The Pioneer NZ: Race of a Lifetime
“Find stunning. Find character. Find welcome. Ride beyond.”
– The Pioneer New Zealand
The Pioneer New Zealand. Epic mountain bike race. Epic scenery. Epic cause. I have been fortunate these past two years to be a part of something extremely special, and to have done some incredible events with Team PHenomenal Hope. Events that you prepare for. Events that make you push yourself to new limits, and events that make you discover something new about yourself. Yet even in the context of the past two years, this race definitely stands out as something truly memorable.
The Pioneer was more than a race. On its most basic level, it was about getting from start to finish, getting across the mountains, and being alive. It was about seizing the day, embracing the beauty and challenge of the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and riding further, longer, better than you’ve ever ridden. It was about confronting human limitations and rising above them. On another level, it was about connecting, it was about shining a spotlight on a condition few knew of, and forging new friendships, realizing that we are not alone – not in our fight against pulmonary hypertension nor when we are trying to make it up one more climb, then another, then another.
The most beautiful aspect of our trip to New Zealand might shock you. It wasn’t the glacier-topped mountains. It wasn’t the aquamarine glacier lakes. It wasn’t the expansive pristine pastures with free range fluffy sheep and cows. It wasn’t the mountain trails and babbling brooks or flowing rivers. It wasn’t the incredible blue skies, warm summer weather, or breathtaking Milky Way that each night – void of any urban light pollution – reached down and grabbed you by the collar and said “look at me.”
The most beautiful aspect of New Zealand was… the people.
Our team came together quickly for this event. It started with Hap and myself, then expanded to a second duo with Kristen and Thea. We all knew each other, through work and prior friendships and then through emails and phone calls planning how to get halfway around the world: flight reservation, bike boxes and backpacks, first aid kits and hotel reservations. But we would really get to know each other once the adventure really began.
There is a truth that comes out on the mountain.
When you’re racing day-to-day and pushing your limits up some of the steepest and longest climbs of your life, all that exists is what is right now. And I believe that in those moments when your literally existing pedal-stroke-by-pedal-stroke, with your teammate on a mountain, not only is it true bliss – even in its temporary pain or struggle – but it also allows you to find character – to see a new side not only of yourself but also of those with whom you’re racing. So my race report is really about the people with whom I raced.
Find grace. It’s about Kristen. Kristen is an avid mountain biker. She has biked the Swiss Alps. She is also fearless on the downhill, riding BMX and “shredding the gnar” like a badass. She is also a general surgeon, wife, and mom of 2 kids, who travels to Bakersfield, California multiple times per month to take care of patients, and then back to live with her family. In the midst of her incredibly complex schedule she took on training for one of the toughest stage races out there. Working with Coach Jim, she consistently got in the workouts, whether early in the morning or late at night, often going longer, “owning” the stationary bike in the Bakersfield Marriott hotel, or practicing her skills at The Wheel Mill in Pittsburgh. She was ready to race, and with Thea started out strong on the Day 1 time trial then raced a great ride on day 2, until about 2km from the finish. At that point, in the unseasonably hot summer weather the wheels came off, so to speak, and Kristen fell into the river, unable to go on. She got medical help and got cooled, but could not even walk to the finish line. After she was brought in and cooled further, her neurological symptoms of heat stroke took her out of the race. She made a full recovery, but the risk of repeat (and more serious) injury within 7-10 days was too great that she was removed from the race roster. I imagined how I’d feel after all that planning and preparation, the disappointment I’d feel. And I know she felt it too. However Kristen responded to this like a true champion. Her grace and resilience amazed me. Rather than focus on this disappointment, she focused on recovery, held her head up high, and supported her team. She focused on the patients for whom we were riding. She focused on the epic place in which we existed for 12 days. There are a lot of amazing things about Kristen, but the grace she showed in the face of this was something I will never forget.
Find grit. It’s about Hap. My partner is well known as an incredible PH physician, academic, and many also know he’s this incredible endurance athlete and adventurer. In the past, he ran on a relay team across the USA, has run the Boston Marathon more times than he can remember, and he is now into gravel bike and mountain bike racing, in addition to downhill skiing whenever he gets the chance. The guy loves crazy races as much as I do, and shares a passion for helping the PH community that he lives every single day. But like all of us he had never raced a race like The Pioneer. And like each of us, he pushed himself to the limit in this race. When we started, he knowingly kept an eye on getting to the finish line. From all his years of ultra sports, he knew how to push himself to the edge and recover, so as to be able to stay out of the red zone and get through each stage. We did not set any speed records, but in a race that many people didn’t necessarily finish, he kept his sight on getting through each and every stage, and kept our sights on relishing it. At moments we would be climbing – either on bike or often on foot pushing our bikes, steadily forward – up these steep grades with rocks and scree, and he would look out and see the scenery and realize how special each and every moment was in that stage and in that race. Seeing him push forward, up the climbs, hearing his breathing and witnessing this persistence, well, it was remarkable the grit this guy has – the utter refusal to give up until we get to the end. Before the race and before the tough stages he would say, “We’ll do our thing. We’ll do the best we can,” and day in and day out he did just that. His grit – and unflappable attitude – seeing how he faced challenges pre-race in our organization and during the race – taught me that even when we face huge mountains – either literal or in life – if we just do not let the mountain get too large, it won’t be unconquerable. There comes a time when you just start, the clock counts down and you’re off. You do the best you can, put your heart and soul into it. And when you have grit like Hap, you’re a lot more likely to get to the finish line.
