Today, I’m a devotee of yoga, spinning, and weight training. But 20 years ago, I didn’t possess the same level of fitness commitment. So I hesitated when my then-girlfriend suggested we do an AIDS Ride — 250 miles on a bicycle, over two and a half days, to raise money for HIV/AIDS causes.
I had followed her from Chicago, where we had met in college, to DC, where she had wanted a fresh start, a more political life. She had an idealistic spirit and liked a personal challenge, and I liked her, so I signed on. Then I had to think about what 250 miles on a bike really meant. Not only was I not a cyclist, I didn’t even own a bike. I hadn’t ridden a bike since childhood, and that aphorism it’s like riding a bike suddenly felt taunting.
So I started at the beginning and bought a bicycle for $300—it may not sound steep now but at the time it was an indulgence. It represented my commitment, to the AIDS Ride and to my relationship. I also bought a helmet, a little fanny pack, spandex shorts, and a water bottle — because accessories are fun.
We started training with short, pleasant rides around the city, working up eventually to riding a few miles to and from work each day. We joined organized weekend rides, clocking scenic miles across Virginia and Maryland with other idealistic outdoorsy types. Logging 12 or 15 miles in one ride was a milestone, and my legs grew stronger each passing week.
Then my girlfriend came home with news. She was leaving me and DC to join Teach for America in Los Angeles (I mentioned she was a dreamer?). Her training program in another city would preclude her from doing the AIDS Ride with me.
I felt sad about the relationship ending, and ashamed by being abandoned publicly by someone with ambitious life plans greater than just loving me. My ego as battered as my muscles, I wanted to quietly opt out, but I knew that wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t going to be both dumped and deemed a failure because I couldn’t complete a bike ride alone.
So I kept riding — to work, to Virginia, to everywhere. One Saturday, I rode 75 miles. The organizers told us that if we were able to finish 75 miles, that we would be able to do 100 miles. They had a mantra: what the mind believes, the body achieves. I had to believe I would finish that first 100 miles, and the subsequent 150, and ride onto the National Mall triumphant and alone. I had to proceed with my life as a single person, one whose next steps were solely up to me.
The AIDS Ride started shortly after sunrise on a Friday—that first 100 miles would take most of a full day. I started out strong, keeping pace with a positive attitude and affirming t-shirt slogans. It was a beautiful spring day with perfect riding weather, but I hadn’t anticipated how hilly the route would be, and I was ill-prepared, cursing myself around 20 miles in. If we couldn’t ride all the way to the end on any of the three days, we would be picked up by a truck, which was called being SAG’d. I was determined not to be SAG’d, but as 20 miles gave way to 30 and 40 and many miles more, the hills felt fiercer than I ever had. As the hours and miles passed, I saw one person after another, beleaguered, spent, and SAG’d.
I wanted to join them. But, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I knew this day would be an important test of who I would become.
I spotted another hill ahead; tears welled up in my eyes. I got off my bike and walked up and over. I would do that again and again throughout the last third of the route, continuing to get back on and ride down the hill. Miraculously, the last 10 miles leveled out. Some cheerleader along the road shouted, “just a few miles left, sweetie!” I kept pedaling, seeing the sun lower in the sky. Then I spotted a campsite, hordes of cyclists pitching tents and high-fiving each other. I crossed the finish line, dismounted, and burst into tears in a random volunteer’s arms. I may have actually been the very last person to finish that day.
The next two days were, by comparison, easier. I rode onto the National Mall in DC on the third day to prideful cheers.
That summer, I continued biking outside, cursing hills on the way up and riding down the other side of them, both alone and with new friends and a new community. Eight months later, I took my first spinning class at a DC gym, on a first date. Both went well.
The day I completed 100 miles on a bike alone was a day I discovered my physical strength and mental capability. It became a day that proved my personal independence and prosperity were dictated by me, and me alone. Milestones like these deserve to be commemorated, to represent my ascension over the seemingly undoable. I think back on that day and all that it would mean to me later in my life. I can think of nothing better to commemorate that moment than the gift of a ruby – a stone that for centuries has marked health, happiness, and most importantly, prosperity.