One mile for every year I've been lucky enough to be on this planet. It sounded too perfect for me to pass up, which is why I signed up for the 52-mile Boca Raton ride in this past Saturday's DCC X. Even when the revised route stretched the distance to 53.5 miles less than a week out, nothing was going to deter this cancer fighter from honoring his original commitment.
Now, what you need to understand is that stubbornness has been an inherent trait of mine for as long as I can remember. So, despite the objections of my wife, Amy, and others only looking out for my personal well-being, I refused to switch to one of the shorter rides after my own bicycle broke in November and I was unable to train for three months leading up to the event.
The way I saw it was that if my 16-year-old son's friend and former hockey teammate, Cole Vaccarella, was going to have to weather another round of chemotherapy to treat the osteosarcoma in his shoulder just two days later, whatever pain I was going to endure would be minuscule in comparison. That was my mindset as the crisp chill of mid-40s temperatures greeted me in Lot 5 at FAU before sunrise in the shadows of the football stadium.
Never mind the fact that I didn't see the bike I would be riding courtesy of Mack Cycle and Fitness until less than an hour before I was to take my place in the back of the pack near the starting line. I showed up with my water bottles filled and a set of used pedals donated by Tropic Bike in Boca Raton that the on-site mechanic mounted onto my light-weight carbon bike. All the while my wife was whispering to me that it wasn't too late to ask to be transported down to Davie for the 17-mile ride.
"Sorry honey," I said through chattering teeth. "There's no turning back now. I'm going to suck it up and get this journey started right here, right now."
After some parting words of encouragement, Amy got back in the car and headed home. Shortly before the national anthem was played as a beautiful sunrise appeared over my right shoulder, I hustled to the luggage check table to check my backpack holding two extra water bottles per the advice of a fellow rider in order to lighten my load. Then we were off, and I stayed close to the rider marshals as we navigated our way east on Spanish River Boulevard towards the ocean.
There were two omens right off the bat not even three miles into the ride, the first having to do with the sticker on my bike frame that harbored the tracking chip being too lose and sliding back and forth, hitting my legs as I pedaled. I made it over the bridge and made the turn heading south on A1A and then pulled over to the side of the road, where one of the marshals helped me remove the sticker, folded it and placed it in the back pocket of my jersey.
These same two marshals came to my aid less than a half a mile later as I hadn't familiarized myself with how to change the gears on the bike and found myself in too high a gear. After a quick lesson on how to operate the levers on my handlebars, I settled into a decent rhythm and actually was averaging close to 15 miles-per-hour by the time I reached the first water stop at Hillsboro Inlet Park.
Five minutes after refueling with a half of a banana, two hard-boiled eggs, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and four cups of water, I headed back on the road for the next 13.5-mile stretch. Looking to my left on A1A in Fort Lauderdale as I approached Las Olas Boulevard, the blue Atlantic with the sun sparkling in the tiny waves was such a calming sight that the stinging pain in my thighs disappeared.
But as I made the right turn into the entrance to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and found myself struggling to pedal the one mile back to the water stop, the first doubts as to whether or not I could actually make it to the finish line began to creep into my head. I limped over to the water jug to hydrate and then grabbed some fruit and a couple more PB&J sandwiches, then placed a call to my son, who was walking our dog, to ask him to give me his best motivational speech.
Photos from the 10th annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge on February 29, 2020.
"Well Dad, I don't want you to hurt yourself and you've already made it almost 25 miles, so there's no shame in stopping," he said, sounding so much like the man he was named after, my late father, Barry Kent. "But if you think you can finish, you should try your best."
Those words hit me like a bolt of lightning, so after the kind ladies at the medical tent handed me a roll-on stick of BioFreeze to apply to my legs, I trudged on towards the third and final water stop at Dolphins camp, which was another 15 miles away. Just about halfway there, as I dismounted during a steep incline onto a I-595 overpass to walk my bike to the top, the voice in my head telling me to chalk it up as a valiant effort that needed to fall short grew louder.
One female rider, pedaling hard against the wind up the hill, shouted out to me, "You've got this!" Then, as I stretched my legs, drank some more water and assured the occupants of the official escort vehicle behind me that I'd be okay, I looked at the back of my helmet that I had removed to cool off and saw the sticker that I had placed in honor of Cole. "His fight is my fight," the words exclaimed next to the yellow ribbon with the initials "CV4" inside.
Yeah, sorry voice of reason, but I'm nowhere near finished yet. And about five miles down the highway, just before the turnoff onto Davie Road when my legs cramped up, another savior appeared in the form of a team member driving a truck with a bicycle trailer attached. He handed me a small bottle of pickle juice and promised that if I drank it, the cramps would go away. He wasn't lying.
I pulled into Dolphins camp just before 11:30, so almost four hours since the ride began, and sought out the aid of two massage therapists inside the University of Miami tent. They massaged my lower back and legs, declaring me ready for the final 17 miles, and as badly as I wanted to just hop in that official vehicle, hand off my bike to a volunteer and catch a ride to Hard Rock Stadium to be reunited with my family, I couldn't allow that to happen.
By this time I was informed that I indeed was the last Boca rider, and as I left the parking lot and headed west, I knew I was going to have to rely on the angels I had lost to cancer – my father, my Uncle Arthur Shimkin and my friend and former business partner, Samuel Chi, among others – to be the wind at my back the rest of the way. Their push got me first to Pine Island Road, then south to Taft Street and further west to Flamingo Road, where I made one last left turn to the south before the cramps returned and I had to pull over to the side yet again.
It was here where the moment of truth really arrived. I was just about to reach into the back pocket of my jersey to call my son, who was waiting with my wife at the finish line, and tell him that his father's legs were worn out and the tank was empty when my cell phone rang. It was my son, asking how close I was, and then I heard the escort vehicle pull up behind me and saw the driver stick up one hand to indicate that I had just five miles to go.
"Dad, we believe in you," the voice on the other end said. "You've made it this far, 48.5 miles. You can do it!"
My voice cracked and tears began to well up in my eyes, so I thanked my boy again, got back on my bike and pedaled harder than I had since the start. When I made the left turn onto Dan Marino Boulevard and was informed that I had less than two miles to go, I chose to ignore the cramps that were returning to both legs, cursing at them as I could see the familiar spires on top of the Hard Rock Stadium canopy in the distance.
One last stop mere yards away from the final turn into the stadium, ordered by the state trooper behind me that was escorting the lead group from the Hurricane Hundred ride, and then it was time to pick up my medal. The applause from the crowd as I approached the finish line pumped me up enough to be able to raise my right fist in the air before I crossed, and then I was greeted by a Special Teams volunteer, who draped the impressive medal around my neck.
Now my eyes scoured the crowd of family and friends behind the barriers trying to find my wife and son, and when I heard my son's voice and saw him waving his arm, I broke down. He trotted out to me and gave me a big hug, and for a brief moment I saw the younger face of that 6-year-old boy who had shouted those words, "Let's ride, Dad!" to me 10 years earlier at the end of the very first DCC. This time, not even my sunglasses could hide the tears, tears of joy and pain.
There was no rain this time – except for what was falling down my cheeks – but a beautiful blue sky filled with the hope that what I and the other close to 4,000 DCC participants had just accomplished would draw us even closer to beating cancer.