Leaving Miami To Orlando
I am a preschool teacher and I am used to helping kids navigate their emotions. This time, I was the student and since I believe “when the student is ready, the teacher will come,” I approached the GEICO Florida Road Safety Tour as open as I could. I wanted it to teach me something.
I went into it with fear. I had never gone on a trip without my boys, and knew I would miss them. I was hesitant about dealing with families of fatal crashes as one my biggest fears is that something happens to my kids, and I questioned my ability to handle the ride. The only reason I thought I could do this was because my teammate Mickey told me I could, and that sounded good enough. So I applied, got into the team, and was headed to Orlando to start this four day, four hundred mile journey.
My in-laws flew in from New Jersey to watch the boys. They joined another battalion of people who were able to help if needed. Schedules were printed, groceries purchased, quality “mommy and me” time was had before I said goodbye. Joe drove me to meet Xavier and Mickey, two of my other Miami teammates, with whom I was hitching a ride to Orlando and I was teary eyed the whole time.
We arrived in Orlando and met the thirty plus people who were part of the team: riders, crew, escorts and such. There were a lot of strong looking people, lots of IronMan gear, and lots of law enforcement paraphernalia as many of them are officers. I was intimidated by all of it and began to doubt my ability to handle it.
One of the first people I met was Connie; she is one of the backbones of the ride. Married to Jim, the Ride Director, Connie lost her son Matt to a drunk driver a couple of years ago. He was a senior at Florida State University majoring in Marine Biology. She has made it her mission to fight against drinking and driving so that other moms don’t have to go through what she went through. I know there is not one day that goes by that she doesn’t think about Matt and wishes he was here. At the press conferences she talks about how she got the call, how she had to go to his college room and pack it up, how his friends are moving on and graduating, getting married, and how for him things are “in memorium.” Meeting Connie was like meeting someone living my worst nightmare. It would take some time to let myself listen to what she was saying instead of covering my ears with my hands because her pain would be too much for me to bear. Today, though I can sense her pain, I am inspired by her actions and she gives me hope that if God forbid something where to happen, I would somehow be able to soldier on as she does.
But back to arriving in Orlando … I was told I would not be rooming with Mickey, but instead with someone named Michelle. I have travelled all over the world, I have studied in boarding school and shared rooms in college. I am not a stranger to roommates. But I guess I am too old to mask myself and hide who I am. So within the first three minutes of meeting, I mentioned to Michelle that I had two kids and it was the first time I left them and buaaaaaaaaaaaaa. I began to cry. Poor girl, she just lovingly said “Oh! You need space” and fortunately disappeared. I know how exaggerated that is, I know how irrational I can be but it’s not like I can help it. This just happens, and if I fight it, if I try to hide my tears or gain my composure too quickly the tears come back up with more force: it would be a game of “whack-a-mole” with these emotions. I stayed, I cried, and then I got over it.
I had lots of support, this from my sister.
I went back downstairs and met up with the whole Miami team: Mickey, Xavier and The Hoovers (Maria Luisa and Michael). These were people I knew better and had many miles with. They shared my habits, my culture and language. I felt comfortable once again and slowly the environment of this ride began to ease and not be so intimidating. I was there, and I was ready to get that party started.
And then this incredible, surreal experience began. I was so focused at the task at hand that although in theory I had a lot of “thinking time” on the saddle over hundreds of miles I didn’t think of much other than the wheel in front of me. I would, however, dedicate each twenty mile stretch between rest stops to someone in my family. If I got tired, bored, or I struggled then that is the person I would think of. If it were a movie, this would be a flashback scene where the outskirts of the picture are blurry and the sound is faded but that person is bright and clear. I could see Dreamer biting his lip as he finished his fifteen miles on a bike, Fearless with a smile so big his eyes closed, and Joe telling me to “stay in the present,” pointing down to his feet.
But I also looked at the signs on the road. Those round “IN MEMORY OF” signs where you know someone died on that very spot. I couldn’t read the names but I would notice them, I would notice many times there were a couple of them together and as Jim asked of us, I would imagine those victims at the side of the road cheering for us. We were doing all of this for them, and so that others don’t have to join them.
Many of my teammates were first responders who attended to crashes; they see first hand what havoc drinking and driving or texting and driving can cause. I learned that we don’t call these “accidents” but we call them crashes. An accident happens despite all else being right, this type of event is 100% preventable. We have a choice when it comes to distracted and impaired driving and no one has to die because of it. If something did happen, for goodness sakes stay and help. Some of the riders are working on a bill for Leaving The Scene of An Accident – The Aaron Cohen Law (www.aaroncohenlaw.org) because right now in Florida, if you are drunk and you hit someone you are better off running, getting sober, and then turning yourself in. The penalty for hit and run is much less than the one for a DUI.
So everyone there had a reason to be there, a stake in this cause. We would finish riding in the evening and were too wired from all the energy Gels to sleep. So Michelle and I talked from the comfort of our bed in a hotel room lit only by the nightstand light and we became friends.
I didn’t cry anymore and my fears where calming down. She answered my endless questions and taught me to put sea salt on watermelon which is THE best mid ride snack. Everyone became my teacher. Shawn, a fellow rider who stuck with me in the back for most of one day, taught me how embrace the hills, how to fool myself into believing you only pedal half the time (on the way up) and how to leave extra space between you and the bike in front when you climb because people stand. Mickey went over shifting gears about a million times before I actually understood what she was saying. Xavier would guarantee to me that I was mentally tough while “the Hoovers” taught me how to take care of one another.
Four days flew by. I left for home on the fourth day while everyone else stayed at least for dinner. It felt hard, it felt I was leaving summer camp. You have such an intense, 24×7 experience with a group of people that it feels odd when all of sudden you are alone again in an airport. Granted I am sentimental and sensitive, so perhaps I was the only one left feeling that way. I couldn’t wait to see my kids and my family but I also felt like I was still spinning from the ride. I knew my soul had just received a huge gift even if my mind didn’t understand it. I still don’t know the whole impact of this ride on me.
I got home to rockstardom. The boys couldn’t have enough of me. At one point, I was sitting next to Dreamer on the dinner table and realized he kept scooting his chair closer to mine until he was almost eating on top of me. I received many congratulations, and was asked a million questions by my friends and family. Yet I knew I was a part of a cause, of an effort much bigger than I. And I continue to help spread its message. Just last night, a little less than a week from our return, the Miami based team went to share our experience with a local triathlon club.
Back with my boys
Before we got up to speak Hector Pickard, a double amputee triathlete (www.dontstopliving.org), was talking about a ride he is doing from Miami to Spokane to raise funds for a little boy who was born without arms. I was humbled by his attitude, tenacity and ability, and I was inspired to keep on facing my fears and riding right through them. Sometimes we are teachers and other times we learn. This student is ready are you?
Hector speaking to Team Hammerheads about his journey to Spokane