Reflections from a 4489.6-mile journey: from NYC (over mountains, beyond mountains) to the City by the Bay

 

Day 01 in the northwest corner of NYC’s Central Park, NY

 

 

 

Dipping our rear wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ on Day 01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Note: A PDF file of this post can be downloaded by clicking Blandry_i4k_reflections or at this link http://illini4000.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Blandry_i4k_reflections.pdf )

 

Hello Everyone,

“Fighting Cancer on 2 Wheels” sign on Day01 in Central Park NYC

I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support, words of encouragement, positive thoughts, good vibes, and prayers that you sent my way as well as to the entire team throughout our 71-day trek across the nation. Although now it feels very surreal, straight out of a dream. The photos and the portraits are seemingly the only tangible proof that reminds me of this summer’s journey.  Click here for album of selected images and videos taken along the trip.

 

 

Full website to the selected images and videos is below: https://plus.google.com/photos/105748354359203799591/albums/6050265609439281665?sort=1

This journey was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Without a doubt it was the most difficult undertaking I have attempted to this point in my life.  Prior to one year ago, I would never have fathomed in my wildest dreams to attempt–let alone complete–this epic journey.  Unbeknownst to me during the ride, but now apparent in retrospect, is that the ride was nothing short of a paradigm shift in my life. With such an impact, I thought it best to take time and reflect back on this extraordinary event. The following is my feeble attempt to collect my reflections regarding the journey.

Riding towards Mt. Shasta, California

Rider, rider glowing bright in the daylight: I consider myself lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity to help contribute to what I had hoped to be the ultimate purpose for the ride: that the team and I in our bright orange jerseys could be glowing beacons of hope and inspiration to everyone we encountered. From the many emails and blog comments that I received from dear old friends, as well as new encounters such as the following, it seemed that my ultimate hope was being realized:

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“Wow… these video portraits are incredibly powerful! You are really capturing an important chronicle of the human face of what cancer has done. I just love these vignettes you have shared with me… the backdrops, the ambient noises, the simplicity mixed with the depth of each of these dear souls is really, really touching. I am very grateful to you and to the whole Illini team for what you are doing.” -M.P.

“My husband and I first want to say congratulations on completing such a huge undertaking. I am sure it must have been a difficult ride, but your purpose was so rewarding. We met you in La Pine, OR. (suburb of Bend). Your team was taking shelter from the rain in McDonald’s. Since it was raining and the roads were ugly, my husband and I decided to stop for a cup of coffee. (We were driving a 1929 Model A Ford from Washington state to southern California – our home). You were speaking to some folks at another table about your group/trip and I overheard. I mentioned to you that in October 2012, we lost our 41 year old daughter, Lisa, to rectal cancer. You asked if I could do a portrait project, but I was way too emotional to speak at that moment. I thank you for adding me to your group e-mail list so that we were able to follow along on your daily route and we really enjoyed reading “A day in the life of an Illini 4000 rider“. Thank you and your group again for this ride dedication and I hope one day the cure will be found for cancers of all types.” -S.J.

“WOW… I am blown away at the dedication you guys have for this amazing ride. Thank you Blake for why you ride!! We have been following the ride, keeping up with blogs, and photos etc.  VERY INSPIRING!!  Keep it up. Stay safe!!” – P.S.

“Suck it up Blake, ride through that.  Its just water dude!” -B.B.

WOW…..you are looking good.  Stay on course” -J.P.

“Dang dude!  You are almost in Portland!!!  It is impressive all you guys have covered already.  Steady pace.  Great job.  We have been following your progress.” -J.A.

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As the ride was serving as a vehicle to spread hope for others, I constantly found myself digging ever deeper to put every ounce of my energy into helping maintain the brightness of our beacons throughout the ride (being the Portraits Coordinator on the ride further strengthened my motivation). Rarely did I stop to think of how the ride was becoming my own vehicle for internal change through all the difficulties and adversities that were encountered. Looking back, the ride will forever serve as a constant reminder as to the countless daily battles that people are fighting against cancer and other illnesses, which often have no clear finish lines in sight and still people manage to press on. These souls are the true inspiration for which we as riders were seeking out, bringing their stories into the limelight, and helping to form a connected web of support that can help others encountering similar difficult situations.

