Welcome to Florida
Riding into my stay in Jacksonville it all started to hit me. The masses of live oak trees were soon replaced with rows and rows of palm trees. The license plates on cars whizzing by me all donned the famous Florida orange logo on them. I was getting close….
It was a 90 mile day that day riding down a route I had been accustomed to for most of the journey in the south, route 17. The ride itself was very doable and the humidity kept me going. It’s strange riding in conditions like that because you’re hot and sweaty no doubt but you don’t feel it so much when you’re cycling.
It’s only when you stop at a stop sign or to check your GPS when the floodgates open and your face explodes with all the fluid you’ve loaded up on throughout the day. That was gruelling but it was a good incentive to keep on going.
By this time I had stopped wearing the gaskets on my shades because the sweat along with the grit from the road meant that they would rub on my skin causing sores around my eyes which wasn’t a good look nor did if feel too good either.
I stopped many times along the way; I think I must have gone through about 9 bottles of water and ice tea and 5 packets of peanuts. I felt like I was single handily keeping CVS in business. I remember crossing the border into Florida.
I always thought I’d be excited and buzzing to be there but I wasn’t. I was numb and had not fully appreciated or grasped what I had just done.
As I approached my stay in Mandarin, Jacksonville literally a few blocks away from my destination I had to stop at a Walmart just to wake up.
I had cycled the past 20 miles in shock I wasn’t fully awake. I don’t know if it was sun stroke, shock, dehydration or just plain tiredness but I needed a breather.
I pulled up in front of the big automatic doors and before I could lock my bike a gust of AC from the store hit me. I dropped Ursula to the ground, grabbed my wallet and hobbled inside….I must have looked like a mad man.
I grabbed another Gatorade and drank it under the AC system by the exit. “I’m in Florida.” I had to keep repeating that to myself.
Everything was colourful, tropical and bright I darn’t take my shades off. After what seemed like 20 minutes I jumped back on the saddle and cycled at a snail pace one handed whilst drinking my Gatorade.
I was off the main roads now and into the suburbs looking for my friend’s house. The place was beautiful, houses backed onto lakes, lawns were perfectly trimmed, walkers said hello as they past me by….I definitely wasn’t in Camden anymore.
As I turned the corner onto another perfect street, out came my friend to welcome me into their house. I was in shock, for the next few days I wasn’t myself I was on autopilot.
It had been so long since I’d had company I almost forgot how to act… it was such a change from being alone in my hotel room, channel hopping trying to find something boring enough to put me into a quick sleep.
It took me a while to find my social skills again let me put it that way but I had a blast during my stay in Jacksonville, so much so that I ended up staying an additional 2 days they were lovely people who will remain friends for life.
When it came time to leave that’s when the rain decided to show… Mother Nature was still mad at me for something.
The downpour was so intense that I had to get a car to the coast just south of St Augustine and see how much I could cycle to Daytona Beach before the mid Florida afternoon downpour would stop me in my tracks.
Anybody who’s been to Florida before knows that for all it’s hot sunny hours in the day there is always an hour or 2 of rain. Well in this case it decided to come when I was making tracks and it was sudden and torrential.
I had cycled maybe 20 miles south down the east coast before I had to stop and this time for good. I hadn’t packed ANY waterproofs so I was soaked.
I couldn’t even see the traffic lights in front of me about 20 feet away so I told myself to stop at the next sheltered building. It just so happened that the next stop was a budget car rental place.
I stood under the awning for what felt like 40 to 45 minutes, it didn’t stop it was relentless. The receptionist from budget came out to have a smoke next to me.
“You waiting for a ride?” She said whilst lighting up.
“No, I’m waiting for the rain to pass… I’m cycling to Daytona.”
“Good luck with that this looks like its settling for the next few hours… Look over there…”
She was pointing around the building at the southern clouds, they were dark and angry. I closed my eyes and rolled my head back until it was leaning against the glass of the store.
“You need to be somewhere?” She said taking another puff.
I proceeded to tell her my story; she said she could give me a discount off a rental car for what I was doing. It was too good an offer to refuse and I wanted to get to Daytona before dark so I took it.
A silver Nissan Altima 2.5 a great car with an awesome punch when you put your foot down. It was so good eating up those miles on 4 wheels.
The lady at the car rental place was right; the rain was set for the day and to this day I have never driven in such bad conditions. I could barely see 10 feet ahead even with the windscreen wipers on full power…. Ursula would have melted in conditions like this.
It rained all the way into Daytona, my stay for the night. I was staying with some family friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years; John and Maria, I was worried they weren’t going to recognise me!
They lived on Ponce Inlet, an inlet as you might have guessed off Daytona. As soon as I crossed the bridge onto Ponce Inlet the rain stopped….just like that.
As I approached John and Maria’s house I got goose bumps. John was my current age the last time he saw me back in 1992, carrying me around on his shoulders.
Maria I hadn’t seen since the year before when she visited London in 1991. I pulled into the drive way of what I imagined the house to look like from the Golden Girls. I got out onto the palm tree lined driveway and hollered “Hello?”
