense that I was falling.  I only began using clipless pedals a few weeks ago and had been warned by many people that “you will fall over.”  Already having bad shoulders, I’d said that wasn’t an option.  But now it was happening to me.  I simply decided – rather quickly – to just “go with it” and completely relaxed.  I twisted enough that I “executed” a perfect stunt fall – landing first on my butt, then my back and finally my helmet tapped the ground but protected my head.  I did realize that I’d scraped my left calf (proudly brought home some South Dakota “road rash”), but otherwise felt fine.  I was actually rather amused by the whole situation.  Not so for poor Brian who had to helplessly watch this take place right before his eyes.  He was naturally concerned but I informed him that I was perfectly fine, wasn’t seeing stars and was ready to continue.  He said, “But your whole head is bleeding.”  Turns out that was a bit of an overstatement – the bridge of my nose had sustained a cut from my sunglasses and I was bleeding, but it was quite temporary and we were able to resume riding.

Back on the right road, we enjoyed about a half hour of virtually no wind, no cars, a fresh stretch of asphalt, and a slight downhill grade – pedaling effortlessly at a steady 18 mph.

Highway 19 shoulder

Then came Highway 19 – a major two-lane thoroughfare.  For my Cycling Savvy friends, this wasn’t a road where one “controlled the lane.”  Doing so would have almost immediately been met with eighteen wheels rolling up your back.  The traffic was screaming on that road 70+ mph.  We had a 6 – 8 foot section to ride in, but the strong headwinds combined with the wind gusts from passing vehicles made this a very slow, arduous portion of the journey.  To add insult to injury, there was “one more hill” to conquer as we approached Vermillion.  The slow grade down to it was pleasant, in spite of what I nicknamed the “mine field” – lots of rocks and pebbles in our lane due to spring rain runoff.  In the process of steering around the rocks, I had come to a full stop at the bottom, so had to start the climb with no momentum (shades of 57th St. all over again).  I worked my gears down to the second to the lowest – the first had me simply spinning and didn’t do any good.  I ended up naming that second gear the “Little Engine That Could” gear – because with every pedal stroke I was telling myself, “I think I can, I think I can.”  It was slow, it was gritty, but I made it!  Just after reaching the plateau, we saw Emi parked to the side of the road with her SAG truck.  Her one question was, “would you like a peanut bar?”  While I did manage my hydration and nutrition well throughout the day, my “fuel tank” was plumb empty at that point.  I think the first bite was half wrapper and half bar, but it tasted great.

We knew we were getting close and after crossing  major highway, we noticed many of the riders assembled in a parking lot.  As we rode in, a cheer went up from the group, signifying that we’d “done good.”  They’d held Larry back a ways, so he rode in with a police escort.  The group reassembled and prepared for the final trek into Vermillion.

Clock in Vermillion town square

The whole town must have come out with entire families lining the roadway with signs and flags.  As we passed one sign that said, “only 1 more mile to go” a combined sigh of relief and a groan went out from the riders.  Just fifty feet later, however, another lady had a sign that said, “only 2 more miles to go” – nice one!  The group turned down Main St. and hundreds more people were assembled to greet us.  A live band was playing, food stands were set up, and a crowd was waiting for Larry’s victorious return after his 300 mile adventure.  One of his good friends handed him a beer as he took to the stage and enjoyed the well deserved adulation of all gathered.  People talk about Ironman competitions, what Larry accomplished was simply mind boggling.

Brian and John - "Every Victory Counts"

I was so very proud of my son, Brian.  He watched over me like a hawk all day long.  When we decided to do this ride together, he didn’t even own a bike but got one a month out and was able to fit in a reasonable amount of advance training time out in California.  He encouraged me every step of the way.  I’m very sorry that I scared him when I fell, but I was emboldened to accomplish my ride by his love and support.  In addition, I could strongly sense the virtual good wishes coming my way from my wife, Laura; our daugher, Jen (soon to be “Mommy Jen” to Baby Lilly – July 13 due date!).  Thank you to Brian’s wife, Jessica, who shared him for several days to participate in my dream.

