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Being Alive

AIDS Ride 1997: A PWA Journal -- April


Being Alive 1997 May 5: 4

This is our fourth installment of Chris Griffin's record of his training and participation in the California AIDS Ride, which kicks off on May 31: 525 miles, from San Francisco to L.A., over the course of seven days.

Straddling my bike I look up into the foothills, my eyes following the road as it steadily rises, curves and vanishes behind a ridge. Uphill. Ever uphill. No respite. No leveling out, no plateauing. This road I've chosen to train onthe road that eventually leads up to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramwayis no ride in the park. In just over four miles it rises over 3000 feet.

Having become aware recently of the need to accustom my body to the particular rigors of climbing hills, I have committed to scaling these four miles of unrelentingly ascending roadway. Since most of my training here in the desert has been on relatively flat terrain, I know I must challenge my body with this radical ascent if I want to be ready for the variety of topography I'll encounter on the actual Ride.

The sun is already blazing: 82 degrees and it's only 7:30 in the morning. I take a swig from the water bottle, attach the clips in my shoes to the clips in the pedals, and propel myself forward into the climb.

I've been deep into training mode now for several weeks. The thrill of adventure, the uniqueness of this endeavor has worn off. My training now has taken on a nearly zenlike sameness, and requires a determinedly focused discipline. My long rides now measure 75 miles and up, six-plus hours, which is a hell of a long time for one's butt to sit on a bicycle seat.

Long before my muscles or my wind give out, my butt is screaming for relief. I have learned to stretch my thighs and gluteus muscles without stopping or dismountingstanding tall on the pedals, lengthening my thighs, arching my back, extending my lower torso up and back. But even this brings only temporary relief. This cycling venture has brought whole new meaning to the phrase "a pain in the butt." Within five minutes of beginning the uphill climb my body is sweltering from the effort. Sweat breaks out on my forehead, glistens the skin of my arms and legs. No shade, no rest, just the relentless uphill road and the heightening sun. In the lowest of gears I manage to advance, foot by arduous foot. I must buckle my mind down into my body's effort, and buckle my body to the rhythm of forward movement. All my senses rise in rebellion, yet the pedals must go round. Lean into it. Keep it going. Move on. My brain is suffused with exertion-engendered endorphins; I enter into a kind of blazing delirium, aware of pain yet somehow separate from it. Leaning into it. Keeping it going. Moving on.

I lie in the hospital bed, hooked up to IV Bactrim to fight the pneumonia (May 1993). My throat and chest rasp with pain, but worse still is the steady, dull, deadening throb in my head and sinuses: a pulse of pain deep behind my eyes, recurring with each beat of my heart, an ache so deep and central as to disrupt all sense of place and time, annihilating everything except the constant, relentless, merciless repetition of pain. I cannot sleep. And resistance is futile. All I can do is try to enter into the rhythm of the pain, move and swell and subside with it, fused as it were to the very agony I wish to escape. Make the pain not a feeling but a thing, and tune myself to it. Time, I pray, will alleviate this torture. For the moment, this pain is all there is, the only reality I am conscious of. Pulsing, then pulsing again, coming around, ever again and again. Lean into it. Move on with it. Be in it.

After what seems like hours (and in actuality may have been), I pass into merciful sleep.

My breathing, while labored, is steady and sure, timed to the cycle of my pedaling. Occasionally a single car will race by, or a fly buzz my head, but otherwise I am utterly alone. The sun, now higher in the sky, bakes. I'm covered in sweat, but an exhilarating elation strengthens my resolve. I think of dismounting, taking a break, but commit instead to pushing the envelope, propelling myself even deeper into the labor, hunkering down into it, leaning into it as far as I'm able.

I'm not even half way there yet.

Steve and I bonded to each other through our illness. When we met (June 1994), we intuitively sensed that we were on parallel paths, about equal distance along the aids road to disaster. We had similar coping strategies, among which was a desire to be unblinkingly honest about the realities of our experience with aids. We counted on each other to be there, no matter what horror came our way. He steadied me when my CMV hit and I became a visible casualty, my PICC-line catheter right there in my arm for all to see, supposedly to stay there as long as I might live. He would tell me of the agony of his KS chemotherapy.

We shared bouts of malaise, candida, nausea, wasting, anxiety. We'd sit outside at the Abbey and talk it all through. He was one of the few people with whom I could speak directly and unflinchingly about my fears of physical devastation and death. And we gained strength through our connection, even a kind of superstitious power: as long as the other was there, going through it too, things could be endured (and perhaps even survived). Despite intermittent setbacks, we were managing our diseases just fine. Both of us still went to the gym, still got out into the world, went to movies, ate out, did our best to carry on.

