By Linda “Punky” Shak
We stood in the Sports Basement parking lot nervously introducing ourselves to one another. Those nerves were in part because we were all strangers and partly because we were apprehensive about what the next two days had in store—an 80-mile bike ride from Chrissy Field in San Francisco to Point Reyes and back.
Although most of us had never met before, there was an instant connection among the group. The two things we had in common: we were all young cancer survivors in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, and we were all connected through First Descents (FD), a non-profit organization that provides life-changing, outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer.
FD’s signature program is a free, weeklong experience where participants get to choose to either whitewater kayak, surf, or rock climb in some of the most beautiful locations in the U.S. When participants return home from a transformative week in nature, we are able to keep the FD magic going by connecting to a local FD adventure community where we can continue to take on physical challenges, experience the great outdoors, and connect with other cancer survivors.
This bike ride with Sports Basement was an opportunity for us to do all those things. We did a round of introductions where we all introduced ourselves by our First Descents names—because with First Descents you get to shed your boring everyday name like “Sarah” or “Phil” or “Sue” and spend the weekend as “Surf Apple” or “Bacon” or “Tsunami”. And after getting fitted for bikes, loading up on snacks, and some encouraging words from our fearless Sports Basement leaders, we set off on our bikes.
As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and began to descend into Sausalito, our nerves started to dissipate as we got more confident on our bikes and more comfortable with each other. We pedaled our hearts outs, taking in the beauty of Marin County as we rode. The next two days were filled with swapping stories about surgeries and chemo and cancer, but also sharing about families and jobs and hopes for the future. We cheered one another on. We donned superhero costumes and tutus. We broke into spontaneous dance parties on the side of the road. We ate s’mores around a campfire and shared our “roses” and “thorns” (highs and lows) of the day.
Throughout the whole weekend, our Sports Basement guides, whom we lovingly bestowed with First Descents names, were so supportive and patient. “9 to 5” loaded bikes into the SAG wagon when people need a break and cheered us on as we conquered challenging hills in the sweltering heat. “Renaissance Man” prepared the most delicious meals for us and had ice cold beverages waiting for us at rest steps. “Butterdrops”, “Captain Denim”, and “Golden Spice” rode alongside us, encouraging us as we rode, and listening to us as we shared stories about the health challenges we’ve faced and the everpresent anxieties and fears that come with being a young person impacted by cancer. The whole Sports Basement team supported us every step of the way on this two-day journey.
On the last day, it was time to climb one of our last hills of the ride. I was tired and sore and hot. As I slowly made my way up the hill, I realized that the road is just one big metaphor for life. On the road, just like in life, there are huge mountains we need to climb. We have to stay present. And remind ourselves that we are stronger than we think we are. And when those hills seem insurmountable, you breathe, you stay calm, you look in the direction you want to head, and you keep pedaling. As top of the hill came into sight, I could see my new First Descents friends and our Sports Basement guides standing at the top cheering me on, I smiled, took a deep breath, and kept pedaling.
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