November 14, 2010

Alyn Bike Ride 2010 - Day 5

Thursday October 26
Beit Guvrin to Jerusalem (almost!)
56 km/35 mi (almost!)
Ascent: 1350 m/4430 ft (almost!)

The alarm went off at 4:30! Ugh!!! We were to leave the hotel at 6:00, so in order for Amir to daven shacharit, to change into biking clothes, and to then eat breakfast, the alarm rang at this untimely hour. Not only had we biked up gravelly mountain paths and across sandy deserts for four days, we were now supposed to bike for a fifth day and were in for the challenge of our lives: 56 km and 1350 metres of vertical rise. Today, we were to meet up with many one-day cyclists who had signed up for the last day, the Galgalyn Ride. All in all, the groups together numbered some 600 people.

I could barely bend my aching legs and stick them into my padded shorts. As for my smelly, sweaty yellow Alyn shirt, it had to be stuffed away at the bottom of my suitcase for fear it would set off a stampede. I wore a regular shirt with an Alyn vest over it, slid on my bike gloves, packed up my day bag, popping in a few Tylenol for emergency pain – apparently not such an uncommon thing after four rigorous days spent perched on a bicycle seat – and set off for breakfast. A dainty fruit platter would not cut it any more; I was craving carbs big time.

A bus dropped us all off at Beit Guvrin where we sat around an old Roman amphitheatre. It was ironic that 2,000 years ago, Romans crowded into these seats to watch Jews being tortured and being forced to fight to the death. It was once a place flowing with blood and dripping with tears. And today we Jews are back, sitting around this same amphitheatre calmly holding our bike helmets, while chatting about the weather and our bicycle gears. Yes, we are back; the modern warriors of the off road bike paths! We all heard Tefillat HaDerech, the blessing for a safe journey and after a heartfelt ‘amen,’ our group of some 300 off road riders began our journey.

It must have been close to 9 am and it was really hot. Our ride started to climb almost instantly, flowing up trails that snaked through pine forests. People were feeling very enthusiastic and some charged the hills with intensity. Unfortunately my friend Rebecca was knocked off her bike by one overly zealous rider who cut her off on an upward climb. She was bleeding and in shock. We had all been riding for five days with little injuries so this was very sobering to all who saw this. Rebecca was very brave. I also learned that every other person on this ride is a doctor and they all ride with medical kits. In no time at all, Rebecca was tended to.

I did my turtle thing, going up slowly, surely and doggedly. People started to tire out and small groups formed for rests along the way; time to take pictures, have a bite to eat, repair a flat tire, grease the bike chains. We all knew that we had a hard day in store and we wanted to preserve what little energy we had.

I became slightly disheartened when I saw that it was literally one tough hill after another. I tried my uphill meditation method while I climbed and climbed, and just as I caught my breath, another hill loomed before me – and then another. I was getting thirsty and tired. I was alone as I had lost Amir and Barry almost at the start of the day.

Eli gave me a d’var Torah based on this week’s parsha as we pedalled along. Ironically, this was near the valley of Eilah, the spot where the Israelites camped when David fought Goliath. The words of the Torah unfolded along these paths 2,000 years ago and they continue to inspire!

Many people started to walk their bikes up the mountain paths. I took a quiet break and munched on an apple, watching people walk their bikes past me. I could not see an end in sight – and I thought the real uphill challenge would be after lunch as we approached Jerusalem from the south to reach the Alyn Hospital.

When I finally made it to the lunch stop, I lay on some fresh cool grass under a tree and confessed that I had enough for the day. The climb had finished me and I had aching muscles to prove it. I must have been dehydrated as I also had a headache.

As we lay on the grass, my friend Gila came by and said “The afternoon ride is cancelled due to a sharav.” “What?” I said incredulously, still unable to sit up. Seems as though there was an official heat wave – no surprise to us, who had been trying to bike uphill all morning with sweat streaming down our cheeks.

