A Story of the 2002 MS-150
By Ed Chasteen
Six flats and two blowouts in the two weeks leading up to the MS-150! I’ve gone years without a flat. I have had only one blowout in the previous 15 years. I once rode from Georgia to Oregon without a flat. Now from Liberty to Excelsior Springs and Lawson flats and blowouts are coming in bunches. Biscari Brother’s Bicycles to the rescue. I am practically a daily visitor. Dave Biscari drops whatever he is doing to get me immediately back on the road. By Thursday before the Saturday when the MS-150 is to begin, I have new tires and new tubes front and rear.
I’m thinking that Don Geilker’s Law of Short Intervals can not possibly apply. Don is Professor of Physics at William Jewell College where we were colleagues for 30 years. Don tells me that the most likely time for a rare event to occur is soon after it just happened. This makes no sense at all to my non-physics mind, but I believe everything Don says. Surely, though, six flats and two blowouts in 14 days has satisfied Don’s law. But when Katie’s letter comes, I wonder if some hidden and unwelcome message has just arrived. Katie is my wife’s sister’s daughter. She’s in the third grade in Humble, Texas. Katie’s class has read a story about a boy who had an accident. A bulletin board fell on him and mashed him really thin. Now he is being mailed around the country by all the students to friends and relatives who are instructed to take him places and send back reports telling of his travels. The little boy’s name is Flat Stanley.
So when I sit to fuel up on Chris Cakes at 6:45 Saturday morning, Flat Stanley is there with me. I’d left home about 5:30-291 to 210 to 435 to 71 to 155th Street. By 6:15 I have parked with hundreds of other cars in a field at Richards Gebaur. I’m rider number 16 this year. That number is stuck on the front of my helmet and pinned to the back of my shirt. It’s tied with twistees to my handlebars and to the tube. It’s on the yellow wristband I wear. That number announces that I was a top fundraiser last year and entitles me to start in the first wave of riders to leave.
I prefer to wait. My high school yearbook said that if the race between the hare and the tortoise were run, I would be the tortoise. My nickname back then was Speedy. (My classmates understood sarcasm.) By 7:30 the hares are off and I mosey up to the starting line and amble off. A cool breeze has me thinking that our hundred mile ride to Sedalia will be the awesome high that such days typically are for me. That Peculiar Optimists sign I see early in the ride endorses the euphoria I feel. Mark was to have met me for breakfast. We always plan to meet for breakfast. Last year it was the end of the day before we met. Neither of us ever worries when our early morning rendezvous fails to happen. We always make contact before the day is over.
It’s almost 11 when I get to Chillhowee. And the ride has taken on a different character. Heat and humidity have come uninvited to ride along with us, enveloping us all in their plastic sauna. I sit for long minutes at the rest stop. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watermellon and lots of water. Some to drink. Some to pour over my head. Without enthusiasm I climb back on my bike. From last year I’m remembering those roller coaster hills that rise and fall between Chillhowee and Leeton, where lunch is scheduled.
Most every Saturday for years in pleasant weather, Rich Groves and I have biked from our homes in Liberty to small towns 15 to 20 miles away for breakfast. Rich has no fondness for hills, so I never acknowledge their existence. I kid him and pretend not to notice. But, Rich, these are hills! It’s after one o’clock when I get to Leeton. I sit hollow-eyed at the table, too tired to eat or talk. No way I can ride 40 more miles to Sedalia. I’ll find the sag. My head is swimming. My legs are rubber. I had picked up some plastic wrapped food as I entered this school cafeteria. I manage to get the plastic off and mechanically eat.
I stagger outside to my bike. I lean against the wall holding up my bike. I’m weak. I want to rest. My water bottles are empty. I drag myself and my bike over to the water truck. I’ve just filled a bottle when Dave slaps me on the back. Dave Rich is a dentist in Lexington, a Jewell alum and an ardent biker. His joyous spirit buoys mine. He has just ridden in and hurries away to lunch.
I turn. And there’s Mark. He had gotten to breakfast at 7:30. “Things got hectic this morning,” he says. Mark’s booming laugh and boisterous presence give me a boost. And maybe my listless lunch is kicking in. I get on my bike. Dave and Mark boost my spirits, but there’s another reason I can’t quit. I have missed only one MS-150. That was the first one. I didn’t hear of it. Sixteen consecutive times now the weekend after Labor Day has drawn me to this ride: 2400 hundred MS-150 miles I’ve ridden; many thousands of dollars my friends have given in support of my rides. And I have never sagged. Not when my handlebars broke. Not when my gear cables broke. Not when I had a flat. I’m still thinking I’m too tired to make Sedalia. But I can turn those pedals one more time. Until I fall off and can’t get back on, I’m not beat.