I appreciated all the advice from my team of cycling coaches (Anita, Lisa, Diana, Jason, Kittzie, Stix, Rodney, Mighk) and many other friends from around the world who offered support and encouragement on topics ranging from training plans to nutrition to hydration strategies.  Huge thank you to Keri Caffrey for creating Cycling Savvy, the best bike skills training program in the coutry – I used every one of the lessons on this ride and truly felt “empowered for unlimited travel.”  I’d very much like to thank all of the “virtual Cycling Savvy Riders” who contributed to my webpage over the past week.  The total is over $ 3,700 and still growing with proceeds going to the Davis Phinney Foundation and Parkinson’s Research Foundation.

John, Larry, and Brian at the finish line

I do now believe in the Davis Phinney Foundation’s motto – “Every Victory Counts” and the end result of this ride was a string of many progressive victories throughout the day.  After getting off my bike on 57th St., when all the other riders were out of sight, I could have just rolled back down to the parking lot.  But with Brian at my side I got back on my bike and kept moving.  It’s all about “just keep moving.”  This was the most exhilarating ride of my life, but far from my last.    A giant “group hug” to Larry, Betty, their families and all the other wonderful people that I met as part of this experience.

I may travel at “Bike Speed,” but look for me out there tooling around.  It’s my personal way of saying, “In Your FACE, Parkinson’s!”  Anyone care to go for a bike ride?

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West Orange Trail at Bike Speed

Two old forms of transportation

A few months ago I learned about the “Ride With Larry” project – a bike ride across South Dakota led by Larry Smith, who has lived with Parkinson’s disease for 20 years.  Larry and his wife, Betty, will be riding over 300 miles across their state.  I will be traveling to Sioux Falls, SD to take part in the final leg of the ride on Saturday, June 25th.  Participants may select a 65 mile or 30 mile route to the finish line.  A year and a half ago I, too, was diagnosed with PD.  Since then I have learned about the many positive benefits of regular exercise – particularly bike riding.  I hadn’t ridden for quite a while so I enrolled in the Cycling Savvy class to increase my bike handling skills and knowledge.  Since “graduating” last November I have put over 500 miles on my trusty Electra Townie – a comfort bike that allows me to sit more upright, thus being kinder on my back, shoulders and hands.   While providing those benefits, it’s also heavy, slow, and not so great for climbing.  Regardless, it’s a really cool bike!

My plan is to rent a bike in South Dakota.  While less than ideal, I’ll make do.  Delta Airlines charges $ 200 each way to ship a bike, so cost became a major factor.  FYI – Southwest will ship a bike for free as one of two free pieces of luggage (must be properly packed in a bike box) – but SWA doesn’t fly into Sioux Falls.  I found a reputable bike shop that carries my exact model of bike.  I will be bringing my bike seat and bike pedals.  That will allow me to replicate my current experience as much as possible.  My son, Brian, will be joining me from his home in Los Angeles and I’ve made arrangements for him to ride a Bianchi Iseo.

My goal has been to do the full 65 miles in South Dakota.  To prepare for the big ride, I’ve been increasing my mileage steadily over the past month.  I created a six week training plan.  Even though I was traveling on business during the first week, I rented a bike two times in Chicago and rode along the Lakeshore Trail to get in some miles.  I rode about 30 miles each of the the first two weeks, then stepped up the distance to close to 80 miles the third and fourth weeks.  During the third week I did my first 20 miler ever on the Sunday, a couple of 10’s during the week, and finished out with a 30 mile run the next Saturday.  I was feeling strong.  The West Orange Trail ride on Saturday, June 11, 2011, was planned as a 44-mile route – out and back the complete distance of that trail.  After talking to seasoned cyclists, I learned that I’d need to demonstrate my proficiency with at least this distance to have any confidence about taking on the full 65 miles in South Dakota.  I’ve also learned that 62 miles is a “metric century” since that distance in miles equals 100 kilometers.  For a 59 year old, possessing less than an ideal physique (i.e., pleasantly plump), with bad shoulders, and a heavy bike – a metric century would be a big deal.