Soon enough, empty busses arrived to drive us to Alyn. We were to leave our bikes at the lunch stop and they would be transported back later. It was a bit of a let down to have biked for five days en route to Alyn and then not to bike into the hospital at the end. I have done the one day ride before and have felt so emotional riding in on my bike as the children wave flags. However, I was happy to rest on that air conditioned bus as we continued a rather long and uphill journey to Alyn. I could not believe that this would have been our route – and I was very satisfied with what I had accomplished over the past five days.

We were dropped off a few blocks away and walked into the hospital. Amir sailed by us on a bike – who knows where he found one! The children were waiting, their parents standing supportively behind the wheelchairs. There were clowns with balloons, bongos and drums, flags and smiles. Everyone was cheering. Many of the patients were Arabs, a fact that many people do not know. Alyn is a place for everyone. Religion and political beliefs are set aside for love and care.

I cried when I came in and saw these children, and cried as a child strained from her wheelchair to put a medal around my neck. I tried to hold back my tears as I did not want to upset the children or the parents. Their lives are a challenge every day and yet they are hopeful and smiling. I feel so thankful that I was given the strength and the ability to accomplish what I did over the last few days; yet these families’ challenges do not end.

I was tired, achy, and sweaty yet was on a real high. I had achieved a personal goal, felt stronger in my body and soul and am now more connected to this magnificent land. The deserts, mountains and valleys we travelled across have an intense light and beauty - and I am grateful that I was able to experience this meaningful connection.

Walking thourgh my front door later on that evening, I was blinded by a mass of paints, brushes and paintings. Scattered across my counter top, there was hardly room for the kitchen sink. Beads, glue and stickers, decorated wooden boxes and menorahs were lined up against the walls. The counter was wrapped in garbage bags. Even my children were wrapped in garbage bags, some kind of improvised smocks, and they threw their paintbrushes in the air and ran to us as we walked through the door.

As for my art director-babysitter, she was alomst happier to see me than my kids. She muttered something about her own life being the true vacation and commended me on my energy and strength to cope with my kids' insanely busy lives. Energy? Strength? After five days of biking and being at the Alyn Hospital, these words have new meaning to me now. I will look at my daily life with a new appreciation and be thankful that yes, my life as a parent is a privilege and living here in Israel certainly povides many ingredients for a vacation!

November 13, 2010

Alyn Bike Ride 2010 - Day 4

Wednesday October 27
Kibbutz Mashabei Sade to Besor Wadi Be’eri

Distance: 78 km/48 mi
Ascent: 400 m/1310 ft

I woke to a garden budding with yellow shirts and blooming with white socks. It looked like the morning after a party – except everyone was up early, looking healthy, vibrant and fresh. The cyclists were soon out tuning their bikes, all ready for a brand new day of cycling.

I felt my daily angst but was assuaged by the fact that the first 30 km this morning would be on road – a great relief as for me, the more technical off road riding involves balancing intense concentration with sheer terror.

We left this morning at 7:45 feeling fresh and positive. As we cycled down the flat paved road from Revivim to Tze'elim, I felt that life was good and the day would surely be easy. The landscape looked more like Arizona as the red sharp mountains gave way to soft dunes. Army bases dotted the road side and we saw tanks creeping over the dunes and firing deep booming shots. Army jeeps raced on paths beside us, sending a wave of choking sand and grit at us. We also passed huge pens of ostriches that would run in a panic every time they heard a boom – which must have been every few minutes. The ostriches actually looked more freaked out than me. Some of them were so out of control in their panicked run, they practically fell over their own bulky wings. We also passed a huge city on the horizon with high rise towers and minarets. ‘This is a fake city used for army practice,’ one of the cyclists shouted out as we pedaled by.