Resting at about 50 miles in the high desert on Day 50 to Rupert, ID (still had 25 miles to go)

Riding a year-long emotional roller coaster: There is a simple yet powerful quote that I came to more fully understand and appreciate; “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself. Without a doubt, this ride was indeed my way of becoming a wounded person on all levels: physical, emotional, and mental. On the physical side, I am not an avid cyclist let alone a very athletic person in general. I had nothing to prove to myself about putting 4000+ miles under my belt. The pre-ride training that occurred from Oct. 2013 to May 2014 was quite interesting. I distinctly remember that running was my least favorite activity–that is until I did the first training ride which was 30-miles in March 2014 after which my body was utterly sore and muscles completely drained of energy (I think I had mild case of hypoglycemia). I thought it was utterly impossible for someone to bike 75 miles a day let alone repeating that day after day. This physical effort was further compounded by emotional and mental demands. Those that know me well would say that I am kindhearted and can often easily empathize with others. This was slightly problematic, since I never had a dry eye conducting the portraits and could feel an emotional connection between each of the people telling their stories which lingered in my mind long after the interview (and will forever be imprinted in my mind). Furthermore, I would start thinking meta-cognitively about the interview.  For example, I was always blown away that total strangers were trusting and sharing their personal stories with me (and the team), Could I do the same thing?;  How would I cope will all the pain they have been through?; Would I be able to handle the situation as graceful, positive, and inspirational or would I become jaded? It really started to put life in perspective. While hearing story after story as the ride progressed, my emotions would be highly impacted , but with each new story that I heard, I found that my compassion grew. It wasn’t that I was less compassionate to the prior story, but I guess it is akin to having a second child, you never love the first one less, your heart grows to love both fully.

One of my encounters with ladybugs

Funny thing is that just when I thought I was at my physical limit and emotional energy was at the lowest and I could not continue anymore, there would always be something that would occur. These occurrences could be as simple as the next 20-mile rest stop unexpectedly occurring (It is amazing how much taking just a 15-min break off of the bike can do.) Other times, after fighting strong headwinds pretty much all day, the winds would change direction or the roads would change direction so that we had tailwinds which greatly changed the amount of effort required. Sometimes road conditions would slope downward in grade after having been mostly uphill or random people would cheer us on by the road side or beep their horns in support. The simple random act of these encouraging sounds really impacted all of us and continually sustained us. On special occasions, when at my absolute limits, butterflies or ladybugs would land on my arms or legs; my heart would immediately swell up and tears would quietly stream behind the privacy and protection of my dark sunglasses, quickly evaporating as they trickled down to my sun-kissed cheeks, allowing them to be unbeknownst to anyone. (If you are not familiar with the symbolic interpretation of when a butterflies lands on you click here and for ladybugs click here). The emotional roller coaster of highs and lows was constant throughout the journey; there was never a day that tears were not shed or large smiles had. Through it all I pushed, because this was exactly what I had signed up for and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The frequent change of emotions help me to truly appreciate all the complexities in life and to taste the sweeter side of life all the more.

Furthermore, I used to consider myself a fairly tenacious person requiring little to no outside motivation, especially when it came to academic/professional pursuits (especially obtaining my PhD). However, for the first time in my life, I finally know how it feels to need the support of others to get through a difficult ordeal and it will forever deepen my sense to support others in their endeavors. Experience is often a wonderful yet painful teacher, which helps one truly understand and empathize with the concepts that we always knew and valued from the theoretical sense. Just like when we were children we did not always heed our parents advice and we ended up learning it the hard way.

