August 29, 2013/ Jim Parker
Maria left Kansas ahead of the remaining three women in the race, but looming ahead were 25 time stations spanning Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Word of her comeback spread to the other racers and crew in our vicinity, who celebrated having Maria back in contention. A very special meeting of Maria and Valerio Zamboni, a racer from Monaco, occurred just as we were leaving Jefferson City, Missouri. Maria first met Valerio a few months earlier in Alabama at the Heart of the South 500 race. Despite the differences in nationality and language, they had an instant kinship as long-distance cyclists with a boisterous joie de vivre. Near dawn and about to cross a bridge over the Missouri River, they momentarily stopped their race for hugs and kisses; and Valerio, a RAAM veteran, said something to Maria, in his deep Monacan accent, that we would frequently quote for the rest of the race: “You will cry many times, but you will finish.”
The tears were, indeed, coming more frequently now. My crew’s job of getting Maria awake and back on the bike every morning was getting more and more difficult. The sleep deprivation and endless roads with frightening traffic was taking its toll on Maria physically, mentally, and emotionally.
As she approached TS 40 in Greensburg, Indiana, she was 10 hours ahead of the nearest woman. She was also very discouraged. She had stopped at a grassy spot in front of a CVS pharmacy. Her crew pulled over and gathered around her, offering her food and encouragement. Ted Barnett showed her the book with the climbing profiles of the next few hundred miles but the coming terrain was irrelevant in her current state of mind. She had come 2,300 miles across baking deserts and vast mountain ranges, but this was the lowest her crew had seen her… worse than the nausea when her gut rejected all food, worse than the trauma of the accident in Tuba City, and worse than acute bronchitis after inhaling dust and forest fire smoke.
Ted and Tom console Maria and work on getting her back on the road.
Carly had an idea. She posted the following on Facebook; “Maria is having a very hard day today. She told us every time she checks her mileage she’s gone less than she thinks. She is mentally exhausted. Comment with words of encouragement for us to read to her tonight.”
They didn’t have to wait that long. Within minutes, scores of supportive messages poured in. Inside Maria’s helmet were earphones and a microphone that were part of a new Bluetooth device called a Cardo BK-1 that made talking to Maria from the follow vehicle as easy as if she was sitting in the seat next to us. Back on the road, Carly began reading from the torrent of love and support flowing through Facebook. Maria went from her lowest point in the race to feeling the power of love from friends and fans around the world. That night as she was passing through Indiana on a quiet farm road, she crossed a vast field of fireflies. Thousands of phosphorescing points of light, floating, soaring, and swirling all around her left her giddy with joy and awe. One of nature’s most sublime light shows and the words of hope streaming through her headset left no doubt that God was near and listening.
When the crews changed shifts, we would discuss what problems our racer was facing, and try to help the next crew deal with the problems as effectively as possible. Every crew quickly learned of the power of the words coming to Maria from all over the world, via Facebook, and read aloud through the Cardo system. Whenever Maria’s spirits seemed to sink or she was climbing a particularly painful hill, we would read comments like these to her:
* You are an amazing woman,Maria and an inspiration to women across the world of all ages to go for their dreams to dream big and to see the goal and cross the finish line! You can do this! I believe in you and so does everyone else across the world that is hearing your story of love! You look beautiful doing it too!! Much love dear friend!
* You are such an inspiration and have thousands of followers & admirers, in awe of your perseverance, stamina & accomplishments!! Praying for strength for you to keep on pedaling as we know you will!! Believe as so many believe in you!!
* You are one of the few in the whole world who can do this!!! Keep strong and know there are so many people with you in spirit, not just who you see around you. I know there is an angel riding with you along with our prayers!!!
* You are an inspiration to moms, sisters, cyclists, and providers the world over – especially because YOUR mileage counts double. What an astounding gift to share with us all – living vicariously through your incomprehensible success; mile by mile. Go Maria Go!!
* Dear Maria, from half way around the planet in Australia there are many cyclists, cancer patients, families of such that are following you across the US. Your courage is inspirational and I know you can do this. Turn your pains and emotions into aggression, grit your teeth and finish this beast. Our thoughts and wishes of strength are with you.
* Maria, we (my husband and I) don’t know you, but we know Jenny and have been so encouraged by your journey of a tough physical trial in honor of Jen’s physical trial. You are an example of Christ’s love and an amazing inspiration as you go the extra mile (no pun intended, well maybe a little) to make a difference. Praying for you.
* Like Dory says “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” I think that you are amazing. As the daughter of a mother who succumbed to cancer at the age of 36, and as the mother of a 4 year who just completed a year of treatment for Rhabdomyosarcoma, I can say with confidence that it is because of people like you, that one day there will be a cure for carcer. YOU ROCK!!!!!
The fan support didn’t only come through email and Facebook. More and more people drove to meet Maria along the course. They carried signs, took photographs, had Maria sign autographs, and shouted words of encouragement. Some brought food for the crew, which was a refreshing change from McDonalds and Subway. We welcomed their presence and Maria seemed to draw energy from her fans. Whenever possible, she stopped to thank people for supporting her and her fight against brain cancer.
Fans near St. Louis, MO.
