Friday, February 1, 2013


Easily intimidated are not the first words that people think of to describe me.  And yet that's how I felt when I saw all the expensive bikes and riders who were dressed like they were competing in the Tour de France.  Was I crazy to have signed up for a 100 mile fundraising bike ride?   I considered backing out, but quitter is also not a word people use to describe me,  so I unloaded my bike from the car and tried to blend in.  

That's when I saw this big fat guy.  I figured if this fellow can ride a bike 100 miles, then I can too.     He was heavy set like a wrestler, not lean and sinewy like a cyclist.   He wore a pair of loose fitting mountain bike pants over his tight spandex shorts, and his jersey fit snugly around his pudgy midsection.   When he said howdy, you could hear a slight Texas drawl in his voice.  He was sitting on the back of his big black truck with a decal that said "Team Marie!".   Even though he looked like a couch potato, it was obvious to me that he was no stranger to this cycling scene.  He called a few of the coaches by their first name and hugged several women riders, whom he endearingly referred to as his cyclin' sistas.     He introduced himself as John Garza.

 We were training for a bike ride that was one of the many nation-wide benefit events organized by Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) to raise money for blood cancer research.  In order to participate in the 100 mile Team in Training ride, as it is called, I had to raise a minimum of $3000, and we were encouraged to raise more.   People sign up to do this endurance ride for many reasons.   For some it's the camaraderie and the challenge.  For others it's because they want to honor someone they know, who either had leukemia or lymphoma, or memorialize someone who died.   I was impressed with the riders who were survivors themselves,  either cured or in remission,  but the honorees, people who didn't ride but were an important part of the collective effort, were the most touching.   After you hear someone describe what it's like to have blood cancer,  you know why you are out there busting your butt and asking people for money.   It is definitely for a worthy cause.   I had two reasons for signing up.  First, I knew someone who had lymphoma, and second,  I had paid good money to do a 1500 mile bike trip,  and thought that Team in Training would be a good way to prepare for that epic ride.

We were divided into teams based on our riding pace, so we could bond  and ride single file in peloton style.  I was put on the same team with John Garza, and together we rode every Saturday for months,  building up our mileage week after week until we were physically and psychologically strong enough to ride 100 miles.    The commitment to train and complete the ride takes a lot of self discipline, and asking people for money is scary. Some people raise money by having garage sales, wine tastings, and car washes.   One rider reached her goal by selling expensive chocolate milk, a great recovery drink, after every training ride.  As a retired professional fundraiser, my technique was simple  -- develop a long list of potential donors, write a compelling letter, and keep your fingers crossed.

Riding in a peloton is something you have to learn.  Basically, you ride single file, at roughly the same rpm as your teammates.  After a half mile or so of riding in the front, where you take the brunt of the headwind,  you shift positions and go to the back of the line, and eventually you are up front again, setting the pace, and blocking the wind.  It takes some getting used to.  You don't want to ride so close that you clip the tire of the bike in front of you and crash, but you want to ride close enough to take advantage of drafting the person who is resisting the wind. 

Claudia, John and Elizabeth

While riding peloton style, John and I followed each other often, some times making small talk, other times encouraging each other to keep the pace, or just remaining silent while listening to each other's heavy breathing sounds.  During that time he told me a few things about himself.  He and his second wife Claudia had a blended family of eight,  and if that wasn't enough, they adopted a baby girl when she was a year old and named her Elizabeth.   Both of them worked in Silicon Valley's high tech, John in a busy day job, and Claudia doing the grave yard shift.  They loved their family life together, despite the long hours apart.  They liked to work hard.    

I noticed that attached to the back of John's bike seat was a large round pin with a picture of a pretty girl with long dark hair and wearing glasses.  The words  "Team Marie!" were printed on the bottom of the pin, just like the decal on John's truck.    I wondered who she was. 

Finally, one Saturday while eating our lunch, I asked John,  "Who is Team Marie?"   I had a feeling that his answer would not have a happy ending.  "Marie was my daughter who died of leukemia in May, 2008.  She was 29 years old," he said.  "It broke my heart,  and Team Marie is named for her.  So we call ourselves "Team Marie!".

Not holding anything back, John continued with his story.   

"It was a Saturday.  My wife Claudia and I were at a wedding when we received a call to say that my daughter Marie had collapsed and had been rushed to a nearby hospital.   When we saw her, she seemed fine.  She looked normal and appeared in good spirits.  The next day was Sunday, and her hospital room was filled with her friends and our family.  She was very popular.  Had a lot of friends.  With optimism and hope in her voice,  she told us not to worry, that she was going to be okay.   The doctors, on the other hand, were not so sure.    Her platelet count was drastically low, so they did a bone marrow biopsy in the afternoon.   The next morning,  Monday,  I received a call at work and was told that Marie had leukemia.   I stayed in the meeting for another hour or so to let the disturbing news sink in.   I guess I was in shock.  Marie had always been so important to us.   I just couldn't quite grasp that she had a terrible disease, and we might lose her.  When I got to her bedside, my emotions took over.  I tried so hard to be in control.  I didn't want her to see my tears.  One of the things I will never forget are Marie's words,   Remember, Dad, there's no crying in baseball.    I put my forehead next to hers,  but just couldn't hold the tears back.   I cried so hard while she held me close.   I don't know exactly when it happened, but not long after I got there, Marie started  screaming in severe pain.  Doctors and nurses came rushing into the room, a crash cart was brought in,  everyone was in hysterics.  I remember the nurses wheeling Marie out of the room on a gurney.  A short time later we were informed that although they tried to restart her heart,  she didn't make it.  Her spleen had ruptured,  and the doctors couldn't save her.   Only two days after she collapsed, and on the same day she was diagnosed with leukemia,  our daughter Marie died.  We were devastated."

