It was Friday evening, and the riders for the New York National EMS Memorial Bike Ride were trickling in. What first caught my eye were the fluorescent yellow shirts of the Muddy Angel Wingmen and women. It was the first time I had seen the shirts before, and honestly the design is pretty sweet.
This evening was dedicated to registering all the riders and giving us a chance to get acquainted. Dave Page, our vice president, spent the afternoon orientating new and old riders on the different aspects of the ride, along with some basic safety rules. We'd already had the discussion of someone saying "I'm just support" with the reply that nope, there is no "just". As anyone who has done the ride can tell you, the Wingmen are the heart and soul of the ride.
Despite some rain this evening and a chance of rain tomorrow, spirits were high and the group was excited to get on the road.
Saturday started off cool and breezy, with 57 riders showing up for the ride. We were still in "meet-n-greet" mode, getting further chance to get acquainted on the bus ride over to the Jacobi station. Once at Jacobi we received coffee, well wishes and a benediction from the Fire Department New York (FDNY) chaplain.
The team was led through the streets of New York by New York Police Department (NYPD) motorcycles and assisted by two motorcyclists from theAustin,Texas team. While I was originally curious as to how much the motorcyclists could help us, I quickly saw them used as "force multipliers" by the NYPD, taking over the blocking of intersections so that the police bikes could speed ahead to the next.
Our muscles warmed up quickly, as did the day. Although some people may get to seeTimes Square in their lifetime, few will ever see it on a bicycle under police escort. As such all of the riders -- especially the first-timers -- certainly enjoyed this combination first-leg/guided tour of the city.
The team finally wound up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where we boarded FDNY Marine 9 for a trip past the Statue of Liberty and the USS Intrepid toStaten Island. OnStaten Island, we were met by the FDNY EMS Pipes and Drums. They piped us back to shore, and we broke for lunch.
Rested and well-fed we were off once again, this time to Perth-Amboy, N.J. for a special ceremony thanking the team, but more importantly honoring fallen EMS providers. This included their own Joe Murawski. It's interesting so many people came out to thank us for what we do. Although we love the emotional support, we always like to reinforce that we aren't the ones who should be honored. I like to tell people that we're more like flashlight helping to illuminate the lives of those we've lost so that they are never forgotten.
It was a very moving ceremony that included Joe's family's presence and an excellent tribute from his brother, Ed. Kudos to all of the folks in Perth-Amboy because this would be the most well-attended tribute we would see all week.
After hearing the recollections of Joe's friends and family at Perth-Amboy, the team left with a huge lump in our throats but re-energized so the final miles toPlainsboro,N.J. passed by easily.
After what seemed like a short night, the team was up bright and early. Everyone seemed to be feeling the first day of riding in one form or another. But after some fruit, bagels and coffee, we were ready to hit the open road. It was another beautiful day for ridingÚwell, maybe a beautiful morning for riding is a better description, but more on that later.
Our first stop of the day was inBucks County,Pa., the site of the third plane lost during the 9/11 attacks. Bucks Country has a gorgeous memorial called theGarden ofReflection. It honors all lives lost in during 9/11 as well as being theirEMS memorial. Here we attended another very nice yet heart-wrenching memorial service that honored providers lost inBucksCounty. It included a reading of names by the student honor guard fromInversHillCommunity College. Once again, family was in attendance, and their tears were joined by those of the bike team members.
It seemed odd someone can feel profoundly sad and yet energized at the same moment, but as we're finding out, these ceremonies have just that effect.
After giving our best to the families, we were back on the road and en route to meet the Philadelphia Police Department, who would be escorting us into the City ofBrotherly Love. I've got to say that it's nice to these large cities without stopping for red lights and stop signs. We finally arrived inFranklin Square for snacks and a welcome from Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Ayers and Chief Butts.
There was another ceremony and memorial. Because of the emotional nature of each of the ceremonies we've attended, some of the riders have been heard to joke "I'm going to be a wreck by the time we hitRoanoke." True enough because these memorials aren't just because "it's the right thing to do," rather because these communities have lost friends or family. These aren't just speeches. You can FEEL that these folks miss those who have passed, are proud of the person's service and touched that they aren't forgotten. And all of the emotions come through loud and clear to everyone in attendance.
By the time the ceremony ended it had begun raining. Most of the riders decided to press on, but before long the light rain had become steady, quickly progressing to torrential. In order to ensure the safety of the riders the course was closed and the wet riders were rounded up and taken to the hotel so that they could clean up and get some food. Plenty of more riding is ahead, and we wanted to make sure everyone was able to ride intoRoanoke.
