Being An Achilles Volunteer At The Freedom Century Ride

Two years ago I rode the Everglades Bicycle Club’s Speedway Century, my first 100 miles ever. It was a milestone in my fitness path, and I remember it clearly specially since I wrote about it here. I’ve lost track of how many centuries I’ve done since then between Ironman training, the GEICO Road Safety Bike Tour and the “just because” rides. But I had to do one this weekend as part of my Ironman Arizona training, and it just so happened that the Club was hosting it’s annual event. This year the EBC changed the name to the Freedom Ride and made it a fundraiser with proceeds benefitting Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets. As such, several wounded warriors were participating and there was a call for volunteers to be able bodied riding buddies. I saw several of the Achilles Team were doing the 100 mile route and immediately volunteered. It’s SO down my alley of things I like to do.   Riding is fun, but riding to be of service to someone is so much better.

A nervous selfie at the start of the day

A nervous selfie at the start of the day

I was paired with Tim, a Marine who can’t be more than thirty something. The ride started at the Homestead Speedway, where you do a loop on the course the cars actually race. The exit from the speedway and the start of the ride were a bit chaotic and I lost track of Tim. I wasn’t too concerned since at the volunteer meeting we were told these guys know what they are doing, and we are there to help if and when needed. I did catch up to him after five miles or so, and at fifteen we met up with another one of his Achilles teammates Helman and his assigned buddy Oriel. The four of us proceeded to ride the next 85 miles together with varying company.

Crappy picture of the four of us at 50 miles.

Crappy picture of the four of us at 50 miles.

I’m used to working with Kerry, my ThumbsUp teammate, who is severely disabled and needs assistance with most tasks when we are training or racing. I move for her; I am literally her able body and there is very little physical independence. It was different with Tim, and I had to control my impulses of doing stuff for him that he could do himself. There was a good chance I would be overbearing, and tried to limit my “need anything?” to rest stops.

I apologized when I first met him, for anything inappropriate, offensive or plain annoying I might do, and asked him to please correct me. I promised I had utmost respect for him and his sacrifice for our country, and the last thing I wanted to be was a pain in the butt for 100 miles.

He told me nothing was off limits; he was very open. In fact, he mentioned that usually he is the one who ends up apologizing because he knows the volunteer is there to help and yet he is so fiercely independent. I confirmed my initial thought that someone like me, who comes along trying to assist with everything that he does not need help with, might be annoying.

Turns out this guy, forgive me language, is a complete bad ass. He was a motocross racer before joining the Marines in his early twenties. He’s travelled the world: Japan, Australia, Europe and Latin America. He told me stories of doing winter training on Mt. Fuji, racing bikes in Colombia, and even meeting Prince Charles in England. He’s completed Ironman Copenhagen, and even more impressively: RAAM. The Race Across America is considered one of the hardest races in the world where you ride a bicycle from Oceanside, California across the country to Maryland. He did it as an eight-person team, the first ever to be composed of solely of wounded veterans. RAAM is a dream for me, and I asked a million questions mostly in the first fifty miles.  For a while we rode on the back of a thirty person double pace line giving us some draft and a chance to chit chat at leisure. It was my favorite part of the day.

Tim took this picture for me.

Tim took this picture for me.

Most of those people in that pack turned right to complete 62 miles, a much smaller group turned left and began the “back fifty.” The day got hotter while the wind picked up. In these long rides, after a while things begin to hurt and the conversation levels drop significantly as the focus shifts to “make it to the next stop.”

For Tim, it was his shoulders, for Helman his back, and for me my behind. Though I felt decently strong … after all, I am in the peak of my Ironman training and should be able to complete a century without issues. Therefore if I saw one of them at the front, I volunteered often to pull. That means, I rode in the front so as to block the wind and lessen the stress on their shoulders, arms, and hands. It’s one thing to pedal, and use the large muscles on your legs to propel you forward. It’s a whole different one to use your arms. It’s a much smaller muscle group; think of these guys spinning a wheelchair on hyperspeed for over six hours.

Though conversation might have ceased our understanding and bond grew. It’s odd to explain and maybe only I feel this way, but when you are struggling through something, when everyone is quiet and all you hear is the rubber on the road, you communicate. We all face the same wind, and struggle with our own discomfort. The quiet was only broken by a communal celebration as we saw the Speedway in the distance. Except I looked at my watch and we were at 92 miles.

Sure, GPS varies and someone else’s reading might say 91 or 93, but never 100. This year, we had to ride past the Speedway, and loop around it to get the century in. We still had to ride another seven miles around the darn thing.

Our collective sigh was made worst by the strong headwind we faced as we turned the corner, but the saving grace was that the final three miles on our way back were assisted by a welcomed tail wind. That is one wonderful way to finish a century ride.

Celebratory finish picture

Celebratory finish picture

We celebrated our accomplishment, took photos, and grabbed some food. Turns out Helman lives in my area. In fact, I had seen him before as he rides around Key Biscayne. I would always point him out to my kids as we drove by him on our way home from school, and would tell them “now THAT is hard.” We exchanged information and I hope I found someone new to ride with. Tim is from northern Florida and was heading out that same afternoon. He was off to Texas where he is doing a seven day bike race, finishing just in time to head to Washington D.C. to run the Marine Corps. Marathon. It will be his first time doing that one, and I can only imagine it will be a very meaningful one. He is doing many of the local marathons, and so I hope to see him here and there.

I never found out how either of them got injured; I just know they were both in Iraq. I thought about asking, at the beginning, but for the rest of the time they were two riders just like me. They weren’t veterans or wounded warriors; they were Tim and Helman and we were going on a long ride. And as much “one of the guys” as they were, this ride was a game changer for me: a confirmation that what I enjoy most is not doing these endurance events, but doing them for a reason. In this case, being a volunteer to Achilles. I gained much more from this experience than Tim and Helman did. They race often and meet all sorts of volunteers like myself. In truth, if I was there or not, they would’ve been just fine. Yet they were willing to let me tag along, talk, and pretend I was being helpful!

I am 100% sure this is not the end of it for me.

 

With Helman (left) and Tim (right)

With Helman (left) and Tim (right) once we were done

 

 

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