Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Smart Ride: A Reflection

Last week, I completed The Smart Ride, which was a 165 mile charity bike ride from Miami to Key West. The event raised money for HIV/AIDS. My partner and I decided to do the ride months ago and officially signed up in June. Knowing this was going to be challenging, we prepared ourselves. We joined a gym in May. We went to lots of spinning classes and rode our bikes many weekends on a bike trail here in Orlando. We also had to heavily promote and ask for money. Each rider was required to raise at least $1250, which was daunting.

I decided to do this ride for a couple of reasons. I deeply care about the cause and thought this would be a great way to raise a lot of money and to bring more awareness to the issue. I also thought it would be fun. If you are going to ride your bike a long distance, it might as well be somewhere pretty like the road to Key West. But honestly, the biggest reason I decided to do this ride was to push myself physically. A few months ago I wrote a blog post about my fears of the gym. I've never felt adequate when it comes to athletics. Doing this ride was about proving to myself that I could do it.

When we arrived in Miami on Thursday of last week, I was terrified. I knew I had prepared, but I also knew I could have done more. Everything I had set into motion months ago was finally coming to ahead and I had no choice but to do it. There was no backing out.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the ride-out spot. Everyone seemed calmer than me, but I'm sure that's just my perception. The great thing about this ride is that it brings a wide range of people together. Some are very serious cyclists. Others are first timers. Others are there mostly because of the cause. There is a big age range. Gay people. Straight people, etc.

We lined our bikes up for the big group ride out, which was a little scary. Nearly 400 riders pedaling close together is asking for trouble. We took it slow and soon enough everyone spread out. As the group got more spread out, I quickly began to relax and sink into what I had practiced. It was pretty easy going for the first thirty miles, but then some strong wind came through, making it a lot harder. At this point I began to doubt myself and question why I would have ever signed up to do this kind of thing.

That's about the time the rain started. I had prepared for a lot of things, but not for rain. This was one of my lowest moments on the ride. There I was 40 some miles out of Miami on a bike in pouring rain and I was cursing everything and everyone, but I kept pedaling. The thing is, you don't have a lot of choice. The rain is coming down and the only way to get out of the rain is to ride out of it.

We eventually did and made it to the lunch pit stop (53 miles into the ride). At lunch, I wanted to quit. I was wet. The hot sun was back out. All there was to eat was a veggie burger that I had no interest in. There was a man beside me talking about peeing on himself while riding. I was pretty miserable. I also knew we had almost 50 miles to go before the day would be over. I really wanted to give up.

It would have been easy to give up, but something wouldn't let me do it. In some ways, I wouldn't let the full thought go through my head. Also, if I just made myself get back on the bike, it was done. I was moving again. Miles were being crossed off, because in a ride like this everything is about miles. One more down. Ten more to the next pit stop. 115 until the end of the two day ride.

After lunch, my energy was super low. I'm not good at eating in the heat, which makes doing things like this hard. I had to basically force myself to eat. As we rode on, I got slower and slower and thankfully my partner stuck with me. It's funny, you think doing a ride with 300 to 400 riders would mean you see people all the time, but you actually don't. There were many times I could only see Dustin and he could only see me.

About halfway to the first pit stop after lunch, I had to stop along the road. I was feeling completely overwhelmed. It really is the only way to describe the feeling. I felt constantly on the verge of tears and I couldn't fully place my emotions. It was there, 60 some miles into the ride, that I felt I needed a break. Thankfully, the ride was very well organized and they had a great motorcycle crew who basically kept track of all the riders. At this point, we were in the last 20 or 30 riders due to my slowing down. Soon enough, one of the motorcycle guys was there asking if we needed any help. Throughout the ride, they provide what they call "SAG" vehicles. They will pick you up and take you to the next pit stop or wherever you feel you need to go. I wasn't proud, but I got a "SAG" ride to the next pit stop, which was 9 miles. Dustin came with me. It gave me a chance to breathe and to reflect on what I'd done so far (oh and to sit in A/C).

