It has already been a week and I haven’t yet written about the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC). What a wonderful couple of days! I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to it or not – -I felt undertrained, worried that I’d be able to finish, hoping that I’d be fine. Cindy kept telling me I’d be fine. My teammates kept telling me I’d be fine. Still, I worried. And hoped.
I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already written about the PMC- – though once again, I was blown away by the community spirit, all the spectators cheering us on. I found myself smiling most of the ride, loving the route, the energy, the beautiful New England towns. A mass start of thousands of cyclists is something to behold, but I was touched most of all by the people along the route, many of them older, yelling to us in their Boston accents: “Mornin'” — which sounded more like “Mawhnin.” Or, “thanks for your hahd work.” On Day Two, just after we (the riders) come across the Bourne Bridge and are about to start on the bike trail, a sign warns us: “Wicked Hard Right.” And I feel instantly at home.
I am in love with this place. While it’s true that otherwise New Englanders can seem colder than Southerners — I spent a couple of hours helping my mother sell raffle tickets for the Marshfield Council On Aging, and we sat at a card table outside a supermarket. I’m struck by how many people walk right by us without even saying hello, something that would not happen back in Virginia (though we also get several outright donations, too, in addition to the tickets we do sell) — on these two days of the PMC, I am, like Blanche DuBois, impressed by the kindness of strangers, the caring and warmth of these people lining the streets to cheer us on. You get the feeling they wait with expectation for the PMC cyclists to arrive, thousands of us, riding through their small towns. We snarl their traffic, make it nearly impossible to get out and about for one day, but they stand or sit at the edge of their driveways and clap, or honk their horns in appreciation. “Way to go!” they yell from car windows, stuck there, in hopeless long lines. Some of them, like the residents of Cherry Street in Wrentham, throw parties. They have steel drums and bagpipes, red ribbons around all the trees, groups of kids extending their hands for a chance to high five the riders.
The PMC is the closest I’ll get to knowing what it feels like to be in the peloton. I found myself thinking about the Tour de France riders as they climb Mt. Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez, the crowd surging forward, cheering crazily, and I get how that energy does propel you along, how it must feel to have the crowd screaming your name. But this time riding the PMC, I found myself thinking less about myself, about the route or how hard it was, and I took in everything around me. I enjoyed the ride–the New England landscape, all the beautiful gardens and stonewalls, but most of all, the people: the old man, seeming a bit bewildered at the edge of his driveway, but who looks straight at me and says “Thank you;” the young girl holding the sign “I’m fifteen, and ten years cancer-free.” When I get to one rest stop, the half-mile approach lined with all the faces of Pedal Partners (teams of five people or more can have a “pedal partner” — a child being treated for cancer at Dana Farber), their sweet faces smiling out from colorful flags, I start to cry. How incongruous, I think, that I am out here enjoying this ride and these kids have cancer. It’s just not right. And on Day Two, when I climb over the rise to see Provincetown in the distance, the small white cottages of Truro to my left, the dunes and ocean in the distance, I tear up again. I think: who gets to do this? Who gets to enjoy this? I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world on this day, on this ride.
The PMC is quite simply, amazing. It’s funny how maybe I’m more moved this second time than the first. I rode much stronger, had a good two days on the bike. Of course, during the event when you’re buoyed by all the goodwill of the volunteers and spectators, your adrenaline running, you forget about the training and how hard it was to raise $4300. You forget about the vow to “never do this again,” how you resented having to ride in order to train, especially all those hill rides, all those training rides in the god-awful heat and much earlier, the ones in the cold. You feel part of something big and important, like you’re making a very real difference, just you on your bike, turning the pedals for many miles. You don’t feel like the fat girl on the bike; in fact, you don’t feel like the fat girl at all. When you’re riding and they’re clapping, the policemen at the intersections applauding and saying “welcome to Brewster,” you feel like a star.
As I rode nearer and nearer to Provincetown, I had the distinct thought that our bodies only do what we ask them to do. And if we never push them, we’ll never know what they’re capable of doing. We might think: there is no way my body could ride 192 miles — but how do we know if never try? And of course, maybe you don’t want your body to ride 192 miles, but there might be something else–something else that feels unattainable and too hard, and for me, the PMC is a tangible way to know that such things might be within my reach after all. We might ride farther than we ever thought possible. We might change the course of our lives. We might even cure cancer.