Those monster hills are behind me now. The road out of Leeton for a few miles toward Windsor is not as flat as the one from Sinton to Corpus Christi in Texas where my mother lives, but it’s close. And drawing that favorable comparison puts my mind in a better frame.
Flat Stanley is safely folded in by billfold and riding in the bike bag behind my seat. Imagining that he can hear me and maybe even see the sign, I announce in a loud voice, “No, we can’t stop. We’ve had lunch. We’re gonna be late getting to Sedalia.” The sign says FLAT CREEK RESTAURANT. I see that sign after I’ve just ridden through Windsor. And after I’ve just stopped at the official rest stop and then at Casey’s General Store.
If Flat Stanley could smell, he might have gagged a few miles later when we come to two farm houses across the road from each other. I see a big sign in front of the house on the right that I assume refers to an industrial strength hog farm somewhere about. The sign reads:
HOUSE WON’T SELL
LIFE GONE TO – – – –
Several teenage boys stand in the road handing out Century Pins as we ride into Green Ridge. We’re still 10 miles short of a hundred, but every rider coming through Green Ridge has ridden the American century and not the metric century. The first is 100 miles; the second is 66. When we all reach Sedalia no one will know which century we rode. At every rest stop since lunch I’ve poured water over my head. Good Samaritans along the way have squirted me with water guns. Some have doused me with garden hoses. It’s seven o’clock by the time I ride into the State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. A few diehard greeters are still on duty to make me feel like Rocky. My longest and toughest first-day MS-150 is finally over. I’m too tired to feel good. Too tired to feel anything. Nine times today an ambulance came to aid riders: cramps, chest pains, exhaustion, dehydration.
Mark appears. Our usual accommodations with a friend are not available tonight. Mark has found an alternative. I have not. The MS headquarters building is air conditioned. They say we can sleep on the floor. I left my air mattress and sleeping bag in my car back at Richards Gebaur. Walking for me is never fun or easy. And I couldn’t ride my bike from my car to the truck carrying my sleeping gear. Anyway, I expected to find a place to stay. A major reason I make this ride every year is to see the other people who come. We talk at all the rest stops and along the way. A place for the night would come up in conversation. But I was too tired to ask.
The floor in the headquarters building is concrete. Nice and cool concrete. I can sleep here. I can sleep anywhere. But sleep won’t come. I move into the arena. Seat 12 in row N has no seat directly in front of it. I can stretch out my legs. I can never find a comfortable position. I doze. I look at my watch: 11:30, 1 AM, 2:30. By three o’clock Chris Cakes breakfast crew is setting up. Sunday morning has come early.
Friday evening in Lee’s Summit I turned in $3075.00 that friends had given to support my ride. My Sunday School class at Second Baptist Church in Liberty has pledged another $100.00, and I have promised to call them from the road at 10 o’clock as they meet in class. Julie Ahle will take my call on her cell phone. She will tell me who is in class and will relay my comments to them.
Friends like these dear ones and all of you to whom I’m sending this story keep coming to my mind. When thoughts of surrender overtake me, I think of you and from somewhere comes an irresistible reluctance to give in. I don’t think I would mind admitting failure to my friends if I thought it would reflect only on my weakness and inability, but I’m afraid you would also feel defeated. I long to inspire and encourage everyone. You do that for me. I want to do it for you.
It’s a little after five o’clock in the morning when I go to breakfast. Tables are set up on the floor of the arena as they were last night for dinner. Three pancakes and a glass of orange juice. Just like yesterday. By 5:30 I’m ready to go. Still dark. I’m midway back in the hundreds lined up for the seven o’clock start. My balance has never been good enough to drink from my bottle as I ride. I have to stop. Before long nearly everyone has passed me.
Usually after an hour on my bike, I’m in a zone for a while, and on these rides in the past I have made up lost ground from a slow start and I would call out loud “On your left” as I passed whole bunches of riders. Not today! Nothing aches. I don’t hurt. But I’m a zombie. I can’t muster any energy or enthusiasm. I stop many times to get a drink. To make notes. To look around. I keep telling myself to push it. But I’m not listening.