After a quick roadside stop where we had cold water and sweet pears, we continued on road into the heat of the day. Our next stop was at a bird watching park and then back onto the road until we stopped for lunch. This was the 30 km point - now we just had 50 km of off roads before us! As the desert landscape gave way, we traded rocks for sand and pushed ourselves onward. We were hot and tired, sandy and sweaty but pedaled on. We rode up and around fields of oranges and tomatoes, edged by hedges of cacti covered with plump red dragon fruit.

Amir stuck an ostrich feather into his helmet and was hard to lose in the crowd of yellow shirts. But we did lose our way soon after. Instead of looking for the telltale yellow Alyn signs planted at all crossings, we simply followed the biker in front of us – and missed a turn. We only discovered that we were lost after we saw that there were no bike tracks on the path. Barry had flown ahead and we could not catch him. So we waited a bit and then turned back to find our mistake. The sweeper jeep had already passed by and had plucked the sign, so it returned to show us the way. We had just added an extra half hour to our already challenging day and we were now officially at the back of the pack. But at least it was quiet and calm here at the back.

The day grew hotter and the backs of my legs started to burn. When we finally arrived at the next rest stop, most bikers had left and the volunteers were packing up. We forfeited our rest and kept going, following a very rocky dry river bed. We then entered the Be’eri Park, famous for the red carpets of blooming kalaniot each spring.

We followed a trail through a eucalyptus grove and then a field of bizarre humps that looked like moguls planted solely for bikers. We entered onto a paved road just as the sun was dipping into the sky and the shadows were growing longer. There were hills and more hills. Although the path was paved, I was so tired, dusty and fed up, I decided to pedal furiously, hoping to reach the end sooner. I arrived at the end around 4 pm and was told to jump on a bus to Ashkelon. I dumped my bike and hobbled onto the bus. As we arrived in Ashkelon outside our hotel, everyone got up with a huge groan – no one could move their legs!

There was a gala event to honor veteran bikers, some of whom had participated ten years in a row! We could not keep our eyes open and soon after, we fell into our beds.

Alyn Bike Ride 2010 - Day 3

Tuesday October 26
Sde Boker- Ein Akev- Halukim Ridge- Kibbutz Mashabei Sade
Distance: 40 km/25 mi distance
Ascent: 550 m/1800 ft ascent

We woke up just as the sun was starting to rise across the desert. Peeking out the window, we saw ibex coming out of the crater, nibbling on scraggly bushes. We made coffee in our room and I took out my steaming mug and sat quietly as sun rose above the desert. Hugging my coffee cup, I sat on a bench and watched as the ibex gathered round to nibble on the brush.

We counted around 40 ibex, including small babies and large dads with heavy twisted horns and black goatees. They all had pretty black and white marking on their legs, and beautiful markings inside their ears, that looked like silhouettes of tree branches. Although they were not so shy, Amir, in his eagerness to photograph them, managed to cause a mini stampede.

Meanwhile, the bicycle mechanics had spent time carefully washing every bike. We ate breakfast, and by 8:20, we set off down a road to the edge of the crater. Once again, I felt insecure about my ability to ride and wondered what I was doing here. In fact, every time I got on my bike, I questioned whether I really knew how to ride a bike, and how I could ever tackle the terrain ahead of me and endure yet another full day of riding with my aching muscles.

I stopped to take a photo of the magnificent crater and almost immediately found myself at the very back with the sweeper truck behind me gently but unrelentingly nudging me on. I then recieved a call from my son Shaya, the one who was sick yesterday.

"Ima, I am too sick for school today. My throat hurts."

"Fine. But you must rest. Go to sleep. No TV. No computers."

The phone rang again. "If I rest for an hour, can I paint?"

This was a surely a clue.

"Can you put the babysitter on the phone?"

I told the babysitter that Shaya had a case of frustrated artist and that he must return to school ASAP. The sweeper truck was about to sweep me up, so I put my phone away and focussed on the job at hand. The road before me was paved and steep, twisting into the crater below. As I have confessed before, biking down hills is not my specialty. I know most people get a real kick out of zooming downhill at incredibly fast speed, but I simply feel sick.