John Alexander and Rodney Youngblood on West Orange Trail

The West Orange Trail is popular – and populated – with riders of all skills levels from novices on rentals, to families riding together, to flat out racers.  Even with heavy usage, however, the groups spread out quickly based on skill level so it never felt congested.  If you haven’t ever been before, the West Orange Trail is a very well maintained with full service support buildings called “stations” and limited service “outposts” spaced along the way.  We started at mile marker “zero” at the Killarney Station, which houses a full service bike shop.  This article by Dana Farnsworth (OutdoorTravels.com) does a great job of describing the trail, complete with a video insert.

Rodney Youngblood joined me for the ride.  He is a Cycling Savvy Instructor and, as a I learned, a very patient person.  The plan was to start at nine a.m., but we set out about five minutes late because the parking lot was full and I had to divert to overflow parking.  We crossed a restored railroad bridge which spans the Florida Turnpike, passed the Oakland Nature Preserve and rode around the the Oakland Outpost.  Shortly after that we rolled past the xeriscape / butterfly garden.  When we arrived at downtown Winter Garden around Mile 5, the route guided us onto a medium along Plant St. which doubled as a park with fountains and benches.  Had to slow quite a bit since this was a popular area for families enjoying their Saturday morning.

The Joy of Cycling - kid style. Statue at Chapin Station.

We stopped briefly at the Chapin Station just before Mile 7.  In addition to a full service bike shop, it contains a very nice park, lots of shade and a Peace Garden.   There is a good balance of shade cover and sunny sections along the first half of the trail.  Our next break was at the Apopka-Vineland Outpost.  It contained a nice park and water, but few other services.  We struck up a conversation with a rider who shared that he was just getting back into cycling.  Rodney gave him a Cycling Savvy brochure and invited him to take a class to build his confidence.

Rodney Youngblood on West Orange Trail

We took the spur that runs down to the Clarcona Horsepark and were entertained by the riders practicing their dressage routines with their horses.  It was a nice hill down to the horsepark and a slow climb back to reconnect with the main trail.  While there is a parallel equestrian trail, we did have to pass a couple of riders on horseback at one point on the bike trail.  The section from Mile 13.5 north to Apopka was the least favorite of the day.  Parts of it are in full sun for long distances – that sapped the energy from both of us.  The south side of Apopka runs through some very disadvantaged areas, but the kids in the area enjoyed waving at us as we rolled by and got a kick out of my ringing my bike bell.

As we approached State Rt. 436, we overshot the ramp to a bridge which crosses that major road.  There was no light at the intersection, so we performed a jug-handle turn of sorts – turning left westbound to follow the sidewalk to the intersection of Park Ave. then riding 436 back eastbound to a left-turn lane to rejoin the trail.  Keri would have been proud of us – hmmm, on the other hand she probably would have said, “Idiots, why didn’t you use the bridge”.

North end of West Orange Trail

Our next pit stop was Apopka Station.  Rodney was pleased to see that they had a full service bike shop since he had broken a spoke on his bike and while still rideable, his bike was giving off a screaming sound liked he was choking a canary.  He removed his rear wheel and took it in, only to find that they didn’t stock his specific size of spoke.  After a few adjustments, we were back on the road and the canary was muffled for a while.  The trail goes down a fairly steep hill which was fun to ride down with a slow crawl up the back side of Apopka High School.  From there the “trail” – simply meaning wide sidewalk – goes along Park Ave. and then crosses Welch Rd.  It ends rather unceremoniously a couple hundred yards down from a McDonald’s and Sonny’s BBQ.  Of course, that simply meant that we’d reached our midpoint for the day.

We could have returned exactly the same way that we came, but remembering the fun hill – and the consequences of having to ride back up it – I suggested that we simply take the flat route and ride straight down Park Ave.  Since Rodney commutes daily to his job at Orlando International Airport, this four lane road with moderate Saturday afternoon traffic was a piece of cake.  He lined up in a queue behind five cars exiting the Post Office at a light and I planned to join him as he went past.  I didn’t get “out of the gate in time”, so I had to wait for the next light.  Invigorating to control my lane for the couple of blocks that it took to catch up to him.  It’s always a treat to watch traffic smoothly change lanes behind you with no horns honking.  Well, there was one guy who hung behind me, then came up beside me, rolled down the passenger window and said, “According to Florida Bicycle Statutes, you aren’t allowed to take up the whole road”.  I simply waved, but was amused by the fact that I was in my lane and he was in his – by no means was I “taking up the whole road,” simply controlling the right hand lane – and, in fact, sharing that lane with Rodney.  By the way, he had a bike rack on the back of his car!

