With each passing chemo treatment a new side-effect either makes itself known or others become exaggerated, and yet with each passing day I feel stronger and stronger, more like myself than I ever have since surgery.
Myself and four other spandex slathered friends hopped on our tuned-up bikes in Indianapolis and pointed ourselves South towards Bloomington, Indiana, approximately 60+ miles away for a round trip bike ride of 120 miles…farther than I had ever ridden before. Starting out down our street one of my friends who is a little less experienced at tackling this sort of distance confided to me,
“This already seems like we’re going too fast.”
I agreed, but knew the initial child-like excitement would subside as we worked our way out of town and onto the rolling country roads of Southern Indiana. Of course, I didn’t take into account the inherently competitive, one-upmanship nature of the more experienced cyclists in the group who took turns chasing each other down when one got away or simply pulled our pace line stronger than I normally would have ridden. Granted, I told everyone I was justing wanting to get from point A to point B, but my own competitive nature had me instinctively trying to keep pace when I had drifted off the back, the cardio sapping effects of chemotherapy really working my systems on the inclines.
We rode onwards, passing my normal rest stops and doing what groups of cyclists normally do on Century rides like this, held tight to each other’s wheels, made fun of each other, and, in my case, worried what was going to happen to my body deeper into the ride as the effort started to wear me down. Still, we continued on, tackling hill after hill, going into oxygen debt as we entered the short, but abruptly steep, climbs deep into the Yellowwood state forest. I continued to drop off the back from time to time and then either caught up with the crew or they waited for me to catch up. In any normal circumstance I would have felt like a total drag on the group for having them wait for me, but it was pretty much established from the beginning that I was pulling a cancer card this entire ride and that they had the option to wait for me at halfway for lunch or just wait for me on their terms. Admittedly, I was grateful to keep having their backs in sight to ride after…though probably a little faster than I had wanted.
Eventually, we rode into the college town of Bloomington, sat down for an awesome vegan lunch at The Owlery and then inwardly, then outwardly lamented the 60+ mile ride back on empty legs and full stomachs. Still, when it was asked if any of us wanted to back out and get a ride, I snapped at them all,
“Oh hell no! No one’s backing out. If any of you back out, I’ll kick your ass and then my cancer will kick your ass!”
Fortunately, no one was planning to call it quits anyways. So we started on the way back out, trying to spin the fatigue out of our legs and get back into a rhythm.
For me, though, my quads had isolated spots of weakness that just wouldn’t go away no matter how far I continued on. Each hill took it’s toll and even the three big climbs that were now magically transformed into tear-inducing descents didn’t offer much relief. One of my friends dropped back and hung with me as the others continued on to another meet up point outside of the forest canopy. We rolled and rolled over the hills at a much more leisurely pace, the sweat dripping down our faces and soaking our jersey’s in the now intensely hot afternoon sun, and finally made our way to the meet up spot where our friends sat with a jug of water.
I collapsed on the bench feeling a bit spent, but also….weird. Cancer weird. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but it’s a general feeling that something is just “off”, even if I don’t fully recognize it at the time. Hoping it was just the heat I finished my bottle of water, to no relief. Thinking maybe it was glycogen depletion I took in a caffeinated gel with some more water, to, again, no relief and a general gross feeling in my stomach. I waited and rested, hoping the feeling would pass, but nothing came of it and I was feeling desperate. It got so bad that I tried the ol immediate sugar trick and bought myself a Pepsi…a Pepsi!!….I haven’t had one of these in probably 15 years, but thought I’d try and replenish my system with some straight sugar, but even that didn’t help. Finally, I called it,
“I’m done guys. You go on ahead and I’ll call for a ride back to Indy.”
They double checked with me to make sure I was ok, but eager to get back to riding after a long break, they were soon back on their bikes and headed North to finish up the full 120 miles. I sat there dejected at 90, feeling like total crap and not getting any better. My ride was on the way and I had time to kill, but suddenly my bowels alerted me to the need to go to the bathroom. I went inside the grocery store to relieve myself, with only little success, and then I carried out a familiar routine. Go outside to sit, suddenly have to go to the bathroom, and head back in…over and over and over. It was only the fourth time in, after I’m sure the clerk was fully annoyed (and freaked out) by me, that I went to the bathroom. Completely. Like my stomach had dropped out or something. It was then I realized that I hadn’t had a full bowel movement in two days, undeniably a side effect of the chemotherapy drugs I had been taking, and so on top of that I added a full lunch, then water, then energy gels, then a Pepsi. Finally, my body couldn’t take it and forced everything out….which was a TREMENDOUS relief. If you’ve ever had medicine induced constipation, then you understand the relief is akin to being born again. I went back outside to wait for my ride, but a part of me wanted to call them off and get back on my bike to finish. The concern of overdoing it in the face of cancer treatment kept me in place though and I resolved to being driven the last portion of the ride into town before meeting up with the rest of the crew who rolled in not too long after I arrived.
And that was that….sort of.
I’m a competitive athlete, and I wanted to complete this ride in the face of cancer, just to beat it for the day, but in a way I didn’t. Cancer stopped me before the finish line, even though I got so far, and knowing myself, I knew that it was going to eat at me and eat at me for a long time to come….until I completed the ride. And the thing was, I KNEW what beat me. It was the constipation, NOT a lack of strength, so the fire that pushes me on was immediately roaring up inside to try again and I knew I had to jump at the chance as soon as possible or carry that feeling of dejection until I tried again.
