By Rob Casalou
Regional President and CEO
Saint Joseph Mercy Health System
When that alarm clock goes off at 4:15 a.m. on the third and final day of riding, I am sure I’m not alone of the thought that came to mind… “No way”!
First, that is early on any day but after logging 210 miles of riding over the previous two days, the muscles are a bit more sore and the body needs a little more encouragement to get out of bed. But we all did get up, put on the last day riding clothes and make our way to breakfast at Dewitt High School. It is dark, a little cool but as the school starts to come to life and as we all realize this is our last day and the great celebration and accomplishment that awaits us at the end, the blood starts pumping again.
Day three is the shortest ride of the three days at just over 95 miles to the finish line at MIS. It is also our flattest course so that is welcome as well. The weather forecast was variable with the famous weather prediction of a 50% chance of storms anywhere. I joked with many of my teammates that the most secure job in America is a weather forecaster because what other profession can you make a 50% prediction of something and keep your job?! Well, the 50% chance of no rain was what we experienced and we were grateful for that!
We communicated to our 300-mile riders and our Team Joe’s 50-mile riders who would be riding in the vicinity of MIS on Sunday morning, that we would meet up in the MIS parking lot at 2 p.m. so that we could ride into the MIS as a team and cross the finish line together. With so many riders of different speeds, many of our 300-mile team left Dewitt right at 6 a.m. and some of our fast Tour de France types left a bit later so that we would all arrive at the same time.
It worked out beautifully as we all gathered at the last break-stop about 10 miles from MIS at the same time and we rode the last 10 miles together to our meeting spot and joined our Team Joe’s 50 milers who were waiting for us. It was awesome to come together and then I realized just how big our team had grown – 62 cyclists all n one place for the first time. We spent several minutes celebrating with a lot of hugs, high-fives and just pure joy.
Before I talk about the final mile into MIS and the Heroes Hurrah celebration, I want to quickly back up to a couple highlights of the day. First, this was a very safe ride over the three days because we are well-protected by our state trooper escorts, medics, firemen and American Red Cross staff in addition to hundreds of volunteers and some very courteous and helpful riders. Every so often, as you might expect, there is a rider who falls and we had a couple of those on Sunday. One rider from another team took a fall and to his good fortune, Team Joe’s riders were on the scene before the medics arrived and started to render care. I still don’t know who from our team came to the rescue as the story was relayed to me but having a team with so many medical professionals is quite comforting!
The lunch stop at the Stockbridge High School is also a highlight on the last day since it is when the staff serve the popular Chinese food and pizza meal. Now, there is no way yours truly can stomach that meal at that moment so I go with my staple on the ride – peanut butter and jelly. But you could see many Team Joe’s riders and all WAM riders enjoying the lunch before heading out for the final 47 miles.
Another special highlight was meeting Wish Kid Casey at one of the break-stops. We meet a lot of Wish Kids and Wish Families on the tour but Casey stood out for me. He is about 11 years old and is currently getting chemo treatment. He just got notice this past week that his wish was being granted to go to the Bahamas and swim with the pigs! Yes, you did read that correctly. I didn’t know you could do such a thing but that is what his dream is and that is what he will get to do. He is not well enough to travel right now but, once he gets his medical clearance, he and his family are off to the Bahamas… and the pigs. His eyes lit up as he told his story and he was overwhelmed by all the riders who came up to shake his hand and congratulate him on his upcoming wish. This young boy was surrounded by love and he and his Mom could feel it. This is why we ride. And the doctors will tell you that when a child like Casey is in treatment and they are told they are getting a wish, their attitude and demeanor changes dramatically and they are stronger mentally and feel much more positive about their future. A wish is not just a trip or an experience, it gives hope and strength to these young children and helps them with their treatment.
Back to the end….With our team gathered right outside the MIS track, we rode slowly around the outside of the track to what is known as the “Silent Mile”. Hundreds of riders ride in memory of loved ones lost too soon and there are stars with names and pictures all along a grassy area that riders stop at before they enter the track and pick up the star of the person they rode for the past three days. You can hear a pin drop as riders pause or ride by slowly because it is truly a scared part of our journey together. You can’t help but feel a lump in your throat as you pass this area and it reminds us all how fragile life is and that we must do all we can to help others during our time on this earth.
After the Silent Mile, our team rode onto the MIS track which is very cool. The track has a steep embankment so we stay low so not to have our tires slide out from underneath us and we slowly make our way around turns 3 and 4 on the MIS track to the finish line. As we approached the finish line, the track is lined with thousands of people cheering, singing, taking pictures and videos and celebrating our achievement in riding and making wishes come true. The feeling is hard to describe but it is a feeling I and our team members will never forget. After crossing the finish line, we gathered in the infield, took another team pic and just spent time talking and celebrating and already planning next year. This is the highlight of my summer and my year and my family was there, as were many families of our riders, to greet us with hugs and smiles.
We then made our way to the stage area where we meet our Wish Hero who would place our medals around our neck and thank us for riding. As I mentioned in my first update, our Wish Hero was Michael R. Michael had a wish to play catch with Miguel Cabrera last year. We arrived at the stage to learn that Michael was not well enough to be there with us on Sunday. We were sad but mostly because of the news he was not feeling well. In Michael’s place, we had three other wish children there to celebrate and give us our medals and one of them said to us, “I just can’t believe what you all did for us, thank you so much”. That says it all. After the ceremony, we all headed to get the bags, eat and head home to showers and beds.
A couple final thoughts….
First, I want to thank all 62 members of Team Joe’s for what they did this past weekend. What an awesome group of people that included St. Joe’s physicians and colleagues, Probility leaders and staff who were a huge reason our team almost doubled in size this year, to friends and families of our physicians and staff who joined as well as a couple UM colleagues who also joined us. New friendships were formed and I can see most of this team coming back next year for the 30th Wish-a-Mile that will be extra special celebrating that milestone.
I also had the fortune of crossing the finish line with my daughter, Julie, who rode for the first time. It is a wonderful opportunity for fathers, mothers, daughters and sons to do this ride together and I am so grateful that my spunky girl wanted to go from WAM volunteer to WAM rider this year. As we rode by riders all three days, she was always smiling and always giving encouragement to others even though she was feeling the burn in her legs. I was a lucky Dad and she and I never separated on the road. Thanks sweetie for making this WAM extra special.
Lastly, if you are reading this and are intrigued by this event and Team Joe’s, please consider joining us. Just let me know of your interest and I will fill you in on everything you need to know and then you can decide. I promise you that you will never regret climbing on board.
Until next year….
Regional President and CEO
Saint Joseph Mercy Health System