As I walked up the garden path underneath a huge banana tree I could see a shadow moving through the glass door and a lady yelling something in Italian…
“Ahhhh Madonna santa….my Tariq is that you?”
In an instant I had remembered Maria. A pocket sized Italian lady who once graced the fashion world of Italia.
We embraced on the porch before she hollered for John.
“John, John ….Tariq is here!”
Out came John from the side of the garage holding a can of beer still looking 25 just a lot shorter than I remember!
“Really?” He said to me looking up at my 6foot3 frame.
We all embraced and shared the story of my day before Maria hurried me into the house to make me a traditional Italian lunch.
The difference 20 years can make
After sharing our many stories past and present John introduced me to his friend from down the street, Vic. We all jumped in Vic’s golf cart and headed to the beach for some beers while Maria cooked a great Italian dinner.
Man I wasn’t used to driving down streets in a golf cart, if I tried that in London I’d be target practice for boy racers in their clanked out VW Golf’s.
When we got back to the house, the whole place smelt like pasta and seafood. That meal had to go down as one of if not the best of the year, it was simple, it was authentic, it was Maria.
The next day John and I took 2 bikes down to the beach, I didn’t want to tell him how sore my hiney was from all the riding so I grinned and bared it…the ride not my butt….
It was crazy overlooking the same ocean my sisters and I played in two decades ago and ironic that it was their birthdays that day too. I wrote their names in the sand we used to play on and sent them a picture of it.
While John ran in for a swim I stood there looking out onto the ocean and it brought me back first to when I was in Myrtle Beach and secondly to the time when my Mum brought us here 20 years ago when I was 5 and the girls had just turned 11.
Though those times were tough for my Mum raising 3 kids by herself and teaching full time she still managed to give us what we’d probably all agree on, the most magical and memorable vacation of our lives.
I look back at the home videos now and its funny to look at the me of 20 years ago without a care in the world of my health or my future, two things which now populate my mind at least once every 30 seconds.
It’s fascinating how dreams grow and priorities birth out of nowhere. It was the last time I can remember not having a care in the world about where my life was going or what the future had to hold for me.
In my not so later years I would be known as a loner because I was always concerned about the future rather than enjoying the present; I guess I was just scared of the unknown…
But looking back at that home video I can recall the last few years when everything was just so ‘now.’ We were all so happy, under the watchful loving eyes of Mum.
We were bouncing around on the sand running to the ocean line then running back scared when the wave would break and the cold water would chase our feet back to a laughing Mum holding the camera.
20 years later I was back on the beach, populating my present, fearless and walking straight in.
Getting lazy with directions
I spent a few minutes cooling my blistering and rapidly becoming unattractive feet in the Atlantic Ocean before cycling back to the house with John.
I was leaving later that day, but really I didn’t want to I felt like I could retire Ursula right there on the beach. Ponce Inlet is such a slow and laid back place it’s an easy place to ‘zone out’ in, a great retirement location for sure.
After packing my bags and saying my goodbyes to Maria and John I left for Titusville to drop off the car. I felt strange heading south, it felt like my journey had already ended, as if I had already crossed the line a few days ago in Jacksonville.
What it was was the relief of stress, the release of loneliness and the sudden clarity I had discovered about life.
I was in Florida meeting old friends and new, resting and eating such great food under the sun and most importantly the humidity and heat seemed to do wonders for my AS. For the first time that month I could honestly say that I was happy.
When I got to Titusville about a half hour drive south I pulled up in the bay popped the boot (trunk) and there was my girl Ursula ready to roll again.
I couldn’t believe how strong she had been, all the sidewalks she had seen, all the rough terrain she had endured and she still didn’t have a puncture. I brought her out, reattached her wheel, checked the alignment, strapped on my panniers and headed south.
I had seriously underestimated the sheer size of Florida as a state, it is huge. Before I reached Florida and really checked out the mileage I assumed that I would be able to head straight into Fort Lauderdale from Ponce Inlet in a day. Well after looking at the map and realising it was a 232mile ride, I thought otherwise.
I was heading to Sebastian for the night, even that was a 110 mile journey, I had to split the journey to Fort Lauderdale up in 2 legs, funds were getting tight and I couldn’t afford to do it in any more legs.
So there I was on Route 1 on another 110mile bike ride, I was so thankful that the roads were flat because my legs were feeling like spaghetti; I couldn’t push passed 13 miles per hour.
I couldn’t wait to take off my Lycra shorts, they were getting tighter and tighter with every wash and man did the seams begin to chafe. When I got to the halfway mark I stopped for my liquid top up, I got 3 waters and a can of Mango iced tea.
It made me remember the first stop I made just outside of Framingham Massachusetts on day one where I bought the same beverage…wow that day really seemed like yesterday.
It’s interesting cycling long distances on road because your eyes are constantly affixed to the white lines ahead of you, when you stop for a rest and close your eyes all you see are white lines it can drive you crazy if you let it.
So after a few minutes rest and a quick check of my phone I continued south down Route 1 passed Melbourne, passed Palm bay and into Sebastian my stop for the night.
Just as I pulled up into my hotel for the night I had suddenly remembered that when I checked my emails during my stop at CVS a few hours ago I didn’t see a confirmation of reservation email from hotels.com… That was odd.