This was a great day of riding if not a little windy. OK, aLOT windy. The wind almost never got below 10 mph and was blowing 20-30 for most of the day. Toss in fairly regular 40-45 mph gusts and the fact that it was all head or cross wind, and you've got the ingredients for a hard day of riding. On the bright side, though, a windy day is a great way to impress upon less experienced riders the importance of learning to draft. All over the course we had experienced riders leading out for the newer ones and giving them pointers on conserving energy and riding efficiently.
One of the other nice things about this day was the route. The route coordinators did a fantastic job as usual. The roads were smooth and not heavily traveled, and great scenery abounded.
The big event for this day was inAnnapolis,Md. at the Maryland Fire-Rescue Memorial. Once again we received a warm reception and attended a powerful ceremony. After the memorial service, we received an unexpected surprise when our president, Jennifer Frenette was presented with aMaryland state flag that had flown over their Statehouse. Once again we were humbled and strengthened by the appreciation others had for our efforts.
We have experienced some setbacks. It was raining and we had to abort at least the morning portion of the ride. Weather problems were to be expected and at this point were the least of our problems.
We woke this morning to find that the windows of some of the support vehicles had been smashed, and items were stolen from the vehicles. Although you would think this would be demoralizing, it had the opposite effect. You see, we had a mission. We made a promise to honor those who died in the line of duty. We promised the families that their loved ones would NOT be forgotten. We promised all EMS providers that we would be relentless in our efforts to ensure EMS providers and their families are afforded the same protection as police and firefighters, and that proper attention is devoted to identifying and tracking safety and line of duty deaths inEMS.
So what happened from here? Simple, we rode on even more determined than ever. We fully intended to honor those promises and frankly, it would have taken a lot more than a petty thief to stop us.
When we arrived at the Capitol Heights Volunteer Fire Department, not only was the rain stopping but the media jumped on the story about us getting robbed. A local glass company, Royal Glass Co., stepped up and repaired the broken windows that morning free of charge! Monetary support came as well, with the overwhelming majority coming out ofNew Hampshire thanks to a lot of hard work from Bureau of EMS's Chief Suzanne Prentiss and her staff. Thank a lot to all who helped us out! The day that started with a setback is turning out to be one of progress!
At Capitol Heights FD, we attended a nice ceremony to honor Nadar Hammet, who was killed in December 2003. The department chaplain and Nadar's mother gave very moving speeches, and we were honored to have Nadar's brother, Faheen, ride with us and lead the team into the nation's capital.
In D.C. we got a nice little escort from D.C. police and Capitol Heights FD. As we rode in, the capital began to rise out of the horizon along with the many other historic buildings. We came to a stop at theUpper Senate Park to meet with representatives for Advocates for EMS announcing support for bill 3822 that would includeallEMS providers in the public safety officer death benefit program. Many of us paid a visit to our Senator's office to ask for their support for the bill.
From there, we had a stop atGeorgeWashingtonUniversity before making our way toManassas,Va. This portion of this day's ride gave us a nice taste of theVirginia hills. There would be plenty more where that came from in the days ahead.
This was the first day we didn't have any events or memorial services scheduled. We would be riding in touring format, which means riders can ride at their own pace. Touring is nice because it really gives the riders a chance to reflect on the reason each of them is riding and the people they're riding for.
The weather was great. However, we would once again be fighting a headwind blowing anywhere from 10-20 mph.
We had good road and I, as a three-time rider, was really appreciating the hard work of the route coordinators. They were fantastic. The first section of today's route seems to pass quickly and then it was on toSperryville,Va., which would be the staging point for our assault onSkyline Drive.
I personally found the trip to Sperryville to be very picturesque and relaxing. We encountered very little traffic on these roads, and it really gave me -- and I'm sure others -- a chance to clear my mind and enjoy some world-class cycling. There were lots of climbs and very few flat or downhill sections to recover. More than once I asked those who had passed to clear some lactic acid from my legs or at least do something about the wind.
Of course, these areEMS providers we're talking about. So I rather than give me a tail wind, they decided to chuckle and enjoying the show. Interestingly enough though when I arrived in Sperryville, I was informed that I had beaten the support team! They had actually helped somehow, but darn if I can figure out how.
