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.
|Riding TNT in Moab|
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.
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.
|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 --
GO TEAM and GO TEAM MARIE!