That encounter was balanced out during our last rest break back at Chapin Station.  A dad was taking his seven year old daughter for a bike ride.  They were clearly having fun being outdoors and spending time together.  The dad was asking us if we’d seen any deer along the trail, apparently anxious to show his daughter some wildlife.  We had to confess to only seeing a few squirrels and egrets.  He then asked if we had a bike pump.  We were taking a well deserved rest sitting in a pair of rocking chairs on the porch of the station, but we gladly pulled ourselves up and proceeded to pump up his tires.  Turns out he had a brand new bike – in fact, the tag from the store was still hanging off the handlebar.  The front tire was almost completely flat, so after pumping that up we proceeded to inflate the rear as well.  The “ABC mantra” (air, brakes, chain) were running through my head from my Cycling Savvy class, but instead of “lecturing” the gentleman in front of his daughter I simply handed him a brochure and suggested that he consider attending a class to improve the riding experience for both he and his daughter.  It was a refreshing moment after a long day on the trail.

We stopped on the way back at a bench to enjoy a delicious lunch – as in PB&J sandwich.  While I had eaten a good breakfast (cheese omelette, bacon, English muffin), I’d only had a few handfuls of peanuts during other breaks.  The sandwich recharged me, but I probably should have had another later on in the ride because I did begin to run out of steam towards the end.  In fact, I began calculating our time and realized that we’d been riding for quite a while.  I am able to do my “standard” ride on the Seminole Wekeiva Trail in an hour flat, which is averaging 10 miles per hour.  Excluding breaks, we were well below that pace – hence the reason that I said earlier that Rodney was very patient with me.  Some of this was due to encountering more hills than I’m accustomed to, part to less than adequate nutrition, part to my personal level of conditioning, and part to the fact that I have a heavy bike.

My trusty steed - an Electra Townie 7D

Around Mile 35 it dawned on me that my objective of taking on the full 65 mile ride in South Dakota may be a tall order and that I may have to opt for the 30 mile route, especially since the group may be traveling at a faster pace than I’m capable of doing at this time.  One of the goals of tackling the West Orange Trail was to “test my mettle”.  The definition of mettle is “A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.”  I do have the heart, soul, and spirit and I am quite resilient – however, all told, I do have limitations.  If I end up (final decision still to be made) doing the shorter route, I will still be proud to have built up the endurance to ride a “strong 30.”  Having my son, Brian, along for the ride will make the day all that much more special.

Total for the day - 45.17 miles

We arrived back at Killarney Station about 3:35 pm – six and a half hours on the trail, with about five and a half hours in the saddle.  I did stay well hydrated which was critical considering that the thermometer registered over 93 degrees.  I started with a full 70 oz. Camelbak and refilled it two times.  As we passed the Oakland Station, I poured a spare water bottle into the hydration system and while it was fairly warm water by that point, it was enough to get me the last three miles.  Mine was the only car in the overflow lot and very few cars were remaining in the main lot.  However, the bike shop was still open and we gladly purchased an ice cold Gatorade to drink in celebration.  My goal for the day had been to “run the full West Orange”.  I accomplished that distance and a bit more to spare.  Final number on the bike computer for the day – 45.17 miles!  If someone had told me last November that I would cover that great a distance in a “week”, much less a day, I wouldn’t have believed it.  In addition, I got to spend time with a great guy and appreciated Rodney’s guidance, encouragement, and patience.  I’d be proud to ride the trail with him again one day.

I’m sure that I’ll have a tale to tell after completing the Ride With Larry.  I know that it will be a special day – no matter the distance covered.  Watch for my next posting – and get out there and ride!