Did I mention we're talking about EMSers? :)
Sperryville gave us a great spot to relax and refuel before the "real" climbing began. What!?! Hadn't we been climbing since about 7 that morning? According to these folks, apparently not. And we were about to learn just how right they were.
A right turn out of the station and the climb began. Every turn we took revealed yet another incline. And another. And another. When it was all said and done, the team had done 12 miles of climbing to the Skyland Resort at an elevation of 3,680 feet. Although this was a very beautiful ride, the climbing was extremely challenging from a physical and mental standpoint.
We woke this morning to find one of the vans had been broken into, and a lot of food was missing. However, this time the dirty work appeared to have been done by raccoons. At this point I was beginning to realize how much our fallen comrades enjoy pranks. We can do nothing but laugh -- we get the joke!
Undaunted, the team left Skyland early to begin the 107-mile trek toLexington. It was cool -- very cool -- and riders were bundled up for what we thought would be a long, rapid descent. If you knowSkyline Drive, you'll appreciate that parts of it seemed to have been designed by M.C. Esher. Our trip "down" included two climbs, approximately a mile each along with several shorter climbs. Huh? How does that work?
But eventually our hard work paid off, and we were able to enjoy a descent lasting several miles. The winding road with its banked corners and speeds of 40 mph and up made it an exhilarating ride. I was just praying that one of the numerous deer we had seen earlier that morning didn't run out in from of me. That wouldn't have been pretty!
We arrived in Elkton for a food fill up and to talk with the local media. Then it was off to the Shenandoah Airport for our lunch date with Air Care. The crew was called out on a mission, so we had to eat without them. We'd need all that fuel because the last leg of the day was 40 miles of rolling Virginia hills (which I personally love). But it included another 10-20 mph head wind (which I personally hateÚa lot!) The route was long and the riders very much spread out, but the Wingmen did their usual good job of keeping tabs and helping ensure the riders' safety.
The evening ended with the Fairfield Rescue Squad, who served us a fabulous fried chicken dinner with all the fixins! We also discussed plans for the next day. The group left fat and happy, as usual.
Our destination ofRoanoke was about 60 miles away, and the team was eager to get there but certainly not for this adventure to end. This year's group bonded quickly and tightly, and we knew it would be hard to say good-bye.
On Day 7, the riders woke to a beautifulVirginia morning. The sun was out and the air crisp. Spirits were high, and everyone was anxious to fulfill our mission, even if it meant that we would soon be parting ways.
The team had been through a lot this past week. We started behind the eight-ball when several people promising to help provide support failed to show. From there we had a support vehicle get struck by a drunk driver, ran into torrential rains out of Philly, were robbed inAnnapolis, had a support vehicle strike a bear and were raided by raccoons.
Through it all the riders kept riding, and the support team simply (or so it seemed) adapted and enabled us to continue. Personally, I viewed all these incidents as evidence of the fallen watching over us. After all, these are the same souls that, in their time on Earth, would put KY Jelly on door handles or flip switches so that the lights and sirens would blare as soon as you hit the battery switch. Just because they're no longer with us doesn't mean they don't still enjoy a good prank!
But if the first six days were filled with challenges from our celestial preceptors, then Day 7 was a gift from them -- a reward for all the group's effort and perseverance. The weather was stunningly perfect for a long-distance ride, with comfortable temperatures, smooth roads and none of the vicious head wind we had been fighting the past three days. It was also a gift for the families who would be in front of the Hotel Roanoke to greet us.
This was our "easy" day because we only had to ride about 65 miles with just a couple of long climbs. This included many hills. However, afterSkyline Drive, you find you have a whole new perspective on what constitutes a tough hill! We spent the morning enjoying the mild weather, rolling hills and great scenery. The first rest stop this day was at Natural Bridge Volunteer FD, followed by stops in Buchanan and Troutville.
By 2:30 p.m. all the N.Y. riders were inSalem, and a large number group of riders went out to meet the incomingKentucky riders. It was great seeing theKentucky riders cycling down the road. We exchanged congratulations and all went back to the Salem Rescue Squad.
At 1700 on the dot, the full Muddy Angels team began making its way toRoanoke.
It was impressive seeing the big blue train in all its glory rolling intoRoanoke. It was only nine miles to our destination. But it seemed like a much shorter ride as we talked and joked, and as our anticipation built.