When I finally reached the bottom of the crater to the Tzin riverbed, a magnificent desert was before me. I can understand why David Ben Gurion fell in love with this place and decided to live here. A trail snaked its way up and down a valley of sand and scree, with towering mountains to either side.

At one turn, we merged with the Enduro people, all 100 of them, and the ride became more intense. The Enduros shared stories of their challenging day yesterday and of their experience of camping out in the crater. With stories of hot showers and freshly cooked meals at their camp site, it did not seem all that austere. However, many were kept awake by a chorus of clamorous snoring all night long - perhaps they kept the ibexes up all night.

We cycled to our first rest stop and then walked to a fresh water pool in the middle of the desert. Many of the riders jumped into the freezing cold water fully dressed but I decided to sit in quietly the shade of the Tamarisk trees. My backside was so sore from riding, I could not imagine adding the discomfort of wet bike shorts to my aching being.

We then gathered and made our way back towards Sde Boker, where we had to ride up an extremely vertical off road path. I waited back, thinking this would help me, but my strategy did not work. Suddenly several off road vehicles packed with tourists who hung out the windows with cameras in hand came shooting down the path. Many of the riders plowed up and still made it to the top, an incredible show of strength and endurance. Many of these riders were from Jerusalem - real pros who meet every Friday and do these types of hills. Many of them are in their fifties and as I said before, they are a real inspiration to me.

When we got to the top, we met at the edge of the canyon and heard a bit of history about the area. I learned that when Ben Gurion and his friends arrived here, they were inspired to build a land for the Jewish people. They all had religious relatives and knew where they came from. Yet they did not imagine that future generations would not be so connected. When they exchanged their religious beliefs for building the land, their grandchildren and great grandchildren soon lost an important connection. Today, many Israelis do not know where they came from and why they are here. This is a tragic failure that Ben Gurion and his compatriots did not anticipate.

We then continued across the desert. The ride was quite technical, but at least there were no huge hills. At the lunch stop, I threw my bike down and limped off in search of nourishment. Amir, who looked well rested and fed and had probably been there for an hour, intercepted me and was quick to tell me that my daughter had come home from school early, was locked out, and had managed to set off the house alarm. The alarm was raging uncontrollably and was angering my neighbours. In the midst of this, our babysitter was nowhere to be found. I did not have one sip of soup, was completely hot, bothered and exhausted. My cell phone was out of range and I soon realized that I could only connect if I walked up a hill. So I spent the lunch hour traipsing uphill and back down, balancing hot bowls of soup and a cell phone in my shaky arms. Turns out I had the wrong cell number for my babysitter. No wonder she never answered my calls. Why I had the wrong number is a mystery that I still cannot solve.

After lunch, we were told that there would be a major uphill this afternoon - a dangerous path that flew up and then shot dangerously down. We were somberly warned that this should not be attempted by anyone - unless they wanted to be taken out in a body bag. We were also warned that we would be crossing a shooting range and that we needed special permission from the army to pass through. I sincerely hoped the army remembered the booking - my nerves were already anticipating being completely shot.

As soon as the forewarned steep incline loomed before us, we came to a sudden stop. Turns out the Israeli Army was still shooting and would not let us through. So we sat on the ground and baked in the sun, staring at that foreboding hill and shaking our heads in disbelief. Most cyclists had left for the shade of a tree, a cool oasis on this savannah. But Amir and I stayed on, talking to an old acquaintance from Toronto. In an instant, we were told that we had clearance and could start the ascent.

‘You have the hill to yourself,’ Amir said. ‘This is your chance to climb a hill unencumbered by cyclists.’ He was right. It was a rare moment for me who is always at the back of a pack of 150 overachieving, well-trained and competitive cyclists who live and dream for these moments.