With emotion in his voice,  John told me more of his story, about how his faith and trust in God had been instrumental in supporting his grief, but also how his faith developed and grew as a result of Marie's death.   A few months after she died,  and with Marie's Bible in hand,  John and his 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth set out on a 10,500 mile road trip in his big black truck.  As they traveled, John faithfully read Marie's Bible every day and studied the passages she had highlighted, knowing that these words had been important to her.    This was the impetus behind John's transformation.  "The Holy Spirit awakened in me," he said.  "Her notes helped me to seek out God."   Upon his return home, he and Claudia moved from the Episcopal church they had been going to, and found solace and comfort in The Neighborhood Bible Church nearby.  

Until someone asked him to donate to their bike ride for a good cause,  John had never heard of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.   He felt this was a message from God,  that he was to get involved in LLS,  ride a bike, and share the experience of losing his first born so suddenly.  When he was younger and weighed 205 pounds,  John was a long-distance runner  and softball player on a team at work.   At 265,  running was not in the cards anymore, but he figured he could always ride a bike.  So in 2008 John signed up for a 100 mile fundraising bike ride in Palm Springs with LLS and Team in Training, although he had no idea what he was getting himself into.  

This blue collar newbie showed up at his first training meeting with an old heavy mountain bike he'd found in his garage and a cracked skateboard helmet one of his kids used to use.   While everyone else at the meeting was dressed in flashy spandex, John looked out of his element in his baggy basketball shorts, an oversized sweatshirt, and well-worn sneakers.  Coach Don told him his bike was okay,  but he definitely needed a new helmet.  He didn't say a word about John's clothes, although a couple of women cyclists who saw him said that his 70s look just wasn't gonna cut it.   Comments like that would have sent most people running, but John was undeterred.

For over a month he trained on the heavy bike and wore the same  baggy clothes, but he knew that he'd have trouble keeping up if he stayed with the mountain bike much longer.   The clothes were less of an issue.  On November 27, 2008,  his wife's birthday,  John got up his courage and asked Claudia if she would be willing to give him her birthday money so he could buy himself a decent bike.  Being the generous and loving wife that she is, Claudia didn't hesitate for a minute,  and within a few days John was riding a  Jamis aluminum bike with much better gears and proper geometry for a big guy his size.   Even with a lighter bike, the training was really, really tough.   His body had never worked so hard, even when he was a runner.   Despite epsom salt baths and his wife's daily massages,  John's legs ached and burned after ever ride.   The first week he rode 20 miles in one day and thought he was going to die, but he hung in there and stayed focused.  Within six weeks he was riding 50 miles.   Inspired by his Dad's commitment, John's younger son, Marie's brother Joseph, decided to ride with him, and together they trained and raised enough money to qualify for the Palm Springs event.    John credits Coach Don who was the senior coach, and Coach Ron,  John's individual team coach, for believing in him and helping him successfully complete the ride.  And even better, after hearing the heart-wrenching story about Marie,  Don and Ron agreed to call the cycling group,  Team Marie.  

Riding TNT in Moab
Completing a flat century ride in Palm Springs buoyed John's spirits and gave him the confidence to consider doing another event.  Since he wasn't sure he'd be able to raise the money again,  he signed up to be a non-fundraising mentor,  as well as a rider, and do a very hilly century ride in Moab Utah.    By the time he and I finished our training for Moab, John left me in the dust and moved up to a faster group.  He proudly finished the ride despite some serious knee issues, but after knee replacement surgery, those problems disappeared, and six weeks later he was riding his bike.   

With lots of high fives from all of his friends, John did two back-to-back centuries with a 200 mile bike ride from Seattle to Portland (STP) over two days and raised $3525 for LLS.   His new titanium knee held up like a champ.  

Pool training

Still committed to LLS and raising money under the banner of Team Marie,  John got bolder and signed up to do an Olympic length triathlon in Hawaii.   Swimming was not his strength, but after many hours of training in the pool, he successfully completed a .9 mile swim, a 25 mile bike ride,  a 6.2 mile run and raised $5430 for LLS.  After that event, he was on a roll, so he joined with Team in Training again and in 2010 ran the San Jose Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon.    Running 13 miles was so empowering that John signed up for other athletic events and raised funds for cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and diabetes.  He did the Sea Otter Classic fundraising bike ride in Monterey.  