Find heart. It’s about Thea. I got to know Thea through this race, and must say that I’m so glad I did. Thea is this person who you meet and get an immediate sense of authenticity and kindness. She lives and works in Boston and manages the bike fitting program at Landry’s, one of the best bicycle shops in the country. And she loves to ride and race her bike. Like really loves the bike. She’s a Cat 1 racer and one of the strongest riders I’ve ever met, with an outstanding bike resume to boot, and more than that, she now rides and races for the love of it, and it shows. You see it in her eyes and in her body when she’s kitted up on the starting line, and it’s infectious – you find yourself feeling that extra love for riding a little bit too. The day that Kristen suffered heat stroke, the team needed time to sort out what had happened, but Kristen immediately told Thea she had to continue in the race for our team. And the plan was hatched for her to continue solo and ride alongside other women’s teams. This wasn’t easy. It wasn’t what she’d planned for months with Kristen and far from what she expected, but she continued, and raced an amazing race. On stages 3 and 4 she had a couple of incredibly fast days, and on day 5 she muscled her way over the huge climb into the wind gusts and cold with bravery, and like Hap, true grit. But as we got to the end of the race, having truly enjoyed racing together for days, I started realizing something really special that Thea brought to our team.
Both on the bike and off the bike she has this incredible heart. Whether hanging out with the team or the patient community, you get a sense that she’s really listening and internalizing. And then, she says something and it’s like yeah, that’s exactly the feeling – that’s exactly it. As we got close to the end of the race, we’d known that each of us had overcome obstacles and done something very few people would ever understand. How on a certain level the race was about living, it was about being present in this vast beauty of New Zealand and it was about survival. We talked about how, no matter how we try and even if our friends back at home want to know about The Pioneer, that nobody will truly understand what we all went through except for our team. And Thea one day pointed out that after a particularly tough stage she realized that this inability to tell someone how you truly felt, what you truly experienced was something she remembered patients having said about living with a chronic illness. About how PH patients often struggle because others don’t really know how it feels, and nothing they do will truly communicate what they’ve been through. Although our lives on the mountains were vastly different than what patients live, that sense of feeling different was brought home to her, and through her insight to all of us.
Find strength. It’s about the patients. Pip and her family, Gary, Shirley, Elwyn, JoAnn, Bob, and Margaret. The week before we went to New Zealand, our team met with patients – thanks to Lee Kreider and the Ohio RAAM Show, we met with members of the PH community and got to know each other. We met Gary, Shirley, Janice, Philippa, and Kerrie-Lynn and spent an hour talking with these special people, this community, and learning a little more about living with PH in New Zealand. When we arrived in Christchurch, we were met at the airport by Elwyn, JoAnn and Bob, and before we knew it, these people swooped us up and our gear and had us off to our hotel. For the next few days in Christchurch we spent a lot of time with these people as well as Gary and Shirley, who had flown from Auckland to meet us, and to be honest we had an amazing time with all of them. We also met Margaret, a PH patient who has led mountain expeditions and Julie, nurse practitioner in Christchurch, and others. And finally, we communicated via FaceTime again with Philippa and her family. She was now at home surrounded by loved ones, and when she passed away just days before the race began, we carried Philippa’s memory in our hearts. When we started the race, we wrote Philippa’s name and the names of other New Zealand patients on our legs, so that when we looked down we would be reminded who we were racing with, and to dedicate this to them. But more than that, they reminded us what true strength is, whether facing a new diagnosis like JoAnn, or living and loving at life’s end like Pip. These people are the true life champions.
Find generosity. It’s about you. Thanks to the kindness of our supporters and the belief that together we can make a difference, our team surpassed our goal of raising one dollar per meter climbed. We crushed it, in fact, raising over $16,212 dollars as of February 23. When we crossed the finish line and found out you helped us get to this finish line, we were truly honored and touched. All of these funds will be donated to support research in pulmonary hypertension, in the sincere hope that one day we will find a cure.
There are truths that one encounters when you race over mountains. This expedition truly was the race of a lifetime. And I know I definitely came back changed for the better because of it and who I met. Thank you to the amazing race organizers, staff and volunteers for creating an incredible event and experience. And thank you to my teammates and to our New Zealand friends for making this the race of a lifetime.