Following the thread, or, from triathlons to sacraments and back again.

What-would-you-attempt-to-do-if-you-knew-you-could-not-failYesterday, after finally finding a place to swim regularly and logging a solid 1000m workout, I realized that I haven’t said much at all here about my minor triathlon habit. Funny, because it’s a pretty big part of my life, especially during the summer months.

I figured I’d share a bit about what drew me to triathlons and what I love about them, but that will have to wait. Because all of my thoughts about triathlons kept leading back to the same memory. To another event – one that taught me about my possibility and the power of the collective human spirit.

On a summer Saturday in 1996, my best friend at Boston University came back to our apartment and asked, “Do you know what today is?”. I had no idea. Turns out it was the AIDS Walk, raising money for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. Because we missed it, my friend announced that instead, we would be participating in the Boston -> New York AIDS Ride, taking place that September. A three-day, 250-mile bike ride seemed extreme penance for missing a 3.2 mile walk around Boston, but I went along with the idea. We attended one of the information sessions and I was immediately committed. The presentation was inspiring.  We were challenged to do something bold and significant in response to a deadly disease that had only recently begun to be wrestled under control. In 1996, the drug cocktails for HIV treatment were just becoming available. Others at the info session had heartbreaking stories of loss; for them, the ride and the cause were deeply personal.

I started training, but to make a very long story short, I was woefully unprepared. On the evening before the Ride, as we were riding our bikes to the registration, it started to rain, and my bike slipped – on the Freedom Trail, of all things! – and I went down. Hard. I  ended up at Mass General Hospital with a concussion. I was told I couldn’t ride. I did manage to get to New York for the closing ceremonies and the arrival of my friends, and it was a remarkable event. “Someday…”, I told myself.

Fast forward a few years: I had graduated and I had weathered a few rough post-college years. I had a new job doing work I cared about deeply. I had established communities of friends and was building a life for myself. I couldn’t forget the AIDS Ride. It actually passed right by my apartment in Brookline, and every September I would go out in the early morning to cheer the riders on their way. By 1999, I was ready to try again.

There is a beautiful definition of “sacrament” from the Anglican Prayer Book that says, in part, that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”.  It may be too grand a definition for my personal experience, but at the time, participating in something as large and serious as the AIDS Ride was a way to demonstrate the changes I had made in myself in the years since my first failed attempt.

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Michael, Jim, Bunny, Ken, Bunny, Chris and me at a pit stop, somewhere in Connecticut

And the AIDS Ride, both the 1999 storm-shortened version (thanks, Hurricane Floyd) and the full ride (finally!) in 2000, was a sacramental event.  Everyone participating was drawn into something larger, better, richer, and more meaningful than we had imagined. There was a kindness that extended like a ribbon along the entire 250-mile course. I had memorized part of an Adrienne Rich poem that captured this phenomenon, and I would recite it to myself on the long, hard hills.

“…I have never seen my own forces so taken up and shared and given back. After the long training, the early sieges, we are moving almost effortlessly in our love…”

The Ride, more than anything, was joyful.

(There is a long and sad post-script to the AIDS Ride story globally, and if you’re interested I’d suggest checking out the website of Pallotta Teamworks, the Ride creator and organizer. Founder Dan Pallotta has written a book and hit the Ted Talk circuit, as well.)

What the AIDS Ride did (in addition to raising hundreds of millions of dollars) was to invite participants to change – and, importantly, expand – our perspective and our expectations of ourselves. Insofar as I consider myself an athlete at all, it’s because of the AIDS Ride. And insofar as I consider myself an activist, it’s also because of the AIDS Ride.

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