It was 1992. Spring. I was recently divorced and living by myself in Troy, NY. I decided to enter a 24-hour time trial, an ultra-marathon event in which I would pedal for as many miles as I could over 24 hours. The course consisted of a 45-mile loop of rural roads, all of which were open to the public.
I really didn’t tell many people at the time. For me, it was just a chance to see what I could do. I was hoping to pedal 300 miles that day.
I parked my car at the pit stop area, gathered a bunch of energy bars and rode my bike to the start area in town 10 miles away. I noticed that many participants were decked out in expensive bicycles and professional-looking clothing. Many had support crews who were tuning bicycles and reviewing programmed food and drink for their athletes. The race was part of a series for serious ultra-marathon bicyclists. I felt a bit over my head… but, no worries, no one knew me there.
At noon, the race started. And I just started pedaling. I kept to myself. I don’t think I spoke a word to anyone the whole day. Everyone was pedaling faster than me, so it was a quiet day, especially on the first lap or two.
I’d stop at the rest area every 45 miles, get a few more energy bars, replenish my water, go pee, and get back on my bike. It looked like the experienced riders would only stop quickly to replenish food prepared for them by their support crews.
The roads consisted of two-lane paved roads that meandered around small hills, fields, forests, and small towns. After a couple laps, riders were lapping me. I was doing all that I could do to keep going, hoping to average 12 to 15 mph. I think many riders were averaging over 20 mph.
I don’t remember much of the afternoon riding, except for the experiences of dehydration, a sore body, bloating from an energy bar diet, and the unimaginable willpower to keep going.
As darkness approached, I encountered less and less riders. Were people taking naps? Were people riding in groups? Around midnight, 12 hours into the ride, it seemed like there was no one on the pitch-black rural roads. My headlight kept a steady stream of light in front of me, but I started to feel all alone.
The next part of the race I remember like it happened last week.
I had been riding about 13 hours, and I was about halfway around the course loop on my 5th lap… I had ridden about 200 miles at that time… Exhausted, I remember thinking that maybe dawn would occur on my next lap. That kept me feeling positive. I felt like I could possibly reach my goal of 300 miles. Maybe more?
But my mind was going a little crazy. I remember feeling very afraid, like I could be in danger with no one around. Someone could jump out of the woods on my slow uphill climbs and tackle me! No other bikes in sight…
I moved to the center line of the road, away from the shoulders.
I thought that I heard rustling in the trees as I rode slowly up a hill, eyes fixed on the center line of the road. My mind said push harder, keep going. My heart felt fear.
Out of the corner of my eye, along the shoulder of the road where my headlight barely reached, I saw some bicycle parts… bike pump, some accessories… like someone had crashed earlier. I kept riding, afraid for my safety. Should I have stopped? That’s the question that still haunts me.
As I crested the hill and started to glide downhill, I saw headlights of a car approaching. I remember feeling some relief at first, thinking that the entire world was not asleep after all. There were some people still around!
As the car approached, it slowed down. I sped up. The car stopped as I approached. The driver asked me to stop. Afraid of what the driver might do to me, I said, “No!” I kept riding. Faster. The driver put the car in reverse to catch up to me and shouted, “Stop!” I said, “No. Why should I?”
The driver turned on his interior car light to illuminate other bicyclists in the back seat. I words still etched in my memory, he said, “The race has been canceled. There has been a tragic accident up ahead of you.” The riders in the back seat nodded. I stopped.
He told me that two people up ahead had been killed in a car-bike accident.
“What should I do?”
The driver said his car was full, so why don’t I turn around and head back to the pit stop area about 20 miles behind me. In a bit of a daze, I turned around proceeded back up the hill.
As I crested the hill, there were flashing lights, ambulances, police cars. The driver of the car with whom I had just spoken, approached me as I approached the site and asked me to stop again.
“What should I do?”
He asked me to wait off the road in a small parking area and he’d send for someone to come pick me up. I waited, not sure of what was going on…
Eventually, a van came to pick me up, and we proceeded to the site of the tragic bike-car accident that had canceled the race. We picked up other riders, then headed back past the place where the more recent accident scene was happening. I saw a car upside down. I saw a mangled bike… a covered body… and bike parts along the shoulder of the road. The same bicycle parts that I had seen earlier.
I was brought back to my car in the pit area. It was quiet. I got in my car, put the seat down, and tried to sleep. At dawn, a few people milled around slowly. I remember the somber mist. Everyone lifeless. My brother-in-law, an ex-Navy SEAL who lived in the area and who had ridden with me before on cross-New England bike trips, visited and told me that he heard on the scanner that 3 people (2 cyclists participating in the race) were killed in two separate accidents, both by drunk drivers, one under-age.
Not sure what to do, I left. Still somewhat in a daze. Confused.
I found out the next day some of the details on the news. How the first accident killed the drunk driver and one cyclist. How the second accident involved under-age drunk drivers who tried to escape through the woods along the roadside and were apprehended the next day. Was that the rustling in the woods that I heard?
I learned later about the two bicyclists that were killed, one having had a science and engineering background very similar to mine. He was a volunteer president of the Boston Chapter of the International Youth Hostel Association, an organization that I had recently joined as I prepared for my planned bicycling trip to New Zealand later that year.
I felt very close to these two people, even though I didn’t know them. We had shared the road together. We were alike. It could have been me.
I understand that laws in New York State changed after the accident to allow prosecution of those who sell alcohol to minors who subsequently drive drunk.
I later received a commendatory plaque for the event recognizing my participation and honoring the two riders. The plaque is still on the wall next to my desk. In a way, I’ve come to know two other time-trial cyclists who I never knew; they have become a part of my life story.
Their names on the plaque remind me daily to live each day fully. Anything can happen. Today, could be my last day. I was the lucky one… then.
But, in that moment, I didn’t stop. Reflecting back, I wonder if I really sensed an energy in the air that something had indeed gone wrong. Or, was I was too immersed in my own fear and and my own need for safety.
A few years later, I left my engineering practice in New York. I think this cycling event had planted a seed in me that eventually sprouted and informed me that it was time to live my life more fully while I was still “young” (I was 34 at the time, a workaholic and a young partner in a well-regarded firm). I knew there was something more that I was supposed to do in my life. In 1995, not sure what was next for me, I moved to Vermont.
All these years later, now as a yoga teacher, I tend to not spend much time thinking back in time unless I’m appreciating a previous teaching moment that had prepared me for a later-in-life experience. With the plaque as a reminder of that day, I do question what I would have done differently if I had a clearer mind and if I would have been more present in that moment when I saw some broken bicycle pieces along the side of the road. Would I have recognized the ambient energy-in-the-air differently? Would I have responded differently? Would I have been able to help?
The plaque reminds me that in any moment, someone might need my help. It reminds me to pay attention… to not ride away from something that doesn’t feel right. To listen to my intuition. To listen to my heart.
For many reasons, this was a race not forgotten. Maybe it did indeed plant deeper seeds in me… seeds that still guide my way today. To pay attention. To see what’s really going on. To help others. To persevere. To do what’s right. To be responsible. To live each day fully.
And to feel grateful… and humble… that I am alive today.