I set off towards the monster hill with a dozen other bikers. I knew that the others who were under the tree would soon catch up, so I attacked that hill with urgency. I pushed and groaned, passing other cyclists who soon started to fall off their bikes like flies. I too hit a rock and started to walk but was determined and got back on and pushed up and up. Sweat streamed down my forehead, burning my eyes with salt, impairing my vision. But up I went. I think I was one of the first ten to make it up there – and some of these bikers made it the whole way without stopping once.

I looked down and saw a swarm of yellow shirts snaking their way up. It was a good feeling to have done this before the others – however, when I looked ahead, I saw that the path went higher and became narrower. It looked like a mountain pass, something that I would normally hike and not bike! I decided that I should avoid the crowd and continue so that I would feel less pressured.

We biked up and up along the ridge and then came to a stand still. Before us was a rocky path barely cut into the mountain. We were told to stay in line, go one by one and to take it easy. I agreed wholeheartedly and decided to walk my bike. Afraid to ruin the insane testosterone fueled bikers’ day, I took to running with my bike. I may have looked crazy but I did not want to could ruin some bikers’ dreams – there are some in this crowd who wait a year to encounter biking down a challenging path like this.

Some cyclist did not even want to wait in line to go and insisted on barrelling down, risking their own and others’ safety. But within minutes, most cyclists ended up walking or running with their bikes. The path was rocky and narrow and the slope was full of scree. This was a true mountain pass. The trail then became a bit more manageable, but for Tiggers like me, it was hair raising.

The shadows became longer as the sun dipped in the sky and still we went down and down. There were several times where I pulled my bike to the side and walked down, slipping down the gravelly slope. I did try a few of the hills, but as soon as I touched my brakes, the back tire started to slip and I lost my nerve. I do not have the guts to pummel down a hill when I never know when I will hit a huge rock and fall over the handle bars or down a mountain slope.

I worked hard to keep up with them, however many barreled down the hills right past me.
We finally made it to lower ground and to a road that lead to Kibbutz Mashabei Sade. After spending days in the desert, it was a pleasure to enter this oasis of trees, chirping birds and lush gardens.

And like a mirage in our new oasis, there was cold beer of tap waiting for us! The owner of the Jems Brewery was waiting, handing out cold beer on tap. What a pleasure. We then walked to our rooms and had a shower, coming out feeling like a human being – except I could barely move my legs.

Each room had a little patio with tables and chairs out front. As each biker came out from his shower fresh and clean, he hung out his hand laundered shirts and shorts, bringing bottles of vodka, whiskey and wine, along with packages of peanuts and sunflower seeds. Yellow Alyn bike soon shirts dangled atop fences while lechaims filled the air. Bike hard, party hard – the two seem to go hand in hand. We had the opportunity to meet a few of the hard core bikers, all guys in their fifties who were in amazing shape and who were totally inspiring to us.

I spoke to my daughter, the one who was locked out of the house earlier on, and asked her for an assessment of the home scene. She had been away at school since I left Sunday morning and had a rational, open minded and sincere opinion.

"Let's put it this way," she said honestly. "Your house looks like an art studio."

I did not want to hear more details at this point. I hung up the phone, grabbed a handful of sunflower seeds and tried to focus on the feats of the day. My home cum art studio would have to wait till Thursday.

November 10, 2010

Alyn Bike Ride 2010 - Day 2

Monday October 25
Mitzpe Ramon to Sde Boker

Distance: 47 km/30 mi
Ascent: 400 m/1310 ft
Even before breakfast began, I peeked out the window and saw riders eagerly cleaning and tuning their bikes. I felt that pang of ‘I have not cleaned my bike’ and ‘I don’t even know what they are doing.’ I felt like a kid who’s turning up to school without having done my homework. Yet, when I examined my true desires, I preferred a coffee over a well-tuned bike. In fact, I wanted a few coffees as I could not envision how I would ever do yet another full day of biking.

I have already done one challenging day; is this not enough?