In 2012 John reached for the moon and did the LLS Aqua- Bike event -- a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride, two of the three events in an Iron Man triathlon.    All of his friends were blown away by his dedication and determination.   Nothing was going to stop John now.   Teammates called him Diesel because he would climb hills like a diesel truck and cut through water like a diesel tugboat, both slow, steady and with power.    Team Marie was becoming well known and people were happy to donate to his cause.     


One day cycling Coach Jeff said to him, "John, I think you have what it takes to do all three events of a full Iron Man triathlon distance and not just two."  Jeff,  a burly guy like John, had successfully completed several Iron Man events, and Jeff  encouraged John by explaining how he could physically transform his body and lose 35 pounds.   John was flabbergasted when Jeff tossed out the full Iron Man idea, but quickly ruled out the possibility, saying that this was crazy and something he could never do.    He couldn't imagine swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and then running a 26.2 mile marathon   His response?  "No way, Jose."   John was happy riding centuries and running half marathons while raising money for LLS through Team Marie.  Even these endurance events were more than he ever imagined doing.   At the first cycling class to train for the Aqua-Bike event,  John noticed Jeff changing from his street shoes into his biking shoes and was absolutely stunned when he saw that Jeff was wearing a prosthetic device below his knee.  This meant that he swam, biked, and ran the Iron Man distance with a prosthetic leg.   "I had no idea," John said.  "The good Lord humbled me,  and the next day I decided to do all three events of the Napa Valley Iron Man for a total of 140.6 miles and not just swim and bike.   Next to burying Marie, this was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."  

Since he was working full time, he had to give up everything to train for the Iron Man.   Softball was pretty easy to quit.  Church was much harder, but he did it.   He and Claudia were like two ships passing in the night, but she and their daughter Elizabeth supported him fully.   It took him seven months of training every single day, and even on his one scheduled day of rest, he did something to keep his body moving.  At 52 years of age and weighing 250 pounds,  John swam 2.4 miles in two hours, biked 112 miles in eight and a half hours, and because his legs were close to giving out,  walked 26.2 miles in 9 hours.  "I started the event at 6:45 AM and came in DFL (dead f***ing last) at 2:15 AM, 19.5 hours later," John explained.   To this day he proudly shows off his 140.6 mile Total Iron Man decal which John stores in his Bible for safe keeping.

2013 Team Marie training on Mission Peak

This is not the end of John Garza's amazing story.   Just recently he  formed a new Team Marie involving  his wife Claudia, his 32 year-old daughter Sonia, his 16-year -old daughter Elizabeth, his sister-in-law Juanita and her daughter Rosana, who are all training to hike into and out of the Grand Canyon in one day.  The fundraising stakes are high.  Their goal is to raise $24,300 by May 18 of this year.    

No one in this family group has ever done anything athletic like this before, so they are a little nervous about what's ahead.   But having watched John tackle challenge after challenge and succeed,  they are also really excited.   They want their lives to change like his has.    Please click on the Team Marie Grand Canyon website for more information .

John's gung-ho enthusiasm and steadfast commitment have never wavered.  His goal is to complete all six LLS events with only one remaining,  which is cross country skiing.  Although John has never cross country skied in his life, he has learned never to say never.   

He admits he's far from perfect, but John says he's always striving to help make this a better world through helping others grow personally, spiritually, and gain strength physically.   With a strong passion for cycling, he hopes to be a cycling coach for LLS and Team in Training someday. 

And as we say at Team in Training  --  



  1. This man is truly an inspiration to me. I count it a privilege to know him as well as I do.

    Thanks for posting this - there are details here I wasn't aware of before!

  2. I, too, have had the honor and privilege of riding with John. He is all kinds of amazing!

    In addition to the Sea Otter Classic with Team in Training, we have ridden together for the Silicon Valley Tour de Cure for the American Diabetes Association, and his own event, the Team Marie Mt. Hamilton Challenge. We rode from his church in San Jose to the top of Mt. Hamilton--a metric century (100km ride) with about 5600' of elevation gain. At the top, he said a few words about his daughter and his favorite charities, which the event supports. Then we all grabbed handfuls of rose petals that were collected by his family and tossed them off the mountain top to the wind. It was one of the most beautiful tributes I can remember!

    Go John, Go Pam, and Go Team!

  3. What a great story and inspiration! Thank you for sharing and see you both at Tour de Cure. :)


  4. so well written Pam! Thanks for recounting much of this journey that I've walked with my friend. He is a great inspiration to many of us, a good friend and a true trophy of God's grace actively at work in his life!

  5. Wow...I am speachless. John is my dad and my rock. I know "Ria", is looking down at him crying tears of joy. she always knew her dad was capable of many great things. I love you PB and most of all proud to say that you're my dad! GO "TEAM MARIE!"

  6. When someone you love hurts, you hurt with them and when someone you love triumphs you also join them in their victory. I am proud to be friends with John and I draw great inspiration from who he is, what he does, and how he gives.

    Thank you for articulating it so well Pam.


  7. After reading this blog I'm speechless. I've known John for about 12 years now. He's always been a person to never quit even through three knee replacement surgeries he still persevered through it. Truley inspiration to those who have came across him. GO "TEAM MARIE" Great blog Pam you talked about him very well.