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Being Alive

AIDS Ride 1997: A PWA Journal - May '97


Being Alive 1997 Jun 5: 10

This is our fifth (and next-to-last) installment of Chris Griffin's record of his training for the fourth annual California AIDS Ride, which commences June 1 in San Francisco and concludes June 7 in Los Angeles. By the time this column is read, he and some 3499 other riders most likely will have completed the journey. Chris' account of the Ride itself will appear in next month's newsletter.

I am sitting outside in the cool desert night air. Black sky, stars spread round me, bright and clear, undiluted by urban light. That notorious comet hangs immobile in the northeastern sky.

I am thinking about the job before me. The Ride is two weeks away. I'm pretty well trained, but there's more to do. I've decided that tomorrow morning I will do a Century.

That's how seasoned cyclists refer to a ride of one hundred miles. To me this remains an absurdly intimidating distance. I've done seventy-five-mile rides, even one eighty-two miler. But never a Century. Given that I average about 12 miles per hour (including pit stops), one hundred miles will take about eight and a half hours. The idea of being on the bike for that length of time is both absurd and unimaginable-especially here in the desert, where from noon on the temperature rises to 102 and beyond. And yet this is exactly what the Ride itself will demand. If I want to be totally trained, I must start doing hundred milers. And not just flat stretches of road, but with hills, elevation. I hear about a route-up into the higher desert, through Morongo Valley and Yucca Valley, then further up into Pioneertown and beyond-a route that will net, coming and going, over a hundred miles.

What the hell. I set the alarm for 5 a.m. and turn in.

I don't dream. Or don't remember. Instead I wake with a memory.

July 1994. I have been told that the sigmoidoscopy can be done comfortably without the aid of sedating drugs.

For weeks my intestinal tract has been in rebellion. My doctor suspects either a recurrence of microsporidia or perhaps something new. Stool cultures have revealed nothing. The insertion of an eighteen-inch narrow tube up my butt, through my rectum and beyond will allow my physician to see what's going on and to take biopsies of suspicious tissue.

Webster's Dictionary. Sigmoid: "curved like the letter C." Sigmoid flexure: "the contracted and crooked part of the colon immediately above the rectum." I haven't eaten in 24 hours. This morning I self-administered enemas. I now remove my clothes, lie down on the doctor's table, curling into what's almost a fetal position. My doctor busies himself down there, assuring me that this won't be too uncomfortable, while nurse Ken-handsome, built, blond, straight-hovers about my reclined head.

Insertion is no problem. A somewhat odd feeling, but not exactly unfamiliar. I relax.

Then "Take a deep breath," my doctor says, and as I do so suddenly something goes pushing up into my body beyond expectation and my entire gut seizes my entire self seizes and I clamp down on it like a vise and break out in hot sweat yet turn cold and damp and my breath is stolen clutched can't breathe can't move o god and Ken puts his arms around me and lowers his head to mine and puts his lips to my ear and whispers to me "it's okay, it's okay, just breathe, in and out, it's okay" Riding in the early morning hours is marvelous. Temperature in the low 70s, the sun barely above the horizon, casting a hot golden glow upon the mountains. Not much traffic, people out walking their dogs, kids on their way to school. I cycle out toward Highway 62, which will rise steadily for three miles, up into the high desert.

I've been at this training since January, and it's paid off. The cycling feels natural, even (in an odd way) effortless. The muscles of my legs have hardened and elongated. My ass muscles, which had been so devastated and flattened by hiv and medications and age, are re-emerging, giving me a hint of butt I thought I'd never see again-an ass more of flesh than of bone.

Yet I'm growing weary of the training. I am finding it increasingly difficult to put myself through the ordeal, especially as spring turns to early summer and the sun bakes ever hotter. I realize I must keep training, accomplish this Century I've bought into, maintain a peak condition until just days before the Ride. But I can feel a deep and uninvited resistance to the effort, an inner languishing, a recalcitrance borne of repetition and ennui and solitude. A month ago I was fighting my way up a hill against gravity and physical pain; now I find myself battling my own internal entropy. The hills, the miles are now achievable. It is my own inner resistance I must contend with. Something deep inside of me bears down on the effort, trying to refuse.

I even feel reluctant to write.