By 8:00, people gathered with their bikes revving and raring to go. I did not know why all these bikers were so keen; I thought starting time was 8:15 today. Suddenly they took off, reducing our group to an intimate size of 50 bikers. I now understand that the bikers who left us in a trail of dust were the Enduros, a group of hard core bikers who can take on any terrain at any speed.

By 8:20 we started, escorted by a police car down the road onto our trail. My phone started ringing at this exact moment and I soon became the last biker, being nudged on by the escort jeep. It was Shaya’s teacher on the phone telling me that Shaya was feeling sick. I told her Shaya could go home and hung up the phone. It rang again. This time it was the secretary telling me to pick up my child at school.

‘I am in the middle of a desert,’ I screamed into the phone in my broken Hebrew as I pedaled behind the crowd.

But she had no mercy and insisted I find someone to get him. My babysitter was not answering her phone so I called my friend Karen who saved the day. Thanks Karen. At this point I knew I could once again focus on biking. I stayed at the back of the pack where I am less of a hazard to myself and to others.

We rode across Mishor HaRuchot which means the Plain of the Winds, where a searing wind accompanied us across dunes, through thick sand and atop hard rocks. Biking though sand is a bit like like navigating through snow (and as a former seasoned winter rider from Toronto, I know about biking through slush). When we follow each other through the sand, a virtual cloud of dust rises up and I, at the back, tend to inhale it, crunching desert grit in my teeth.

We biked through chiseled red gorges, passing scrubby plants along the way. At times I felt as if I were in a Western movie, expecting a sheriff on a horse to gallop by. The landscape was majestic and spectacular. Being such a small group, we easily spread apart. Amir was always at the front, with Barry beside him. It was a beautiful sight to glimpse a stream of bikers crossing the desert, their bright yellow jerseys a beacon of this special caravan.

We passed a vineyard in the desert, each plant carefully protected by a milk carton and then stopped in a nearby olive grove for a break. It was incredible that we were in the desert yet surrounded by olive trees – this was a true oasis. We continued on, a gentle downward trail with rocky inclines along the way. Bikers stopped to take photos of the breathless scenery, of the rocky Arkov mountains towering beside us and of the Azame Bedouins. We even biked past a few camels who were kind enough to pose for pictures. The riding was challenging, but we all seemed to be improving our desert riding skills.

Lunch was spread out under a tree; hot soup and sandwiches. The men davened mincha and a young rider fell asleep on the mat. We were truly tired and dirty. We were given an option of climbing an extra 150 metres and 3 km to a viewpoint. The group split and I, unble to resist uphill challenges, went for the bait. It was strenuous but not so vigorous and I am proud to say I was one of the first women to the top. Yet as I slowly descended, I realized that I had left my gloves at the top. And the truck that was at my heels actually went back up - and found them! What service!

In the midst of this, my cell phone rang. It was my oldest son, Ariel.

"All your money has been spent on art supplies. There is nothing left to pay for my driving lessons. And forget about food."

He hung up, leaving me in suspense. He loves a bit of drama. Art supplies? Has my house has become an art camp within 24 hours? Is that what my babysitter meant by having a vacation? My head reeled. I decided that my son must be exaggerating. Chewing on some gritty sand brought me back to my reality: I had some more hills to climb and would not be distracted right now. As I tried to spit out some gravel, Barry sailed past me, flashing a wide white grin and still looking like a fashion model. He had stopped for a photo opp and flew past me yet again. I got back on my bike and pedaled on.

We all met up at a final rest stop and I actually thought we were nearby our final destination. I thought I could see Sde Boker in the near distance, a bright green swab that popped out of the rocky desert. But we climbed yet again and this time the climb was steep and rocky like a staircase. I pushed and pushed and am proud to say that I made it all the way to the top without falling or getting off the bike. Wow!