Out of Sedalia by a different route we make our way back to Green Ridge and on to Windsor en route to the high school in Knob Noster where we will shower and have lunch. Our bicycles will be loaded on trucks. We will get on buses and return to Richard Gabaur. As I approach Windsor I spot the back of the smell sign I saw yesterday. It reads:
PETTIS COUNTY FARMERS
HAVE RESPECTED THEIR
NEIGHBORS FOR 163 YEARS
FACTORY FARMS RESPECT NO ONE
I am standing beside this sign at 10 o’clock when I call Julie. The sign is to my left. To my right I can see the Katy Trail. Before the track was taken up it was a railroad. Now it’s a bike trail. Some of our riders are going that way for some of the trip. I prefer the highway. And just up the road I come to another intriguing sign. This one says Boyd’s Body Shop. As a one-time English teacher I’m fascinated by combinations of words. Surely there is a name for a combination like Boyd’s body, different words made by rearranging the same letters. If anyone reading this knows a name for this word play, I would be grateful if you would tell me.
No one has passed me for a while and when I come to Flat Creek Restaurant about 11 o’clock I ask Flat Stanley if he would like to stop. I can’t make out what he says, but he must be as eager as I am to go where it’s cool. I push my bike across the sparkling white gravel parking lot. One car sits in front of the building. I open the door into a brand new place. They just opened last Friday, the young woman waitress says. She smiles when I introduce her to Flat Stanley and tell her about Katie back in Humble. They’re still serving the breakfast buffet, but I tell her Stanley is not very hungry. She brings us a glass of orange juice and we sit for a time at the table. The parking lot as yet has no oil stains from leaky cars and no ruts from churning tires, giving the place a pristine look. While inviting, it also announces that no customers have come.
Back on the road. Still no rhythm to my ride. A man dressed as a clown takes my bike at the next rest stop and parks it beside the water truck. I’m unsteady on my feet as I approach the empty lawn chair beneath the canopy where watermelon and water await. “You have MS?” The clown asks. “I do,” I say. At my invitation another man blasts me with a water gun and gives me a power bar. I collapse into the chair. I notice I’m the only rider here. “Eleven point two miles from here. You want to sag in?” “No way. I’m riding.” I say this with an abruptness I don’t intend. That question has come several times today. My answer will always be the same.
Four or five miles down the road a pickup with a revolving light pulls up behind and follows me in, a distinction always accorded the last rider. A motorcycle policeman waits where I turn right onto Business 50. “Just over the hill,” he calls. Then a final turn to the right. I see the balloons and the cheering crowd. I’m dead last. And they’re cheering. When I cross the finish line they give me a medal.
I want a shower more than I need food. No one about. I have all the showers to myself. I turn on several. When I am finished, the cafeteria has closed. Two departing servers tell me the bus is waiting. Living for decades with MS I have discovered that if I ride, I can run. If I don’t, I can’t walk. Having just ridden 150 miles, I sprint to the bus, thinking they’re holding the last seat for me, maybe with room for Flat Stanley. To my complete surprise the bus is totally empty. The driver takes my panniers I have taken from my bicycle and stows them beneath the bus. I board and take a seat.
I’m writing this story in the 5.5 by 4 inch spiral notebook I’ve had with me on the ride. Taking notes along the way is one of the reasons I’ve finished last. After a few minutes the driver takes his place behind the wheel and we pull out. How many times does a last place finish earn a private bus ride home? “Just you and me, Stanley, on this 48 passenger bus. ” WOW!
The driver and I get well acquainted. For 38 years he drove 18-wheelers all across the U.S. and Canada. This is his third day as a bus driver. He and his wife have adopted their grand daughter. She’s now six. The daughter they had late is eleven. “The two of them act like sisters. Driving a bus, I can be home more for them,” he says.
When my private bus pulls into Richard Gebaur, I have no trouble spotting my car. Only one other one remains in the field where we parked. Sometimes when I have finished there have been hundreds of bikes just unloaded from the trucks. Today there are half a dozen. I see mine as I depart the bus. I attach my panniers and the bag behind my seat and pedal away to my car. Flat Stanley and I roll down the windows to let the hot air out and crank up the air conditioner.
Reversing the route that brought us here 33 hours ago, we are soon back in Liberty. Bobbie is away at a baby shower for a couple in our church. Flat Stanley and I collapse on the living room carpet. When Bobbie comes at five, we drive to the Pizza Hut to meet our daughter, Debbie, and grand daughter, Laura. This is grand parent’s day, and Laura has made a present for us. I had phoned our two sons from the bus. Now our daughter and grand daughter. And pizza. I may have finished last. But I won the grand prize.
And I had no flat. Flat Stanley and I escaped the law of short intervals. We found that the last can be first. A law that comes not from physics but from scripture.