Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Angels Push AIDS Vaccine 200

Headwinds. More sinister than any mountain pass, thunder squall or heat wave to cyclists if only because you can’t see or feel it but know it’s working against you.
PSR at AV200 start line

My first southeast AIDS ride thankfully began, not in the recent 80-90 degree heat wave but on an overcast, misty morning that might have been pulled straight out of my Seattle gear bag. After a brief opening ceremony, a brass band, family and friends cheered 131 cyclists away from the Emory University School of Medicine to begin the 9th annual AIDS Vaccine 200.

Riding out once again with my cycling partner of the last 14 years and fellow Puget Sound Rider teammate, Mary, we caught up to Calvin on the smooth path leading the dozen or so miles to Stone Mountain. Calvin’s camouflage CamelBak® and pack led me to ask if he was the rider in uniform at the previous night’s check-in. Yes, in fact he'd come straight from reserve duty. Before reaching the next pit stop I’d learned Calvin would be visiting Seattle in one month on his way through Ft. Lewis to Afghanistan.  Colleagues at Emory Children's Healthcare had convinced him that training with their AV200 team would be great conditioning. 

We rolled into the Stone Mountain pit stop and were immediately greeted by Mark Mulligan who introduced himself while handing me water. Mark asked about the picture of Bret taped to my jersey and then opened his jacket to reveal a shirt emblazoned with a memorial to his brother, Mike, who had passed of AIDS two years prior. Mark told me he was with Hope Clinic, sponsors of this stop but it wasn’t until much later that I discovered he actually ran the place which is the third largest participant in the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.
Mary & Calvin enter bridge

The scenery transformed outside Stone Mountain into lush farm lands where stately oaks and massive magnolia trees gave equally impressive homes a plantation air as we navigated the two-lane roads over rolling hills through countryside that struck me as so very quiet until we rumbled over the wooden planks of the Rockdale County covered bridge. Soon after, we picked up a teammate of Calvin’s struggling up a particularly long hill. Mike was riding a mountain bike in tennis shoes. Not an easy choice on a long road trip, particularly on middle-aged knees, but we plodded along – as fast as possible down hills to quite nearly make it to the top of the next. Along the way, Calvin and Mike quietly shared area history, from the late lynching that rekindled the Ku Klux Klan upon Stone Mountain to Mike’s day job dispensing HIV drugs to, as he observes, “too many teenage girls,” immediately followed by, “but where are the boys?”  We don’t talk enough about how HIV spreads, particularly in African American communities, yet Mike goes on to explain that Rockdale County was also home to the largest outbreak of syphilis among affluent, suburban teens. “We’ve got to get the churches on board,” Mike mutters while pushing up yet another hill. I couldn’t agree more as we ride past countless churches in this Bible belt of influence who could do so much to save their children if they dared utter “sex” in the sanctuary.

Milepost 75 - Surely Calvin would successfully achieve his first century but we needed to pick up the pace to arrive at camp by dinnertime so pushed on as cicada song rose in our ears, little red cardinals flitted over field thistles and an old familiar scent of honeysuckle wafted through the late afternoon.
Mary in our Rock Eagle cabin

If I didn’t know 100% of every dollar we raised went straight to Emory University HIV/AIDS vaccine research, I’d have felt guilty about the luxurious accommodations awaiting us at the Rock Eagle 4-H Center. Trust me. When throwing a sleeping bag on a 1” mat in a two-man tent 50-100 yards from the nearest bathroom is the norm, bunking on a mattress-topped steel bunk-bed in an air-conditioned cabin with indoor plumbing is sheer luxury! We turned in early and slept well.

Cyclists were motivated to get out of camp early knowing we had only 9.5 hours to finish the day’s 100 mile return to Atlanta. Oh, by the way, did I mention that 100 mile one-way journey was really 105? Regardless, you’ll remember it’s a ride, not a race. I can complete a century in 8 hours but who wants to rush with so many sights to see and people to meet? Still, no cyclist wants to be swept off the course before reaching the finish line. Did I mention headwinds?

First you decide your legs haven’t warmed up. Then you blame yourself for not doing more back-to-back training rides. Eventually, as you hunker down into your aerobars someone is brave enough to query, “Is it my imagination or are there headwinds from…” Seattle, I decide. The day had dawned quite cool. Again, not the anticipated high heat or humidity of impending thunderstorms but instead the weekend weather in this opposite corner of the country was very Seattle-like and while the gift was welcome, its delivery on a 25-35 mph gale from the direction we were headed was not. Cyclists immediately began opting for the shorter 80-mile route. Those stronger than I pushed past with clenched jaw and muttered curses.  Many bonked or simply chose to save their knees for another try rather than push on and though energy drained from bodies, enthusiasm for the joint effort remained high.

At 90 miles into the day, I was swept into a SAG vehicle and carried to the finish line. Shortly after, every cyclist silently lined the path at Decatur Square to silently pay tribute to the riderless bike representing all those lost to AIDS then climbed back on our own once more for the 2-mile finish at the Emory University School of Medicine.

You know it was all worthwhile when Emory Vaccine Center Director, Dr. Rafi Ahmed, and several of the top HIV/AIDS scientists in the world – Dr. Harriet Robinson, Dr. Rama Amara, Dr. Mark Mulligan – enthusiastically share how they turn every one of your dollars into $150 in larger grants they couldn’t hope to receive without the seed money this ride brings to the research required to apply for those big-money grants. It was evident this elite research team humbly acknowledges, supports and works side-by-side a couple hundred cyclists, volunteers and every individual donor doing their small part toward achieving a singular goal – ending AIDS.

Yesterday morning I rolled out of that twin bed in Turman Hall and immediately started packing my bike for the journey home. For insurance purposes, I always snap a picture before closing the lid and noticed Bret’s face staring back at me from the photo pinned to my CamelBak® as if to remind me once again that while ending AIDS might often feel like those invisible headwinds pressing against us, there are quite enough angels at our backs pushing us to the finish.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You did it again!! Made me cry here at work. I guess it's my fault i read your stuff here!! What a great ride you had! You are awesome as always!! I can't wait to see you on Saturday, Paula gets to come too. I hope the "Rapture" holds off for a day or two,but hey we would be together, that would be kind of fun!!! Have you heard about that yet, we were dicussing it here at work, they wanted to have a "Rapture party" and I said I was already going to one!! You stay safe my friend and rest up!!! Love you like a sister!!! Dunc