2 DAYS LATER
My alarm smacked me in the face at 5:15 for a 6:00 am departure, both looking for an extra hour under a cooled sky and hoping to catch some beautiful sunrise views behind the cornfields in the country. I drank a cup of coffee and took in an easily digesting smoothie to prevent any potential stomach issues. It was my first day of a week break from taking Chemo pills, which was an encouraging way to start the day, but I’m not gonna lie…I was worried about the ride.
I was going for it. 120 miles. Solo. Without anyone to pick me up and only one person knowing that I was heading out to even do this. But you know what….sometimes you just KNOW when to go for it, to strike when the iron’s hot. I knew this was my best chance. But again, I was worried, though I managed to calm down by reminding myself that all my best races were run when I was scared to death, because that fear is a product of WANTING to succeed and NOT wanting to fail…and that fear can take you much further than you initially imagine.
And so I rode through the deserted, darkened streets of downtown Indianapolis, before the commuters had started flooding the roads. The sun hadn’t even begun brushing the sky and my bike lights blinked out distress signals to any motorists in view. Soon enough I made it past the end of suburban development into the 1 lane road as the sun broke the horizon, my blinkies became useless, and the commuters started whizzing by me. The road South that was nearly empty on the weekend was now quite crowded, but the drivers must have properly caffeinated as I encountered no errant drivers, bad attitudes or anything of the sort as I continued working past the cornfields.
The stellar views I hoped to catch didn’t disappoint as the cornfields rested under a blanket of fog and I was compelled to stop and take a few photos for documentation sake. The air was cool and I rode at my own pace, cancer pace, making my way South feeling strong and at ease. It was an encouraging start, but I knew the work would come when I got back into the forest, met the afternoon sun and took stock once I reached my past 90 mile breaking point from 2 days prior. That was my hurdle. I knew if I could make it there and still felt good that I could push all the way back into town.
I entered the hills of Southern Indiana without issue and turned onto the back country road that snaked, climbed and dropped all the way to Bloomington, this time almost completely devoid of traffic, as if it was laid out for ME today. I was completely alone and completely at ease as my legs spun in circles down the road at a pace I felt sustainable. I casually, but quickly, made my way into the forest canopy, stopping once to move a turtle off the road, and sprinting to leave behind a fiercely protective dog that briefly gave chase.
I made it into Bloomington and rode to my favorite coffee shop for a quick shot of espresso before getting back to business, only to find it unexpectedly closed. I settled for a 10 minute stop at a bagel shop for the caffeine fix, completely bypassing that potentially treacherous lunch meal, and hopped right back on my bike to ride the hills out of campus and back into the country. I left Bloomington feeling quite good, but wondering if skipping a larger meal was going to leave me a little underfueled as I neared Indianapolis. I thought it best to take my chances.
I continued to ride the hills with ease, tucking hard and hitting frightening speeds on the biggest descents, continuing to tell myself,
“Just make it to Bean Blossom. Just make it to Bean Blossom and you’ll be fine.”
And surprisingly quickly that’s exactly what happened. Without even a hint of fatigue or stomach issues I rolled by the point that took me out last time and kept going, giving a rolling finger to cancer as I pushed on to the next town that would mark the end of all the hills and pull me into town on a long flat stretch of country road. Making sure I was fueling as much as possible I continued to take down my electrolytes, glycogen chews and clif bars when necessary.
On a rough stretch of road between towns I concentrated on spinning smoothly and continuously, pressed up against the shoulder to give enough room for cars and picking my way to the next stop for a water refuel. I was enjoying the harder effort as I ate up the distance when suddenly a car sped by noticeably closer than others and a shower of ice cubes sprinkled the road in front of me. It took me a second to realize what it was, but when I looked up I realized the driver had tried to throw out the contents of his cup at me, in a state of extreme anger and frustration that, I guess, I even had the gall to be out on the road in the first place. I hadn’t even experienced so much as a middle finger that day, so this gesture took me by surprise, but as they sped away and I continued to pedal on, the moment passed immediately as I was so consumed by the good time I was having and the expected success of completing the ride. Someone else’s shortcoming was in no way going to ruin what I had going on at that point.
I made one more quick stop for a water refill and pointed my bike North for the last loooooong stretch of country road into downtown Indianapolis. I found myself pulling on my water bottle more and more as the afternoon sun took the temperatures back into the mid-80s, but the cooling breeze killed any performance sapping effects of the heat, allowing me to press all the way into urban traffic before completely running out of water. Admittedly, I started feeling a greater fatigue in my legs when I hit town and although I was so close, it took finishing off my second Clif Bar to get the last bit of energy to ride home. I continued to take my time and just enjoy the feeling of knowing I was going to complete, when suddenly I started to get overcome by a light-headed feeling and small dose of nausea. It was a good thing I was just about 10 blocks from home, because things were starting to head South for some reason, probably dehydration.
And then I was back at my front door. Feeling triumphant, on top of my own personal world, and as if I had punched Cancer right in the face.
ONE DAY LATER
My legs feel light, but not depleted. Everything else feels as strong as if I hadn’t ridden at all and all I can think about is getting on the treadmill and trying out my running legs again, something I haven’t done in a long time. The Hand and Foot Syndrome associated with my chemo side effects has prevented me from even trying, but as I continue to pass each chemo treatment and feel stronger and stronger, I’m dying to try ’em out and see what happens. Also, I think I committed to running as part of an all-vegan team at the Adirondacks Ragnar Relay at the end of September, and so I should really build up those muscles along with my cycling muscles.
And so for now, I’ll just leave it at that. This ride was huge to me and it feels like I overcame a huge physical, emotional and mental hurdle on my way to keeping my life through cancer. But I’m not done yet…not till I’m back running again. I make no guarantees on that, but at least it’s in my sights.
Onward and Upness friends.