My descents were not so easy. I walked some of them as it was rocky with scree, and sharp turns. Every time I put my hands on my brakes, the bike skidded out of control and I was not brave enough to shoot straight down a rocky descent. Our shadows lengthened and the light dimmed. My arms were aching and shaking from grasping the handles bars and brakes so tensely for so many hours. As the sun was setting, we rode into Sde Boker. We gave our dusty desert bikes a bath with an air hose. The chains were caked with sand and dust. We then went to our rooms for that amazing hot shower that is always the best shower in the world. I fell on my bed and did not want to move.

In the evening, a local kibbutznik told us his own travel story; a bike trip across the salt flats north of Ethiopia - and he had just returned from a 250 km run across the Sahara. That puts our insanity into perspective.

Alyn Bike Ride 2010 - Day 1

Sunday October 24
Mitzpe Ramon Crater

Distance: 40 km/25 mi distance
Ascent: 600 m/1970 ft

Woke up at 5 am this morning without the aid of an alarm clock. I had such mixed feelings of excitement, dread and a fear of sleeping in and missing the bus, I did not sleep all night. So now I can officially say that I am starting this week feeling like a tired wreck.

How does this happen? It is called ‘disorganization’ – or on a more upbeat note, ‘living in the moment.’ In an ideal world, I would have been packed for this five-day bike ride well before Shabbat and would have dropped off to sleep Saturday night at 10 am. Then I would have been refreshed and ready for a challenging day of biking on Sunday.

But that is for sissies and organized folk. Instead I became obsessed with cleaning up my Shabbat mess and with turning my life as a mom over to a babysitter for the next five days. My teenage children were incensed that I should bring in a babysitter. My two younger children seemed fine with this. But the older ones wanted to be in charge and they were preparing a revolt. I should have sniffed this in the air, but I was too obsessed with my own biking anxieties to notice. I was going on this ride whether they liked it or not.

As for my babysitter, she was thrilled about this new life experience and told me she was treating this like a vacation. My life? A vacation? I eyed her strangely, thinking about my four kids, our large dog who fancied himself a fully-fledged member of the household, over 20 after school activities – many at the same time in different parts of town, lunches to prepare, dinner to make, homework in a foreign language that needed to be wrestled with… Maybe the babysitter is right and my perspective is wrong. Maybe my life as a mom is like a vacation. I will have to wait and see how she fares.

Nonetheless, I could not reveal my messy side to the babysitter. If she were arriving to my home on vacation, I had better make this place look like a five-star hotel. As soon as Shabbat was out, I decided to clean and organize my house and I did not even think about packing until 10:30 pm.

By 11 pm, I was bleary eyed but the house looked semi-orderly. I then asked my brother Barry if he had a packing list. Not only did he produce a detailed list printed off the Alyn web site, he then showed me his wardrobe; matching shorts, shirt and socks and dedicated biking shoes! Barry has travelled from Toronto to be on this ride and he is prepared. He also does not look shabby. In fact, he looks like a model. I calculate that since I do not own a pair of biking shoes, I can’t be seen beside him. I threw some clothes into a suitcase, lay down and feigned restful sleep, worrying about what I could have forgotten to tell the babysitter.

Having crawled out of bed this morning, I grabbed a coffee and fell into a cab at 5:50 am, en route to Tzomet Raanana. I still did not know if I had everything, but as long as I brought a bike helmet and sunglasses, I knew the essentials were covered. We had dropped off our bikes at the Alyn Hospital on Thursday.

The bus came at 6 am and about 15 people from Raanana got on. We joined people from Netanya and continued down the highway, picking up bikers from Tel Aviv and Petach Tikva.

I eyed our fellow cyclists as they boarded the bus. Many were wearing those special biking shoes that Barry had, as well as fancy biking shorts and very cool sunglasses. I looked down at my hum drum running shoes, the socks I had grabbed from my daughter’s drawer in a panic this morning and examined my very regular sunglasses with very regular UV protection and thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘who do I think I am joining this elite group of super athletes?’ My friend Sharon must have read the sheer terror on my face, so she passed me some Rescue Remedy to calm my nerves. I was tired, hungry, feeling incompetent and was to bike across a rocky desert and then ride up 1970 vertical feet (600 metres). What was there to be worried about?

