Last fall, FitnessHQ writer Nicole Kurz participated in the Cycle of Life ride, a 220-mile expedition across Florida to raise money for cancer research and treatment. In celebration of World Cancer Day, she’s sharing her story to inspire others to ride, fundraise and fight to fight a cure.
Cancer sucks. I mean really, really sucks. Worldwide over 14 million people are diagnosed every year with a form of the disease. Approximately 8 million people lose that fight and die annually. These are some horrifying statistics, especially for someone newly diagnosed.
Luckily, thanks to billions of dollars of funding and thousands of researchers across the globe, we’re inching closer to successful treatments and possible cures for cancer every day.
In the U.S. alone there are over 14 million survivors, and in every case their fight and victory over the disease is inspiring.
About two years ago I met Tony, a brain cancer survivor who started his own foundation during the early stages of his battle with the disease to help to pay for his exorbitant medial expenses. Not only did he beat it, but he’s now and inspiration and a voice in our community for those who are newly diagnosed.
The Team Tony Foundation
Nowadays the Team Tony Foundation has a new mission. They provide personalized matches that enable 1-to-1 support among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers.
They raise money in a variety of ways, one of which is the annual Cycle of Life ride, a 220-mile expedition across the state of Florida the first weekend in October.
Many members of my cycling club have done this ride annually, and each year it has grown and drawn more of a crowd. For the past two years, I was at the finish line party with my best friend waiting for her fiancé to cross the finish line, and each year a tiny little voice in the back of my head whispered, “I should totally do this.”
Usually that voice was followed by rambunctious partying with the potential for a keg stand, but the thought was there.
So when the time for sign-ups came around for the 2015 ride, I decided to pull the trigger and make the commitment to both train for the distance, and fundraise money for this awesome organization.
Spoiler alert — fundraising the money was the easy part. Riding my bike over 100 miles a day for two consecutive days, now that’s one heck of a story.
Training for the Ride
I signed up for the ride about 15 weeks out. At the time, I had a pretty solid cardiovascular fitness base and was comfortably completing 40-50 mile rides at a 17-18 mph pace in a group on average. Sure, that’s no where near 100+ miles, but with weeks to train, and an amazing group of other Cycle of Life riders to train with, I knew I had the time to work up to the distance.
One of the hardest parts for any athlete training for an event is setting aside the time to decimate training. The Cycle of Life had hosted group rides every Sunday at 7 a.m., and early on I made the commitment to ride those.
The rides were designed to be our “long ride” each week, and began at about 50 miles in length, progressing over the next 14 weeks up to 100 miles long to get our bodies ready for the event.
For the Cycle of Life, it was doubly important that I made these rides weekly as not only did I need to reap the fitness benefits, but I also needed to gain the experience of riding well in a group, and knowing the people I would be covering the distance across the state with.
In addition to the weekly long ride, I committed to at least two additional rides per week, ranging from 20 to 45 miles depending on where I was at in the training cycle. Because of my work schedule, these rides were often done solo, and even indoors on a trainer when I didn’t have another option.
In an honest post-even assessment of my training, I can say that I was under-trained for the event. While I did an okay job of making it to most of the Sunday rides, I missed a few key ones because of weather or travel, and I didn’t always make the time during the week to put in enough mileage. If I ever do this ride again, I will look at committing to at least 4 rides per week, and doing a minimum of 3 of them with a group so that I can not only get even more comfortable in a pace line, but so that I’m also maintaining the speed and effort I’m going to require of myself during the event. I think I did too many rides not hard or fast enough in training, and as a result suffered more than I really needed to.
The Ride: Departure Day
One really neat perk about the Cycle of Life is the really original format of the ride. The bike riding portion of the event is a two-day affair, but the ride itself is a three day event, as day 1 includes a bus ride across the state to the starting line.
All of the 100+ participants met in the parking lot in Lakewood Ranch on Friday morning to check in our bikes and gear, and to board the charter busses that would take us across the state to Ormond Beach, the starting line for the ride.
We arrived at an awesome Best Western right on the beach in the early afternoon, and despite the whipping wind, high surfs and intermittent rain, everyone enjoyed a swim in the pool, a tasty meal, and the pre-ride briefing that evening.
I went to bed early, saying a silent prayer that the 25 mph whipping gusting winds were at our backs for the first 108-mile stretch the next day.
The Ride: Day 1
The alarm went off the next morning at 5:30 a.m., giving my roomie and I enough time to shower, load up on breakfast (waffles and coffee, yum!), and do a last minute gear check before we pushed off at 7 a.m.
We left from Ormond Beach as a group, over 100 riders heading west towards our destination. After making it through the “busy” part of town near the beach (which was all relative as it was 7 a.m. and there wasn’t much traffic on the road), we stopped at a large parking lot and broke into pace groups. Here I met up with the guys and gals I had been training with on our Sunday rides, as well as a few new friends who joined us that day, and we started diligently working our way across the state.