When we got dropped off at the next pit stop, I had a decision to make. I could call it quits or I could finish the day (30 more miles). More than anything, I didn't want to disappoint myself, so I got back on that bike. Pain rushed through my ass, my shoulders ached, but I kept pedaling. The last 30 miles on day one were the hardest of the ride. I was exhausted. I was, honestly, an emotional wreck. Luckily, no one could see the tears in my eyes. When I rode into the resort we were staying the night in, I had never felt so overcome with relief and accomplishment. I technically only rode 91 miles on day one, but I didn't give up and that small ride in a truck for 9 miles, gave me the strength to do those last 30.

In Duck Key, we stayed the night at a beautiful resort called Hawk's Cay. We ate dinner, but skipped the evening entertainment in favor of bed. There in bed, I became overwhelmed by the fact that we had 65 miles to go the next day. My body ached. Plus, I guess I should mention, I was running a low grade fever the few days before the ride and during the ride, which wasn't helping. There in the arms of my man, I cried and let everything out (I'm honestly not a crier, which is why all this crying was freaking me out).

In the morning, after 12 hours of sleep, I moved through the motions of getting ready and told myself I'm doing it. I'm doing all 65 miles and I'm riding into Key West. Something clicked in my head. I wanted to do this ride to prove I could be athletic and do something physically challenging. I focused so much on the physical, but in reality it was the mental that was the problem. Yes, my body was sore, but I'd trained my legs exactly right. They could do it. They had the strength and were actually the things that hurt the least. I was sore from being hunched over a bike for seven hours, but that's going to happen to anyone. Physically, I had done it.

Those last 65 miles became about mind over matter. The most physically challenging thing I've ever tried to do, became the biggest mental challenge. I had to ignore the uncomfortable feelings in my ass, crotch, and back. I had to focus on getting done and completing the ride. I pulled through and rode all 65 miles and arrived in Key West feeling empowered.

In the end, when I was standing on the pier in Key West in a sea of bikes, I realized I had been part of something pretty amazing. I'd spent much of the ride focusing on myself, but there, with the sea air and all the faces of the riders, I saw the impact of what we'd all done. HIV/AIDS is something that nearly destroyed the gay community. I honestly can't imagine what it was like to be in a highly populated gay area in the 80s and early 90s. I can't imagine the fear, misunderstanding, and pain. Luckily, there's been huge improvements and it's not the death sentence it once was. It is, however, still scary and life-changing and people still need help and support. There in Key West, I was surrounded by others like me (younger and negative), but I was also there with positive men, men and women who had lost loved ones, and people who face HIV/AIDS every day in some capacity.

This year's Smart Ride raised $675, 724, which is just amazing. All of that money goes to six local HIV/AIDS organizations in the state of Florida. I raised $1575 myself and I'm thankful to all who donated.

If you had asked me during the ride would I ever do this again, I would have said no. A day or two after the ride, walking the streets of Key West with Dustin, I realized I would do it again. It changed me and pushed me in ways I didn't expect. It truly was a very emotional event for me and I'm so thankful to have done it. I'm also thankful that I have such an amazing partner who is always willing to do new things with me. We will both be back for another one someday.

-Stephen (Smart)


  1. Congratulations on making it through.

    And thank you for doing it for the community.

  2. Thanks, again and again, for doing this ride! And this post is wonderful. I lived in West Hollywood in the 80s, and spend much of my time in Chicago in the 90s, so I saw the devastation this virus had on our community...along with finding out I "had it" in 1988--the old days when it WAS a 'death sentence.' It's important for all of us to realize that while progress has been made, people still aren't being tested, and the virus is spreading--now to young gays, as well as women. It isn't going away. So we must keep up the fight. I applaud your persistence, determination, and selflessness. This sounds like it was a triumph all around for you! Bravo!!

  3. I'm so proud of you, Stephen! You guys are amazing. Next time I'm coming with you!

  4. Stephen
    Well done, you are to be complimented on your achievement.
    The downs of cycling are always surpassed by what you achive and completing the ride was an achievement as was raising the pledges.
    I did the ride too, never ever doubted a fat old git form the U K could do this as an event to say "hey I did that". I am a straight guy, but I enjoyed my time in Florida and the people I met, great people, very warm, great event, great ride!
    Reflect on what you did and stick with bike!
    I might jump the pond again for SmartRide 10!
    Brian Lewis