By Charles Miess
It was the day I had dreaded the most. I felt as if I were marinating in my own sweat and broiling in the radiant energy from the merciless sun. My muscles screamed for rest. The unnatural position of my head and neck caused a persistent ache between my shoulder blades, and the ball of my left foot burned as if held over a candle flame. My worries alternated between dehydration, glycogen depletion, and excessive body temperature. I had just completed 87 miles of this day’s trek and had another four to go—all uphill and equivalent to the height of an 80-story building. It was July 31 of 2018 and day three of a seven-day, 547-mile journey from New York City to Niagara Falls. I was on a bicycle. And I was 76 years old.
The Empire State Ride was to benefit Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. I wasn’t sure why I signed up for this super-sized version of the Ride for Roswell. After all, I had participated in the annual one-day event for the last 12 years. Shouldn’t that be enough charity for any one person? Besides that, I hated to beg people for donations to support my rides. Perhaps this time I just needed to prove something to myself—prove that I could do it. Or perhaps it was my daughter Tami who shamed me into it. She registered for the ride in memory of her mother who recently died of cancer and in honor of her husband who is now battling the disease.
And then I heard other stories—uplifting stories of people who made amazing comebacks against incredible odds, and with the help of Roswell Park, they kicked cancer in the butt. Many of those survivors spent their summer training and fundraising and would be pedaling along with me in gratitude to Roswell Park for the gift—the gift of life. There were stories of tragedy as well. One woman on our shuttle to New York City planned to ride for her friend’s daughter—a beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old girl named Elianna. Elianna had cancer. Halfway to our destination, the lady on the bus received a call from the little girl’s mother. “Elianna is an angel now,” she said.
At mile 89, I was losing the will to keep pedaling. So I thought of those people back home who had faith in me and who supported me with their donations or with encouragement and inspiration. I thought of an artist friend who not only made a generous donation but sent me a note where she shared some very personal and painful experiences with cancer in her family. I carried that note with me on my bicycle. I thought about the girls at McDonald’s who cheered me on during my coffee stops while on training rides. On one particularly difficult day, a server named Lisa surreptitiously slipped me a hot apple pie with “Have an awesome day” written on the top. That simple act of kindness did more for customer loyalty than any two-for-one special ever could. And I thought about Ann, a co-worker from the distant past. I carried a special message from her as well. And I carried a list of the names of each and every one of my supporters.
At mile 90, a fellow Springville area resident, Heather Sopko, passed by and motivated me to keep going. She and her friend Amy Dickinson—also from Springville—will go on to run the Chicago Marathon in October. I was inspired by them and proud to be in the company of such fine athletes. A support van labored up the grade behind me and slowly passed. A friend who couldn’t make the hill was in the passenger seat. I feared that he would be resentful that the “old man” was still pedaling and he wasn’t. Instead, he gave me thumbs up, a big smile, and shouted “You rock, Charlie!” As if that wasn’t enough incentive, the newest little angel in heaven unexpectedly came to mind. Tears splashed on my handlebars. It was a stark reminder of why I was riding.
After what seemed an eternity, I reached the relatively level Skyline Drive and spotted the entrance for the night’s stop: the Frosty Acres Campground. My heart sank! The driveway was about 300 feet of finely crumbled blacktop and steeper than anything I had climbed that day. Nothing in the world could inspire me to pedal up that hill. Nothing—until I heard the cheers! Other riders and staff stood at the top shouting and cheering for me. “Congratulations!—You made it!—Great Job!”
With one last burst of energy I stood on the pedals and pulled up on the handlebars with all my might. The back wheel spit out loose blacktop behind me and the nearly weightless front wheel skittered an inch sideways on the ground. For the next few seconds, all I thought about were those cheers and before I knew it I was rounding over the top. A man reached out and grabbed my hand and with his other hand gave me one final push to level ground. The cheers continued. Another rider was slumped over his handlebars gasping for breath. I wanted to do the same, but instead stopped my huffing and puffing long enough to croak out “Piece uh cake!” Then I staggered to my tent where I fell to the ground and nursed my weary body back to life.
It took me a while to get to sleep that night as I reminisced about the day. I was surprised that the memory of the last few miles was fading while the first part of the day was still fresh in my mind. I remembered feeling intensely alive in the deliciously cool morning air with the blood pumping freely in my veins. I remembered the strength in my legs and the sheer joy of stretching my muscles and feeling the obedient response of my bike—like the old friend that it was. I remembered being deliriously happy that I was doing something that I loved and was making a difference in people’s lives at the same time. Tomorrow’s route would be only 84 miles and with fewer hills. I knew that I would be refreshed by morning and that it would be a great ride. In fact, I could hardly wait.