After about three hours on the bike, the combination of endorphins and exertion and sun produce a mildly euphoric and delirious effect. Time passes ever so quickly. Without even noticing, an hour or two will go by, I will have covered twenty miles and all the while my mind is on a kind of automatic pilot. Thoughts come and go. Sometimes I move into what feels to be a profound appraisal of my life at the moment, of my past and my future. And then this gives way imperceptibly to a sudden and startling awareness of my immediate surroundings-enormous centuries-old boulders piled up into the sky on my left, or the chalk-dry white lizard darting out of the way of my wheels. The cycling creates a momentum all its own, where the body and mind simply cycle on, enduring, as if in a dream. The heart rate rises and then plateaus, energy is channeled into perpetual forward motion; water and Gatorade and Powerbars are the fuel, that unimaginable 100 miles and home the destination.

Sixty and some miles. I've reached the half-way mark and have turned back. The temperature on my bike's computer reads 103. I just keep cycling forward. My head swelters, my skin is gritty with salt from dried perspiration.

I look down at my left arm. A rivulet of dried sweat meanders down my bicep, past the bend in my arm, where a small scar from my PICC-line insertion is still visible. That small soft spot on the smooth flesh inside my elbow, where two years ago a doctor thrust a sharp metal instrument into my vein and then fed through it a long hollow plastic tube, running it up through the vein in my arm, across my chest to within inches of my heart. That soft spot on my arm where my whole life seemed to center during the worst part of my illness. I remember again where I've been-shackled to an IV pole, sick as a dog, seemingly assured of a death from terminal aids. I remember the look and feel of that thin piece of tubing which permanently emerged from my vein. How it was to live with blood transfusions in the hospital and syringes and alcohol pads in my bathroom and vials and bags of drugs in my refrigerator and nurses in my home and death at my door. Despite a good attitude, how life-altering and utterly heartbreaking that small piercing of my skin really was.

I look hard at my left arm. The muscles are toned and vibrant. Thick healthy veins rise in sharp relief. My body, regenerated thanks to the intricate workings of a protease inhibitor, teems with vitality. Sometimes I forget just how extraordinary these present moments are, considering the alarmingly poor quality of my life not so very long ago.

Without breaking stride, I reach over with my right hand and gently touch my skin at that crease, run my fingers over the scar, remembering what it was, how it felt. How it feels.

I bring my fingers up to my lips and taste that salt.

Twenty miles to go. The sun high in the sky. Hot and fatigued. But the body still presses on, the legs push and push again, momentum rules.

I am so eager to be finished with this desert training, to embark on the Ride itself. I hunger for the company of others engaged in this same insane endeavor. How different it will be. I am aware that physically I am suitably trained, and yet I have not an inkling of what this experience-seven days of biking with 3500 people�will be like personally, socially, emotionally.

I can taste the end. I'm barreling through the arid sandy wastes between Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs. I've been cycling eight hours, covered ninety-five miles. I've flown down those hills I labored so hard to ascend in the morning, and now I've got nothing but flat familiar easy road ahead of me, nothing between my present heat exhaustion and a cold shower but smooth sailing.

Suddenly I'm aware of a sound. Something unusual and repetitive, something coming from the bike. I look down, listen, can't figure, slow down, get off.

Shit. I've got a flat tire.

Was it arrogance that led me to keep procrastinating on buying spare tubes? Hubris? Cycle Denial? Certainly it was sheer stupidity that led me to put off learning how to change a flat.

So here I am, in the middle of the desert, three thirty in the afternoon and 104 degrees. With but five miles to go. And a deflated rear tire. And no way to fix it.

I can't believe it, and for a few seconds am struck powerless. The abrupt halt to my cycling sends my body into overdrive; overheated, I start sweating profusely. I can hear the rapid beat of my heart pounding in my chest. I stand there, stupid, in the middle of the desert, beat, defeated, helpless.

Slowly my reason returns. I look up the road I must travel: must be a good four miles before I'll emerge from this stretch of desert. I gather my wits and begin to walk the bike out. I try to hitch a ride but no one wants to stop. I keep walking, under the scorching afternoon sun. I figure it will be another hour or so before I can get home.

Dead tired, sun-battered, heat-crazed, I come to the distressing realization that the goal I've set for myself has not been achieved. There will be no Century today. Lord have mercy, on my next ride I'll have to do this all over again.

And I do.


Information in this article was accurate in June 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.