In 1992, I volunteered with a women’s self-defense group called Impact!. We taught street-smart self-defense, with an emphasis on realism: women were “attacked” by a male instructor wearing 60 pounds of padding, who swore, threatened, and behaved as a real assailant would. They, in turn, had to negotiate, figure out the best time to move, and then explode into action.
I was forever amazed by the courage of women coming through the class. We did intense bedroom scenarios, where a simulated rapist would wake up a sleeping woman and pin her to the ground, whispering threats into her ear…until she exploded into action. I was particularly amazed by the courage and intensity that rape and incest survivors brought to these scenarios, reliving their assault and finding the courage to fight back, to change their stories forever.
But then, one day, I got a student whose courage simply blew me away.
“I have AIDS,” she said. She was a small, slender blonde in my self-defense class, dressed in sweats and looking perfectly healthy in the company of fifteen women. “My ex-fiance deliberately infected me, then ran off when I found out about it.” Her face clouded. I’m here to work out my anger issues, so I can go home and…die.” She looked almost surprised as she said it, a smile pulled too tight over her fine-boned face. But she meant it. It was 1992. AIDS was a death sentence.
We taught her to fight, going through progressively more and more intense emotional scenarios. As she learned to fight physically, she developed more self-confidence, more intensity, more willpower—more fighting spirit. At the end, she said fiercely, “I’m going to beat this. I don’t know how, but I will. And while I’m doing it, I’m going to found a new chapter of this women’s self-defense program, to pass power to other women.”
I promised myself that someday, I would do something for her, to celebrate her courage. Eight years later, I signed up for the inaugural AIDS Lifecycle—vowing to bicycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles and raise at least $2500 for AIDS charities, in her honor.
I was terrified. I hadn’t been on a bike since college, and I had no idea how I was going to ride 585 miles in a week—an average of 84 miles a day! And how was I going to ask all my friends for money? But I figured that if she had the courage to face up to AIDS, I could find the courage to try. I trained for months, putting over 1500 miles on my new bike, and somewhere found the guts to ask all my friends and family to donate money. I asked, and asked again. By the time the ride started, I’d raised over $5,000 for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation—double my initial goal.
The first day was tough: well over 100 miles, and over 3000 feet of climbing. We passed through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, through Burlingame and Millbrae, then started the long, slow climb up Skyline Boulevard to the peak of the Peninsula ridge. It was a long, brutal 9-mile hill, passing through misty redwood forest and glorious bay woodland—but I didn’t notice; I was too busy pedaling. After a thrilling descent to the ocean, we rode down Pacific Coast Highway, past craggy seaside cliffs, windblown grasses, and a flock of parasailers’ bright rainbow sails flying against the wind. We rode through Santa Cruz. As the afternoon wore on, my initial drive waned to exhaustion. And yet I rode on. And on. And on. I had told my sponsors I would ride, I had trained 2500 miles sweaty miles for this event, and I was going to ride. Towards the end, I was staggering along the road, subsisting on energy gels, and barely able to focus a few feet ahead of my bicycle. I made 108 miles that day—my first century ride!—ate an enormous dinner, then shuffled off to my tent to fall unconscious.
The second day was beautiful as well, flat farmland and golden hills. We rode from Watsonville through Salinas, Soledad, Greenfields, to King City. But it was another 100-mile day, hot and with brutal crosswinds. I didn’t stop to look at the scenery. I kept riding. The wind nearly blew me over. I kept riding. Towards the end of the day, my left ankle started to stiffen, but I kept going. I was going to ride every last inch.
On Day Three, my Achilles tendon froze up. With every pedal stroke, searing pain shot through my left ankle. I rode into the second pit stop biting back tears, and burst out crying when they told me I was done for the day. The fourth day I could barely walk, let alone ride. What was I going to say to my sponsors? All the people I’d told proudly I was going to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles? And what about the four months I’d spent training? I spent the first half of Day Four crying—hot, wet, miserable tears.
Then a slender young man in a pink jersey, a fellow rider, came up to me and asked if he could bring me lunch, so I wouldn’t have to limp my way over. He came back with two lunches, and we got to talking.
He was HIV-positive. His birth family had thrown him out when they discovered he was gay, so he had “adopted” a stepmother, his former partner’s mother. He’d ridden all five AIDS Rides and raised over $12,500 through his church, auctioning comforters he’d crocheted with his adopted mother, and through organizing karaoke events—this, in a man too shy to meet my eyes. And today, when he hadn’t been able to keep any food down himself, he’d gone out of his way to bring food, and comfort, to a fellow rider.
It was then that I understood the true spirit of the AIDS Ride. It’s not about the miles you ride. It’s not about being able to tell everyone you biked 585 miles in 7 days, though that’s a great accomplishment. It’s about being a hero with a small “h”—one with the spirit to dare, the dedication to change what’s wrong in the world, the compassion to comfort others. Like the Ride, it’s something challenging and accessible, something anyone can aspire to and achieve—and it’s one of the best possible reasons to ride.