The first day of the Cycle of Life is the most challenging physically. The 108-mile stretch begins very flat, as you would expect Florida to be, but by mile 50 you enter into the middle of the state, where the rolling hills begin. Mile 75 is the high point of the ride, literally. This is where we got the opportunity to climb Sugarloaf Mountain.
While there aren’t any truly notable “mountains” in Florida, Sugarloaf sits at 312 feet above sea level, and is a steep and abrupt climb. Grades vary between 13-15 percent for the entire ascent, and even experienced cyclists love the challenge of climbing it.
I can say without hesitation, at 75 miles in I did not love the challenge. Though I really, really loved it when I was at the top.
Unfortunately for me, this is right around the point where my body decided it had had enough for one day, uncaring that we still had close to 35 miles left to go to our final destination. It would be over two hours later before we arrived at our stop for the night, and I can honestly say that I battled every single second of that time. Had it not been for an incredible group leader and a few key friends cheering me on, pulling (and sometimes even pushing) me up hills, there is no way I would have sucked it up and finished that day.
As it was, when we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel I was so “bike angry” I didn’t even take a moment to talk with my friends who had arrived before me and were milling about the parking lot. I ate lunch and retreated to my room, where I called my husband with tears in my eyes and begged him to come get me so I wouldn’t have to ride again the next day.
I was laying in the middle of the floor, smelling like roadkill with my husband whispering encouragements into my ear over my phone when my roommate arrived.
She took one look at me and gave me the pep talk of my life. “Harden up and get back on your bike tomorrow,” she said. “This is supposed to suck, that’s why you signed up for it. Now, let’s go find some beer.”
And in my heart I knew she was right. I hadn’t trained this hard to not finish the ride.
So after a few beers by the pool, a tasty barbecue dinner and endless exchanging of war stories about the day and laughs with friends, I called it a night and prepared for day two.
I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well.
The Ride: Day 2
When my alarm went off the next morning, I laid there cautiously for several minutes not wanting to move. I was pretending if I didn’t feel the sore muscles and tender spots that maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t exist.
I finally did roll over and get up, if for no other reason that I didn’t want to miss breakfast, and was really shocked to realize all in all, I felt pretty good. I had a tiny blister on the palm of my right hand that needed a band aid, and my quads were a bit tight, but overall my body had recovered really well. As much as I almost didn’t even want to admit it, everyone had been right. I woke up ready to go for another day of riding.
The second morning we did a staggered start, having the slowest groups start first and the faster groups start at 10-minute intervals with the goal of us all crossing the finish line around the same time. As I was riding in the slowest pace group at a goal of 18-19 mph, we were first off the line at 7 a.m.
Day 2 would involve a few gently rolling hills for the first 15-20 miles at most, and then it would be flat and fast back to our hometown. At the finish line, our loved ones were waiting for us with dry clothes, lots of hugs, and beer, and I for one felt that pulling me home.
Where the roads on the first day had been mostly remote back roads without a lot of traffic, the second day included several busier highways, most with very narrow bike lines and more than a few dangerous situations. A member of one of the groups saw a bad accident that day, which she thankfully walked away from unharmed, and several groups had narrow misses. Our group stayed very safe, alert and cautious, and during a few of the moments when the Florida skies decided to open up and dump water on us, we slowed our pace and focused on safety first.
As challenging as the first day was, on the second day I felt like an entirely different cyclist. I was able to cheer on and encourage the same people that had helped push me through the day before, and it seemed like before I knew it, we were only one rest stop away from home.
Riding through Lakewood Ranch in the home stretch to the finish line, I had a moment of disbelief that I was about to finish. I remember saying to one of the gals in our group that I was probably going to burst into tears when I finished the ride.
I was right.
When we made the turn onto Main Street and I saw the huge banner congratulating us for having completed 220 miles, and raising boat load of money for charity, I couldn’t keep my emotions together.
My husband found me and hugged me, even though I’m certain I smelled like a foot, and I was just so overwhelmed that I had made it.
As fate would have it, just as I was getting calmed down I saw the man who had started it all, Tony. He too had just finished is 220 miles not long before I crossed, riding the route on a tandem bike and proving just how much of a badass he totally is.
I walked over to say two things. “Way to go,” and perhaps more importantly, “Thank you.”
Thank you Tony for putting on a great ride. Thank you for bringing together a community of cyclists for this amazing event annually. And more than anything, thank you for surviving, for giving hope to those still fighting. Not only can you beat this disease, you can be better for it.
I’m not certain that I will try to conquer this particular challenge again any time soon, but I can say for certain that I am so glad that I decided to participate in the 2015 Cycle of Life for Team Tony.