When we turned the last corner and rolled into the reception area, the team was shocked by the size of the crowd on hand to greet us. They gave us warm reception and applause as the team rode into the turn-around a couple times before dropping their bikes. Tears were already flowing from bikers and guests as we congratulated each other and set off to find the family members we had ridden for. Nothing but NOTHING can describe the feeling of that day. Family members, friends and co-workers would thank us for riding and we would thank them for allowing us to honor their loved ones. Tears and hugs were the order of the day, and we tried to make the most of our time with the families before settling in and getting cleaned up.
One of the common questions we get from the people who greet us inRoanoke is, "Aren't you tired?" The answer is always "No". This is my third year riding, and I can tell you the response we get from the families makes us want to pick up our bikes and ride another 600 miles -- just for them.
A big thank you to all who came out and willingly hugged a bunch of grimy, sweaty, smelly cyclists.
It's Saturday, and something is missing. It feels strange not to be waking up and hopping on a bike.
There are some members of the team down in the lobby, drinking coffee, while others are getting breakfast. Everyone I meet is in a great mood but also shares the same sadness that we aren't outside abusing our bodies this morning. Of course, others are doing just that by riding their bikes up the long hill to visit the large star that overlooksRoanoke. Coffee and breakfast sounds just fine to me.
Saturday is free time for the team members to do as they please. Though not specifically invited, I decide to sneak into the Memorial Service's "Meet and Greet" so I can hopefully meet a family member I was unable to locate on Friday. Some partake of the art festival in town, while others decide to relax near the pool.
At 5 p.m., we start making our way to the church for the Memorial Service. As we're getting ready to leave we find out that the mother of one of the honorees is stranded. She's wheelchair bound; the bus hired by the Memorial Service is unable to take her and no other arrangements have been made -- not cool. But, being EMTs and Paramedics, we're programmed to help and we'll be damned if we're going to allow a family member to miss this service. Without hesitation, Steve Berry hops out of the car and gives the woman his seat. Her wheelchair is placed in a FDNY van, and in minutes we're off to the church. Once again I am reminded why I'm so proud of this bike team.
The memorial service is a sea of uniforms, from class-As to flight suits. We move into the church and I'm struck by the number of pews that have been reserved for family members. Logically I understand 73 is a lot of people, but here I can actually get a physical sense of that number. In fact, almost the entire downstairs is for family, so the bike team files up to stadium-like seating on the right side of the sanctuary.
The ceremony gets underway and far too many state flags file past. Introductions are made followed by some beautiful singing and a keynote speech. Then it's on to the honorees. This is always an emotional time for me and everyone around me. It's hard not to get choked up when you watch brave children or heartbroken parents step up on the platform to accept their flag. Our area is filled with "tough"EMS providers sniffing and unashamedly wiping away tears. After all, these are the people we rode for and, although we met many of the families just a day ago, the love and appreciation that they showed us on Friday makes us feel like a part of their family. And in a sense we are.
Sunday. Bags are packed, and vehicles are being loaded. But there's always time for another hug, another good-bye. As a veteran, I can tell you we're always close by the end of the ride. But this year was different. This year the group gelled into a team so quickly that it boggles the mind. It's hard to believe the majority of people didn't know each other at all this past Friday because at this point we feel like one big family.
At this time, I'd choose not to say good-bye, but "thanks"
Thank you to our sponsors who allowed us to make this important journey.
Thanks to the support team. The 'Wingmen' are the true heroes of the ride, ensuring that we're safe, fed and hydrated. They got up earlier than the bikers to mark the routes and went to bed later as they finalized plans for the next day. They loaded and unloaded bikes and luggage and were always there with a smile, high-five or words of encouragement.
Thanks to the other riders. You guys and gals looked out for each other on the road and pushed through wind, rain and seemingly endless hills. Though your legs screamed with pain and you knew you could stop at any time, you didn't. And for that, each and every one of you should be proud.
Thank you to all of the rescue squads along the way. You were all life savers, offering an oasis of Gatorade and Powerbars that would carry us to the next stop. Many of you even helped with repairs to vehicles! We certainly appreciate the help and support, and it's important that you realize that you're as much a part of the Muddy Angels team as anyone else.
Thank you to the families who held us inRoanoke and told us their stories. We came to support you and are humbled by how much you supported us. We share your pain and promise your loved ones will not be forgotten.
Finally, thank you to the fallen. You selflessly gave your all to help others and you continue to help others through your legacies. Your families miss you but are also very proud of the way you lived your lives, and I know that you're just as proud of them. And thanks for having our back!
Until we meet again, stay safe everyoneÚ.
Doug Martin is the webmaster for theNational EMS Memorial Bike Ride.