By Eric Redard, Volunteer Services Manager
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Some tunnels just happen to be longer than others.” – Ada Adams
“Who would have thought that Connecticut could be so darn hilly!” I thought to myself as I pedaled into my 9th hour and 95th mile of the 1996 Boston to New York AIDS Ride. Volunteer workers at the last pit stop let riders know that the final 15 miles would be the hardest part of the whole ride. Three long, steep hills located just outside of Storrs, Conn. greeted those who wanted to go the distance. Being my first time participating in this ride, and wanting to finish the first 110-mile day, I continued to pedal.
I had done a lot of training leading up to this ride, and I was feeling confident as I headed toward the first hill. It helped that I wasn’t alone – that there were others who wanted to finish the day as well. I was happy to see them, since cycling is a social sport for me. I love the small talk during the flats, huffing and puffing up the hills, and this ride was no different. I had made many friends at the rest stops, stop lights and along those flats.
It was on this first hill that the heavy breathing and suffering began, at least for me. The hill was deceiving. Just when you thought you were at the top, you realized there was more hill ahead. Around every corner, more incline – up and up, and up. It was never-ending.
To say my legs felt a new level of discomfort at the top of the first hill would be an understatement. Even getting off the bike to stretch was just short of painful. It was better to just stay on the bike. On top of that hill, I realized I had two choices. I looked ahead and saw a downhill that eventually led to the finish. Behind me was also a downhill that led back to the rest stop, where I could get the sag wagon to bring me to the finish.
We all have these moments of decision in our lives, and perhaps we are going through one now. How do we make it to the daily finish line? How do we make it to the light at the end of the tunnel? Neither one of my choices was easy. If I chose to continue, I still had two very steep hills to climb, and I was already tired. If I chose the downhill back to the rest stop, I would have to live with the knowledge that I gave up.
As you might imagine, I continued toward the finish line. The second hill was harder than the first. Not only were my legs screaming at me, but now my lungs were burning from the heavy breathing and exertion. “Thank goodness I’m not alone,” was all I could think while resting on top of the second hill, trying to regain my breath. Somehow misery is more tolerable when you’re not alone.
These days, it’s not unusual to see signs announcing, “We are all in this together” in people’s yards, on billboards and in television commercials. Indeed, we are not alone. Yet when we are traveling in that tunnel, it’s dark and at times we only have strength to focus on ourselves, forgetting that there are people all around us, reaching out, willing to help. Sometimes we try to trick ourselves by providing our own light so we think the end is near. We forget that those who want to help have the same struggles and are working toward the tunnel’s same distant light.
As I rode over the top of the last hill, tears streamed down my face. Some of the tears resulted from surviving “the sufferfest” over the past 15 miles, but most came from a place of gratitude. You see, there were people on the hill, lining both sides of the street cheering, waving signs and yelling words of encouragement to all who had made it that far. There were even cyclists who were riding up and down the hill, multiple times, to ride alongside those who were struggling.
The amount of generosity and spirit that I felt was both encouraging and overwhelming at the same time. It brought light to my very dark tunnel and gave me the strength to eventually complete the 110-mile day.
That’s what community does. It provide sparks of light in the dark tunnel times of our lives, giving us strength, wisdom, companionship and encouragement to journey forward until we do reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
While we are required nowadays to be in community with one another while masked and 6 feet apart, we can still serve as that spark for someone – just in new ways. We have to because there are more hills ahead. While I remain hopeful, I think this will be a long tunnel.