Over looking Crater Lake, Oregon

On living too small: It is commonly said that “human beings are creatures of habit” and it is often easy for us to fall victim to our habits as we become entrenched in our daily grind. Thus, at times, we all have a tendency to live smaller than we are meant to live. We spend our time toiling for the next exam, promotion, deadline, paper, project, or idea. While this laser focus is often required to complete the task at hand, we must remember to take time, stop, breath, and enjoy the journey as much as the projected destination. It is incredibly rewarding to make one’s dreams a reality; however, these dreams will always be bars that are persistently increasing and changing. Once one goal is realized there will always be another bar to set and achieve. This is great as it constantly drives us, but to lose one’s self in the pursuit as we are constantly tweaking and “trying to control” all the factors in life to get us through or to that next level, we end up unintentionally limiting our view of the world. It happens so gradually that we are often unaware that it has occurred and family, friends, or new situations (which are more often unpleasant than not) help shake things up for us and provide us with opportunities to expand our view of the world if we so choose.

Being Snoopy from the Peanuts comics on the way to Boise, ID (Day53)

Eureka! B-Landry-ness!: On a final note, to be honest, being more than 10 years senior than every rider on the team was quite a concern for me. Could I physically keep up with them? Would I be able to relate to them or would I be the odd man out? As the ride progressed and I became affectionately referred to as “Papa Blake”, many of my fears were mitigated. Being with this lively, intelligent, high-spirited, heart-felt, and dedicated group of younger people in conjunction with hearing countless stories from those impacted by cancer helped me to renew my inner-self, my “B-Landry-ness” (for lack of better wording). As previously mentioned, my perspective on life had narrowed. I am grateful for ALL the feelings of this year-long emotional roller coaster, and would not have wanted it any other way. The pain and heartache felt allowed the joyful times to be that much sweeter. Despite the enormous amount of pain and suffering we encountered, it seems that we always encountered more joy, inspiration, encouragement, and hope than I ever expected. Having a cancer diagnosis is extremely difficult but I was always blown away about how the proper perspective in conjunction with key prior experiences (either personal or learned via others) allowed people to make lemonade out of life’s lemons.

The one thing that I have learned is that no one is immune from life; we are all fighting our own internal struggles, whatever it maybe. The barista who always seems to be smiling while taking orders and serving coffee, to even your closest friends who seem to have the perfect life. The key is to open up to those that truly care about you and let them help you share the load. While it is often very difficult for us to be open and vulnerable to the people closest to us, the need of feeling connected to others is a fundamental human trait that we should not fight especially in difficult times when we need support more than ever. May the portraits that the team collected this year be a constant reminder that one is not alone during these difficult times, and may the interviews serve to help inspire, comfort, and provide wisdom to those that are in need of a little direction (which we all need at some point). Remember that this journey of 4489.6 miles began with a single pedal stroke despite the end being ever so distant and impossible to achieve. While we do not get to choose the hand we are dealt, we can control how we play the hand, and that can make all the difference in someone else’s world as well as in your own world.

Sincerely,

Blake

P.S. Just because the 2014 ride has ended, I want everyone to know that I am still continuing to “fight cancer on two wheels” as a member of the Portraits Project committee. This academic year I will be helping to process all the videos we collected on the ride and get the edited versions on the www.portraitsproject.org website to be shared with the world. Also, if you would like to share your story or know of someone that would like to share a story or provide words of wisdom, advice, comments, inspiration, or encouragement, I (or anyone on the team) would be honored to listen regardless if it is recorded or not.

In the near future, I will be sending out links to some of the unedited videos. If they resonate with you please let met me know.

 

 

Day 71 arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA

About to dip the front tires in the Pacific Ocean at Baker Beach

Hoisting up the bike after 4489.6 miles
 

 

Comments (2)
  • aknicker Alex Knicker says:

    Awesome awesome post Blake. Glad you posted this – it was nice to read back awhile after the ride ended.

  • Pat Stuntz says:

    Blake,
    WE LOVED READING YOUR REFLECTION, especially on living to small. We all fall victim to that and need to be reminded that life is a journey and we should do our best to enjoy the ride. You have been a great inspiration!! THANK YOU for doing your part for cancer research, and thank you for allowing us to be a part of your amazing summer!!
    Love,
    Pat and Pete :)

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