As the verdant fields gave way to rocks and dunes, the riders were now smearing up with sunscreen and talking excitedly and the day to come. It seemed like they all knew each other and I felt like I was kid on my way to camp. They conversation turned to electrolytes? Electro whats? I, who had plain water swishing around in my camel back, had a new worry -- losing too much salt.

By 9 am, all bikers gathered in Mitzpe Ramon and were reunited with their bikes. The on roaders, off roaders, challenge and touring groups sat on the grass as the mayor of Mizpe Ramon wished us a safe ride. I felt that I was part of something really big and very special, and became excited once more.

At 10:30, our group of 150 off road riders gathered under the starting sign and sailed off into the desert, following an off road path towards the crater or mahktesh. I knew a steep descent was ahead of us and had decided months before that I would walk down. I kept safely at the back of the pack and met some other women who felt fearful of going downhill just like me – and as we pedaled onward, my confidence was slowly restored. I soon realized that this ride is not just for super athletes; it is for anyone who loves biking, being in the outdoors and helping out a special cause.

We all gathered at the edge of the Ramon Crater and looked down into the magnificent crater. It was so vast, quiet, and awe inspiring that we were speechless, humbled. Some 25 miles in length, I read that you can fit four Manhattans into it – and I am thankful that unlike Manhattan, this area is relatively untouched by man, filled with purity and silence. One rider explained that if the timeline of creation until now were compared to a 24 hour day, then electricity would have been invented at 11:59 pm. The world had stayed pristine for eons and we have destroyed so much in such a small time.

We then were instructed to walk down. I felt gleeful as I would not have to reveal my fear of going downhill just yet! The path was twisted, steep and rocky as we slowly made our way down to the bottom. We then got on our bikes and rode across the sandstone and sandy terrain of Wadi Zin. At times I was on my own and stopped to appreciate a silence that was deafening.

The group stopped for lunch in the middle of the desert and rested on mats, sipping hot soup. There were sandwiches, oranges, apples and lots of ice cold water. We all felt invigorated and very hungry. We were told that we could take an optional 7 km ride before the final ascent of the day. Of course we took it.

Everyone then met up for our 400-metre ascent up Independence Ascent or Maale Atzmaut. We could see an asphalt road snaking ahead and we all pulled on our last reserves of strength as we approached it. Climbing requires super strength and intense concentration. Everyone in our group understood this and all fell silent as we started to go up and up and up. It was as if we went into a type of meditation, pedaling very slowly and surely. The road would flatten out for a moment and then climb. Cars were stopped to let us pass and the passengers honked in appreciation, calling out ‘yasher koach’ as we climbed higher and higher. My climbing philosophy is to never look ahead but to focus on the road below, being in the present; peeking ahead when on an incline can break a tired rider. But I did allow myself to look down and once I had seen how high we had climbed, I gathered more strength to continue up.

We finally made it to the top and cycled to our hotel, parking our bikes in a giant bicycle parking lot outside the hotel. We were hot, tired, covered in sand mixed with sweat and I have never appreciated a shower more.

At night we all gathered to see a new promotional movie abut Alyn that described the incredible facilities, staff and one-on-one attention the hospital provides to rehabilitate children. We then heard an incredible story of strength and triumph from a couple who described how their son Ariel was nearly killed by a katyusha rocket. He had shrapnel lodged in the side of his head and had part of his head removed and then replaced in the most remarkable surgery. After many years, of rehabilitation at Alyn, Ariel has made a miraculous recovery and walks, goes to school and even plays soccer. Ariel was sitting in the crowd and was presented with a soccer ball signed by soccer players from Spain. He kicked the ball and the crowd roared with applause. We were brought to tears of sadness and joy and felt so happy to be a part of this fund raiser. We then went to dinner and soon after, we fell into our beds.