Shadows were creeping across the road and the sun was hanging low in the sky, casting a golden glow over cotton fields and houses along the route as we finally turned the last corner and saw the Orangeburg arts center ahead. It was with nearly indescribable relief that almost nine hours after we began, we rolled past the start point and finished the “race.”
We were dead last.
A few people clapped as we pulled in the nearly empty parking lot, but it was a mostly quiet and unobserved finish without much fanfare or pageantry. There were no medals or recognition. Almost everyone else had gone home. And yet, it was the most beautiful and meaningful finish I’ve ever experienced. My sister and I had just biked 100 miles around Orangeburg and surrounding areas, not only completing our first century but finishing it in memory of Brian. We dedicated every mile to him. I know he would have been honored and proud of us, as well as probably a little amused by our lack of training, the six hour round-trip drive and then the entire day spent pedaling. Our only goals starting out were to laugh, have fun, and finish the race in a manner that would honor Brian. We managed just that.
It was an amazing experience and next year, I hope to be back to ride it again in memory of my love. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect Century. It was a 2 hour and 45 minute drive from home so we could complete the trip in one day making it economical and convenient. The weather was gorgeous (albeit a bit hot), the course was beautiful and the route was well marked with amazing volunteers. Other than a little pain, it was nearly magical.
We were on the road by 4:30 a.m., bikes loaded on the bike rack on the back of my car and snacks and water in the backseat. We made a stop along the way for coffee and breakfast at McDonald’s and pulled in to the Orangeburg arts center right around 7:30 a.m. Dawn had just broken and the air was fresh and cool. It was going to be a beautiful day. Other cars and trucks started arriving and after hanging out for 30 minutes in the car we went and retrieved race shirts and cue sheet with the course directions. 100 miles is a long, long ways and seeing it written out just emphasizes that fact. A man with a NASA sticker on the bumper of his BMW was parked beside us and he kept examining our bikes and asking questions like we actually knew something about bikes and racing. He made ostentatious comments in his foreign accent such as “you will finish in fife hours, no?” And another personal favorite. “I had signed up for the 30 mile race but I see you two, and I think, maybe I should go for the Century.” Obviously he could pull it off in fife hours but as a complete novice it wasn’t likely and moreover I didn’t give care about finishing in a certain time. I just wanted to finish. NASA man then continued on to meticulously scrutinize our bikes, commenting on the placement of the handlebars, the brakes, the aerodynamics. And then he remarked on our clip-less pedals. “It’s good,” he said optimistically, as if we were admirable for committing such a distasteful faux pas as to wear running shoes on a Century. Later, Christie and I agreed next time we were wearing t-shirts that said “After this I’m getting pizza.”
At 9 am everyone riding the 30 mile, metric century and century were gathered at the start. The people participating in the century were a small, elite (heh) group. Most everyone else had on cycling outfits and then there was us. Yoga pants and tank tops and non clip-in shoes.
We saw all kinds of riders. Big, small and everywhere in-between. Two people lounged in recumbent bikes, casually pedaling by looking as relaxed as if they were on the couch at home. There was even a couple on a tandem bike, serenely pedaling in-sync.
We hung out near the back of the pack and after some instructions were given out and a prayer said, we were off. We let the majority of the riders pass us as we cycled through town and out into the countryside. Fifteen miles later we had our first rest stop at a church. We got cold drinks, used the bathroom, and quickly ate a snack before hitting the road again.
We rode past an amazing variety of scenery. Palmetto trees and flat open land and swamps with tall trees and moss hanging from the branches. Some stretches of road were like a tunnel with tall trees growing beside it, branches growing over the road above us and colorful fall leaves raining down around us like confetti. I purposely rode over the dead leaves and they made a sastisfying crunching noise like rice crispies under my tires. It was around 55 degrees at the start but it hit 85 by afternoon. The humidity was thick and heavy and settled over us like a blanket.
We rode by the next rest stop in the city of Bamberg because it caught us by surprise and came up quicker than we were expecting. It would be another long, long 24 miles before the next one. We laughed and talked along the way. I thought about Brian and silently told him I rode every mile for him. I remembered good times and sad and couldn’t stop the longing to see and touch him. The ache of missing him just refuses to dull.
We hit 50 miles and then 75. We genuinely enjoyed the ride but once we hit 75 my body was protesting. My legs still felt strong and good but my tense shoulder muscles and my chafed butt were in agony. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more difficult final 12 miles in my life. Each mile felt 15 miles long and passed by in agonizing slowness. We were the last ones on the course and even two elderly women, gray haired and heavy set had casually cycled by us as if they were going on a Sunday drive. It was a little demoralizing to be left in the dust by two grandmothers but it was also inspiring. They were pretty bad-ass.
When things got tough and I struggled to overcome the pain, I thought about Brian and how much I loved and admired and missed him. I thought about how he had endured so much and how I could certainly finish this race. I also focused on the beautiful scenery and about how lucky I was to be able to do this. I thought about a million things and then sometimes I couldn’t distract myself and just wallowed in the pain. And then, finally, finally, after a million years, we were cycling through Edisto Garden and we had less than a mile left. We rode past Christmas lights and decorations not yet lit and a pond with trees growing out of it, the evening sun reflected in the dark water. Right at 6 pm we reached the arts center and finished, finally getting off our bikes for good. It was a glorious moment. The local police had manned the course and a few officers were at the finish, patiently waiting on us with sandwiches, drinks and snacks. Everyone – from fellow cyclists to the race volunteers – were amazing, helpful, friendly and well organized. It was an outstanding experience. I’m so proud of accomplishing this and I hope I’ll be back next year.
I keep telling myself I need to live as much of life as possible so if – when – I see Brian again I can tell him, “see, I lived for you and me. I lived as much as possible.” And when I draw my last breath, it will be at the close of a glorious adventure.
I don’t much care to live long, so I want to live well.