My last follow shift of RAAM started after midnight in Bridgeport, West Virginia. I stood by the side of a road at the top of a hill in the small city, waiting for Maria to arrive. My crew mates, Peter and Genevieve were waiting in the nearby low-budget hotel, which was full of construction workers engaged on a nearby highway project. When I finally spotted Maria and the Chevy Suburban following her, I called Ted on the cell and pointed out the hotel. Ted spotted me easily in his headlights because my jacket was covered with 3M reflective tape. Ted, in turn, directed Maria to the hotel while I ran over to meet them. We had a lot to do, and we all had a feeling that tomorrow, the penultimate day of the race, was going to be one of the toughest days of Maria’s life.
Ted and his crew mates, Will and Carly, took our vehicle, and left us the Suburban. They drove off, planning to get about 150 miles down range before getting some sleep. Peter and I fed Maria a milkshake and two cheeseburgers that we bought at a McDonalds five minutes before it closed for the night. Genevieve helped get Maria showered and in bed for a few hours of sleep. From Maria’s point of view, she had hardly closed her eyes when we woke her up before dawn to get ready to ride again. Coffee and a granola bar for breakfast, while Genevieve brushed her hair and applied sunscreen.
It took approximately an hour longer than usual to get Maria started on her way to the next time station in Grafton, West Virginia. She arrived at 7:30 AM, having climbed more than 5000 feet in the previous 65 miles, accomplished mostly during the preceding night. Ahead of her this morning lay the toughest time station segment in all of RAAM, a 70 mile section to Keyser, WV with more than 6800 feet of climbing and 7100 feet of descending. My crew was almost finished with our shift, which normally ended at 8:00 AM. Then Maria made a special request: “I want you all to stay with me until the next time station.”
At this point in the race, we really could not turn down any reasonable request from Maria, so we let the other crews know that were staying on duty until Keyser.
What followed was our witness to a spectacular series of seemingly relentless climbs punctuated with dizzying descents. We read her many emails and Facebook messages from both friends and strangers as she crossed over Backbone Mountain and other ridges in the Allegheny Mountains.
Many of the notes were highly spiritual/religious, and for what Maria was going through, seemed very appropriate. This one from P.G. quoted The Bible, Mark 11: 23-24, and was one of my favorites: “Whosoever shall say to this mountain ‘be thou removed’ and does not doubt in his heart that it will be done, he shall have what he says.” Speak to the mountain, Maria...this too shall pass.
And Maria spoke to the mountains and they were removed. They would rise up in front of her and before long, they were falling away behind her. As the mountains moved we read her another message from a woman far away:
Maria, thank you for riding for a cure. We have a 12 year old daughter that was diagnosed with stage 4 medulloblastoma, an aggressive childhood brain cancer. She has been through very aggressive treatment to try to save her life. She had to re-learn to talk and walk. She had nausea and vomiting for over 1 year. Initially they gave her a 30% chance for survival. Due to good response to treatment then now say 70% chance of survival. Thanks to people like you, pushing for a cure brain cancer kiddos have hope. As recently as 1980’s mortality was 100%. You are awesome. Thank you so much for your sacrifice. You are helping many people to have a chance at life.
As Maria pedaled ahead of us, she said, I’m crying now, and I can’t see the road. We replied, laughing and crying at the same time, “we are too, and we can’t see it, either.”
There were so many heartfelt and emotional messages coming in that it was overwhelming, a miracle of love brought by modern cellular technology.
We arrived at the Keyser, West Virginia time station, a Walmart, a few minutes before 3:00 PM, and seven hours beyond the normal end of our shift. Maria collapsed onto a bedroll on a grassy spot by the parking lot. We poked some macaroni and cheese in her mouth and she went to sleep for about 30 minutes.
When she awoke, we watched her take off, followed by the next crew (Tom, J.C., and Jonathon) to begin the last 245 miles of the race, knowing that our follow-crew duties for RAAM were now over. We were exhausted as we headed for Annapolis to get some sleep before the finish. The other two crews still had difficult shifts, that would take them through a long night, the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, and up the steepest hills of the entire RAAM course, which surprisingly occur in Maryland.
The rain came and went the afternoon Maria crossed the finish line. In nearly 12 days of racing, severe thunder and hail storms had raged nearby, or passed overhead while she was sleeping, but never had a raindrop touched her body.
In Annapolis she was met not only by rain, but all four of her children, her parents, her entire crew, and many friends who made the trip to support her during the final miles. Maria said it was the happiest moment of her life.
At the award ceremony that evening she received the Seana Hogan Award for the fastest female, the Rookie of the Year Award, the Queen of the Prairies Award, and the Trane “Unstoppable” Award.
Only one of the four other women who started the race, was able to finish; Cassie Schumaker would arrive the next day. Despite the accident that took her off the bike for nearly 24 hours, Maria had done the impossible, in what RAAM officials called the greatest comeback in RAAM’s 32-year history. She also set the record for women over 50 and was the first woman over 50 to be the first female finisher.
In the spirit of “Speak to the Mountain” Maria is carrying on her efforts to raise money for brain cancer research. Brain cancer is, indeed, a big mountain that takes many lives, young and old, every year. Help us remove this mountain into the sea by supporting 3000 MIles to a Cure.
Mark 11:23-24 (King James Version)
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.