Maybe I'm greedy. Maybe I need to share. I collect heroes everywhere I go. In my mind I preserve their bright, shiny struggles and triumphs, their genius and heartbreaks, their brilliance and abandonment and most of all their resolve. This past September and October, I rode my hand-cycle from Seattle to San Diego in what we called the Who's Your Hero Tour to support my One Revolution Foundation. We intended to collect hero stories along the way. My personal hero collection didn't prepare me for most of the people we met. Most couldn't name a hero. Others asked for a few moments to come up with one. The experience rang hollow. My heroes light my way.
John Howard, who I joined for the Challenged Athletes Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge -- my last leg from San Francisco to San Diego -- was a hero in 1985, when I first read about his bicycle speed record of 152.2 miles an hour. I couldn't imagine how someone could go 152.2 m.p.h. on a bicycle. Now sixty-six with white hair that would make Christopher Lloyd jealous, very few cyclists of any age can stay on his wheel. He competed in three Olympics (1968, 1972 and 1976), set mountain biking standards and even won the Ironman Triathlon. He's a hero to many for his athletic feats, but became a personal hero after a conversation he and I had as we waited for our massages after the day's ride.
Celebrating his Ironman victory in Kona, he went to a yoga class. There, a yogi proclaimed him the least flexible athlete that she'd ever seen. Today, he credits that wake up call for his ability to maintain power and speed, even as the tick of the age clock has stolen almost a quarter of his VO2 max. Riders, who had tried to suck John's draft that week, marveled at his flat back, aerodynamic position -- a product of the stretching and core strength program he'd designed after that yoga session.
John's a hero to me because he transformed his body to slow that ticking age clock and maintain his speed. Reflecting on all the miles that he's ridden, and all the miles that he plans to ride, he said that when he dies, he won't be able to donate his organs because they'll be all used up. His comment reminded me of the Tom Robbin's quote my friend Brooke uses as a signature on the bottom of her emails.
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but, rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, (red) wine in the other, body, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, "WHOO HOO what a ride!"
- From Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
All used up -- that's a goal -- but none of us want the clock to stop ticking before we're ready. Bill Walton, the NBA Hall of Famer, and another rider on the Million Dollar Challenge, is a hero that I inherited from my father. My father loved the big redhead on John Wooden's UCLA basketball dynasty teams, and as the longhaired and bearded beacon of the 1970s in the NBA. He became my hero as the Sixth Man of the Year on the Boston Celtics Championship Team in 1986. At Bill's house, a shrine to the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bill's boys, we celebrated the end of the long ride. Amidst his collection of drums, many of which stood taller than me, and some wider than I ever plan to be, Bill said that he feels better at sixty than he can remember. Spine surgery, a new knee, and other orthopedic new parts had taken him from flat on his back for three years -- when he admits the pain pushed him to contemplate stopping the clock all together -- to riding his bike for hours and miles. He doesn't always start at the same time, but he always rides until the day's end.
His passion shows in the toothy-smiled, almost crazy look he gives me as he recounts his favorite, epic, solo, all-day-long journeys through Utah's Southern Desert. Not being able to help myself in the midst of the Grateful Dead paraphernalia, I ask if the plants have anything to say at the end of those rides -- sun-cracked lips, road grit sticking to teeth, eyeballs and any other moist surface dry. His response sounds straight from a Tom Robbins's novel: "No, it's the rocks. The rocks have a lot to say."
A friend once said: "Old sins cast long shadows." The torture we heap upon our bodies in the name of youthful exuberance, becomes chronic debilitation far earlier than we want. John and Bill are heroes because they have preserved the excitement of the journey by slowing the clock on their woes. Like the Japanese guy in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, they have created their own clocks, ones that don't judge chronological time as much as quality of life, and their clocks sound great.