On the weekend of October 18th, I volunteered to ride in support of handcyclists at the Baltimore Running Festival. Having never done this, I had no expectations. I knew I would get to ride my bike on streets closed to traffic in downtown Baltimore and I would have some support responsibilities. I didn’t know it would became the emotional and rewarding experience it turned out to be.
As the weekend approached I started to get a little nervous when the coordinator wanted an example of training times in order to pair us with a handcyclist. A few weeks later, I recieved an email informing me I would be paired with the fastest handcyclist (insert more nervousness here).
Once I arrived at M&T Bank Stadium with Smokey, my Salsa Vaya, all organization went out the window. The handcyclist I was to be paired with was nowhere to be found (it was discovered later he was stuck in traffic due to an accident on the highway). As the other handcyclists were ushered to the starting line, I still had no partner to support. As I stood behind the handcyclists at the starting line I knew it was time to improvise.
As luck would have it, one of the other volunteers next to me mentioned that she was supporting two handcyclists. Agreeding to split the workload, I quickly took over responsibility for a women in the front row to my far right in a blue tricycle. It turned out I would spend most of my morning with Anita.
As the starting gun fired, chaos ensued. I lost track of Anita initially but picked her back up in a few blocks as I dodged and weaved around other volunteers and handcyclists. Once the course opened up a bit I rode next to Anita and introduced myself. As Anita and I climbed the early uphill sections towards the Baltimore zoo I knew this day was going to be special. I watched in awe of how Anita could climb the hills with just the shear power of her arms. As we spoke periodically I found out this was Anita’s first marathon. It didn’t show, she was a beast riding her tricycle.
As we approached the zoo, some of the fastest runners started to pass us. Once we got through the zoo and headed back down hill toward the Inner Harbor, the speed of the handcycle blew even the fastest runners away. Anita could hit 30+ miles per hour on the downhills making keeping up with her very difficult on my Vaya’s mountain bike drivetrain. We continued around the Inner Harbor and past the Under Armour headquarters before heading back to the north towards Lake Montebello.
I tried to be helpful by letting Anita know when the turns occurred and when the downhill portions were near to provide some relief. When uphill sections came I tried to encouraging and take Anita’s mind of the pain her arms were surely feeling. I knew the last 6 or 7 miles would be downhill to the finish line. Once she reached this point, I knew she would have won the mental challenge of the course. At every hill I would encourage Anita how much further we had until the downhill section. Breaking the course into smaller segment made the larger goal more accessible.
As we approached one of the last uphill sections, I was found myself unexepectedly overcome with emotion. Cycling for the most part is an individual sport. You are generally concerned about how well you are riding. Did you set a PR on that climb? Are you putting out enough wattage? While there is definitely a communal aspect when riding with your friends, your ride is still YOUR ride. While I knew this ride would not be about my wattage, I hadn’t expected both of our rides to become connected the way they did. All I cared about was seeing Anita finish her first marathon. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my cycling life and I shared it with a total stranger. In the end, she didn’t feel like a stranger anymore. Seeing the sense of accomplishment on her face as the medal was placed around her neck was amazing. She did it!!!!!
Anita was the fastest female handcyclist and came in 3rd or 4th overall (I believe) with a time of 2:08:00.
Thanks for Kennedy Krieger for allowing me to volunteer and work with their handcyclists. A huge thank you goes out to the people of Baltimore. People from every neighborhood and walk of life came out to cheer for the participants.