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Letter from the Hardest Day of Chefs Cycle

After the second day of Chefs Cycle we stayed at a Days Inn near the water in Morro Bay. The parking lot had been transformed into a staging ground for an army of cyclists who just had one of the hardest days of their lives. Travis Flood, a chef who rode, summoned the energy to cook dinner for the rest of us in a makeshift tented kitchen with massive black iron grills. Eight massage therapists leaning over tables worked on the sore or injured. 


We’d pedaled just under 200 miles in 2 days and with one more day to go.  The first day from Carmel to King City took us through the Salinas valley. We saw what John Steinbeck saw: the back breaking nature of the manual labor that harvests the food we so enjoy. “These migrants are more American than half the politicians in Washington” one rider said to me.


Restaurateur Christopher Myers and I compared notes on what we’d witnessed: Dozens of bikers who couldn’t go on but wouldn’t quit, pedaling so slowly up steep hills that from a distance it looked as if they had stopped and got off their bikes. The quadriceps of some cramped and were hard as stone. One sat silently against a tree with ice bags on her knees.  Those who overheated poured ice over their head to lower the temperature of their body’s core. As the heat intensified, a silence descending on the ride.  Riders stopped for water every 3-4 miles, sometimes knocking on farmhouse doors, in addition to the official water stops every 25 miles.  The day before, Ellen Bennett crashed and needed 21 stitches in her hand. The next day it would be Allan Ng, who broke his collarbone and will have surgery this week. “It was carnage,” Christopher said, his eyes wide, “Carnage!”  


Temperatures hit 106 degrees that day and there was no shade to be found. I had less than 15 miles to go, one-third of it a steep mountain pass. I wanted to finish, having completed every leg last year and having trained more this time around.  But the heat overhead and off of the asphalt had sapped my energy and along with it some of my spirit. I feared what stopping would do to my confidence on the third and last day. But I feared going on as well.


Near the crest of what would be my last hill of the day I saw a lone orange jersey near the top, a biker straddling his bike with both feet on the ground,  head down and resting on his folded arms across the handle bars. He was as still as a statute.  I pulled alongside. “Are you okay?” He lifted his head slowly. It took a moment for his eyes to focus.  He didn’t say anything but didn’t have to. “Let’s just walk for a little while” I said softly.  After 15 minutes a support car pulled up. We loaded our bikes on the back and got in.


Does it seem inconsistent if not insane to say that almost all of us look back on it as exhilaratingly fun? Is that the nature of resilience or simply time’s passage?  At dinner, several chefs said Share Our Strength had become their doorway to the healthier lifestyle they wanted to create for themselves but never knew how. If they could get healthier they could help their customers do so too, as well as the hungry kids we seek to serve.

The entire experience was “sharing strength”, up to and including unforgettable images of one rider after another struggling up a steep mountain pass with another stronger rider on each side of him/her, one of their hands on the small of his back gently lifting him forward even as they struggled one handed to pedal themselves up the rest of the way.


As challenging as is the ride, what we do every day at Share Our Strength and Community Wealth Partners is even harder: insisting on transformational rather than incremental change, maximizing impact for every child, designing new ways for individuals and businesses to share their strength, maintaining our commitment to innovation and accountability, all while knowing that the cathedral we are building may not be finished in our lifetime.


I went to sleep on the evening of the second day saying to myself that I wasn’t riding again tomorrow. I would be a volunteer instead.  But when I woke up 6 hours later I couldn’t wait to get back on the bike.  Again there were steep hills. But temperatures were in the mere eighties.  I rode from start to finish as I had the first day. Even kept up with Tom Nelson (mostly). We exceeded $1 million raised. It was a glorious ride.   

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