Steve woke in the early hours one morning last year, not able to breathe. He managed to call 911, paramedics rushed to his apartment, got him into the ambulance. He died on the way to the hospital. Just like that. Unexpected and unanticipated. Out like a light. A life extinguished, and my friend and talisman gone.

One month later the first protease inhibitor became available. Within four months two more protease inhibitors had been approved.

Sixteen months later I am biking up a brutal hill.

I am hurting now. I've been into this uphill ride for about an hour now, and can tell from my computerized odometer that I've got another mile and a bit to go. I'm flagging. I need to set a goal. I look ahead and I can see four telephone poles lining the road before it vanishes over a crest. I tell myself simply to get to the last pole, then I can take a break. Keeping at it. Pedaling on. Breathing in, breathing out, transcending the pain and fatigue through sheer will. I will do this. I will carry on. I will make it to that last pole.

I am about halfway between the third and fourth pole when I round a ridge and see that what I'd thought was a line of four poles is actually a line of six. There are two more poles before the phone lines veer off to the left and out of sight. Agony. This is some kind of cosmic joke: just when I thought I'd gotten there, I hadn't. Having committed to making it to the last pole, I make myself persevere to the sixth.

I make a mental note for the future: The last may only appear to be the last. The end may only seem to be the end.

I cannot understand how it is that I can do this. A little more than a year ago I was unquestionably on the downward spiral toward death, and now, protease inhibitor enhanced, I am biking 75 miles at a clip, or scaling the brutal heights of this ever-ascending road. I grasp the scientific and medical realities of the new treatments, but this empirical knowledge cannot help me fathom the more profound metaphysical perplexities. Such as how or why it is I have managed to survive the plague long enough to benefit from these new drugs. Or how or why it is that I did not die in the first wave, as did so many of my friends and sex partners and drug buddies, or even in the second or third or fourth or fifth waves. Or how or why it is that these new drugs actually work, and work powerfully, for me, when for many others they prove to be intolerable or ineffective. My speculations center on genetics, viral strains, attitude, even the grandiose and somewhat narcissistic notion of destiny. But nothing can truly explain what is, at base, unexplainable. The mystery is a mystery, and will be with me as long as I live.

At last I see the top of the road, where the Aerial Tramway station sits wedged into the canyon. With renewed energy I make my way up to the crest, coast to a stop and, thankfully, lift my butt off the saddle and dismount. I sit in the shade, gulp down water, eat a Powerbar, cool off, relax, enjoy my success at scaling this height. It's 9:30 a.m., there's no one around, it's strikingly quiet and still. My heart is beating vigorously, my leg and ass muscles are rock-solid, my mind is clear and energized.

As I sit there alone I think it all over. I know that I do this training, exert this energy so as to forcefully reclaim my physical life from the devastation of aids. And to remember and honor Steve. And Dan and Jay and Chris and Doug and Greg and Marvin and all the others who were slaughtered by this vile epidemic, who did not make it this far. All of us have been in essence pioneers, blazing a trail through uncharted territory rife with ineffable pain and mortal danger. Those of us who have survived to this promising day owe it to those who fell along the way to continue on the pioneering trailto not turn back to safety, convenience and ease, but to forge ahead into a new and as of yet undefined future. I fight this brutal hill as a formal gesture in my struggle to define anew my miraculously regenerated life.

Three thousand feet below me, the desert valley stretches in the morning light out to the far hills of Joshua Tree National Park, which in turn then stretches on out to infinity. I know that soon, after this brief rest, I will climb back on my bike and be streaking down this hard-won hill, effortlessly flying through space, sailing through the canyons, across the ridges, swooping down the slopes of God's good creation. The pain of the morning's effort will give way to the pleasure of downhill speed. And I will, once again, be utterly grateful for these daysand this mysteryI never thought I'd have, and that are now, inexplicably, mine.

Funds raised by the California AIDS Ride benefit The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and its aids-related services, including the Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinics and the Pedro Zamora Youth HIV Clinic. If you wish to make a contribution, please sends checks payable to the California AIDS Ride to The Center, PO Box 2955, Los Angeles, CA 90051 or to Being Alive, Attn. Chris Griffin, 3626 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028.


Information in this article was accurate in May 5, 1997. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.