Sports

Courage Classic: It’s more than just a long bike ride

By MIKE RADFORD

For the Mirror

A salty drop of sweat fell from my chin and splashed on my bare knee. I looked over at my friend, Doug Taylor, who was also sweating in the hot sun, beads of perspiration on his arms and shoulders glistening in the early afternoon sunlight.

We were riding up the steepest part of Snoqualmie Pass on the first leg of our three-day journey through the Cascades as participants in the Courage Classic Bicycle Ride, held to benefit the Mary Bridge Hospital Children’s Foundation.

As I watched my friend labor against the hill, I remembered back 40 years ago when we were ninth graders at Jerry Meeker Junior High School in Brown’s Point. We played football together and were part of the 1966 championship team, the only year in the history of the school that a football team went undefeated.

Doug was a huge part of our success. At 6-feet-2 and 190 pounds, he was a big, strong, and fast 15-year-old. I used to hate tackling him in practice. He’d always get the best of me. Sooner or later, I’d drag him down, but only after he carried me five or six yards. And every time he’d say, “Good job, Mike.”

He was that kind of guy — always supportive, always positive, always a team player. We had lost contact over the years, only recently renewing our childhood friendship. Funny how you can be apart for so long and pick up right where you left off. Shared experiences from so long ago bound us together like brothers. And we were being bound together again, this time as 50-somethings, digging deep to see if we could face this physical challenge successfully.

In a way, Doug was carrying me again. He had made this ride the previous year and challenged me to do it with him this year. I figured if he could do it, so can I.

With each thrust of the pedals, I watched the pavement move slowly beneath our wheels. I thought more about Doug. I remembered when he ran a half-mile in 2:05. He ran it in old, worn-out track shoes with missing spikes. Even by today’s standards, that would be a very good time for a 15-year-old on a poorly-maintained cinder track. He also threw up afterwards. He had given it all in that race. He was like that.

My quads were burning now. My gloved hands holding on to the hot handlebars, were burning too. I glanced again over at Doug. I wondered how he was doing. It had to be difficult for him.

You see, Doug is a quadriplegic now, the result of a tragic industrial accident 26 years ago. Except he would never say that. Doug, who now lives in Gig Harbor, has said to me many times that it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He considers himself the luckiest man alive.

He was powering his three-wheel “cycle” with his arms, and I couldn’t imagine how hard that must be. The doctors said it was a miracle that he didn’t perish in the accident. They said he would never walk again or be able to use his arms. Ten years of rehabilitation and determination proved the doctors wrong.

His legs were now cradled in stirrups on his “hand-cycle.” His arms, though bent awkwardly from the paralysis, were operating a hand-crank that provided the power to his wheels through a series of linked chains. His shoulders must have been on fire.

I had promised him that I would ride “with” him. That meant going at his pace, being his rear guard for cars coming up the road behind us. It also meant helping him in and out of his “cycle”, getting his hands and feet situated correctly on his machine and taping his fingers to prevent blisters.

I felt like I was protecting royalty. This man, this old childhood friend, was showing us what “courage” was all about.

“Doug, are you doing alright?” I asked through my own labored breaths. “I’m doing great,” he said, his breathing also labored.

We would repeat that exchange several times over the next three days. Once in a while he’d toss in a “How about you?” My reply was always, “Just trying to keep up with you, my friend.”

About an hour later we stopped at the top. The sun was even hotter now. The smell of the mountain evergreens enveloped us in delicious, fresh air. He looked at me with his steely blue eyes, sweat pouring from beneath his helmet. So much life and vitality came from those piercing eyes. We listened for a moment to the singing of the wind through the fir needles. Doug then sighed. “Thanks buddy,” he said.

Two simple words...the look on his face and two simple words. Nothing could have meant more to me just then.

We finished our ride that day five hours later, the last two riders to report in at the checkpoint in Cle Elum.

Doug continued to inspire me and all the other 600 riders for the next two days, over Blewett Pass on Day Two and then Stevens Pass on Day Three.

He did it all under his own power. As I reflected on it when the ride was over, I just thought to myself, how incredibly remarkable. It was a wonderful gift to rediscover an old friend. It was an even greater gift to see firsthand how amazing we humans can be. Only one word came to mind to describe it — love. I felt so much love for Doug, as he showed us all how to love life.

Federal Way resident Mike Radford is riding again and hopes to see Doug at the top of the pass, greeting him and asking, “Are you doing alright?” Doug Taylor is taking this year off to heal an injury.

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