On Friday night we stared and stared at the weather forecasts for southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois on my laptop but they kept showing the thunderstorm icon. I had raised nearly $1,400 for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, my story had made it into two local newspapers and I had the names of 23 people ready to tie on my bike. In my previous four CowaLUNGa rides we had only ever had brief periods of rain. Heat was the usual problem but cool, wet, gusting winds are far from ideal riding conditions for a regular rider and really problematic for an asthmatic. Until I hear thunder or see lightning, I decided, I was riding.
There were 350 of us lined up ignoring the gray clouds hanging over us. Microsoft and various bike clubs had matching jerseys as did “Team Pactiv,” which I surmise was made up of employees of the company that makes Hefty bags. I later told Bill that I was glad not to have ridden all day with a jersey that read “HEFTY” in huge letters on my backside! I mean, come on! I had my favorite Girl Power jersey on, which is as cute as it gets for bike jerseys.
Bill and our daughter Sophie volunteered at the first rest stop and told me that somehow I was in the front third of the pack, which seemed impossible given all of the young testosterone-filled racing guys who would sprint past me going up a hill talking in normal voices to each other. Do they not need to breathe? I wondered. Bill said what I wasn’t realizing was how many people weren’t passing me. One impossibly fit guy passed me going really fast UPHILL and I yelled out to him, “You’re killing me here!” to which he laughed. Then I saw that his fanny flag read “Speed Racer.” Now see, you put that on your fanny flag and it’s a lot of pressure. Me, I had “Wheezy Rider” on my fanny flag so there was no pressure to go faster than others. People had low expectations, so I was guaranteed to exceed them!
Much of the day I rode alone and had lots of time to think. Despite the headwinds that were exhausting us all, I thought so much about all of those names on the back of my bike. I thought about all of the encouraging emails I received and donations from people I’ve never met. As I was pushing my way up steep hills I would replay the stories people had sent me about loved ones who suffered from various lung diseases. I thought about how many people I knew who struggled to break the grip smoking has on their lives. Amazingly 66.1 miles flew by. I had to hold back tears a few times, most notably when I came up a hill about 40 miles in the day to see on the edge of a cornfield a post that had red heart-shaped balloons attached to it and a sign that said, “Go Weeks!” My family made me cry again when they parked on the side of the endless hill known as “Killer” at Mile 64 and were yelling, “Go Weeks go!” as I struggled to stay on the bike and not walk the bike up as so many others were. Bill helpfully yelled out, “No crying! You’ve got to get up that hill!” Indeed, with good training and excellent asthma medications I did make it to the top of the hill without walking and it felt like my greatest physical feat ever.