Hitting the FTL
As I clambered off Ursula my right hamstring pulled right on queue leaving me limping into the hotel’s lobby ha-ha I was so used to that by now… I smiled it off. I leaned up against the reception, sweat and dirt covered my face.
“Hi I’ve got a reservation for one night under Tariq.”
“Sorry I can’t find you on the system let me double check.”
As soon as she said that I thought ok my booking didn’t go through I must have hastily closed the browser before the payment was confirmed.
I didn’t really mind I was in a hotel, AC blasting and a vending machine with about a year’s supply of Dr Pepper to my right, I was still smiling until…
“Sorry sir I can’t find your reservation.”
“Can I just get a room now for one night please.”
“I’m afraid we are fully booked up right now sir.”
My smile dropped as quickly as I wanted to drop these freaking Lycra pants.
“None at all?”
“I’m afraid not sir. There’s a motel 6 just a few miles back in Palm Bay if you’re interested I can call you a cab?”
First of all I was heading south, second I was never going to back track just to stay a night to come back down the following day and thirdly I was not staying in a Motel 6. I think I even heard Ursula gasp at the suggestion.
“Ok so what’s in Vero Beach? Can you get me a place there for the night?”
“Sure we have a location there let me see if they have any rooms available.”
My smile was now on the floor along with a small but growing puddle of sweat. I had to do another 20 miles south and it looked like I had only another 2 hours of daylight left.
“Ok they have a room available would you like me to go ahead and reserve it for you.”
“Yes, yes please do.”
I couldn’t believe I was so stupid and didn’t confirm my booking the night before, I had booked so many hotels this journey it was just a stupid mistake.
I couldn’t stop thinking I could have been in my hotel suite right now showered and in bed watching TV. Instead I was heading back out onto the roads with a hamstring fixing to pop at any moment; Lycra pants which I’m sure hated me as much as I hated it and now a splitting headache.
Before I left the lobby put on my GPS to the hotel in Vero Beach and grabbed myself water which I so wished was a Dr Pepper. I picked up Ursula and headed back onto the roads again.
I was running on empty my legs where turning but there was no power. To make it worse, I now had a time limit and realised that I had forgotten to take my medication at CVS… yes it was becoming a not so laid back day.
I stopped to change into my bright yellow shirt to make sure I would be more visible to drivers and stuck to sidewalks as much as I could.
I got to my hotel at twilight; I was beyond tired now and felt my back tightening up. I limped into the lobby of the hotel and walked straight up to the receptionist.
“Hi sir are you check -”
“Yes, Tariq…One night.”
Before he could finish his sentence I finished it for him, I was slouched over the desk completely spent.
“Ok I just need a credit card and a form of ID”
I just gave him my wallet.
“Here…it’s somewhere in there.”
I felt like passing out at any moment. I wasn’t sure if my legs were just fatigued or if I had a pinched nerve but they weren’t feeling good.
“All set room 306 take the elevator it’s to your right.”
I picked up Ursula from against the outside wall and walked her into the elevator before pressing the button to level 3. I had no trouble sleeping that night….
The next morning I woke up stiff and groggy as hell. I walked downstairs in my shorts, shirt and flip flops and had what must have been 4 coffees whilst I planned my route into Fort Lauderdale on the iPad.
The last thing I wanted to do was cycle, my legs barely made it to the breakfast bare let alone another 110 mile bike ride. I watched the news, had some cereal and went back to my room to shower. I was so tired the night before I hadn’t even unpacked.
I left at 10.07am on the dot because I remember walking passed the TV in the lobby showing a storm prediction hitting the east coast in a few weeks. As long as it wasn’t within the next week I was good.
I was cycling to Fort Lauderdale that day to meet a good friend of mine, Lee, who I’ve known for the past 5 years but had never met. He was my first MySpace friend, yeah that’s taking it back some.
So I clambered onto Ursula and headed down Route 1. My legs felt like they weren’t attached to my body and my back was bordering on locked.
I made plenty of stops that afternoon; it felt good being able to take my time having left a lot earlier than I did the day before. My last stop was just south of West Palm Beach, it was around then when I realised just how close I was to Miami, my final destination.
I sat on the curb outside CVS, drank my sweet tea, ate my peanuts and stared at the palm trees ahead of me.
I picked myself up off the curb, or at least I tried to, BANG just like that I couldn’t stand up straight, my back had gone. I hobbled over to the wall and leaned back onto it trying to stretch it out, I couldn’t without bending my legs and I couldn’t straighten my legs without bending my back… AS is a bagful of fun isn’t it?
My cycling day was over, I knew that much. I’m strong willed but I know my limitations there was no way I was getting back on the bike that day. I got the clerk in CVS to call me a cab, turned out it was either $80 to Fort Lauderdale by cab or $42 to rent a car and drive myself.
So I got a cab to the rental location and hobbled into my rental car, it was only a 38 mile ride south down I-95.
I reached Lee’s house by 6pm and parked up on his driveway waiting for him to get back. I sat there trying to stretch my back as straight as I could get it against the driver’s seat.
It was great meeting a ‘pen pal’ because very rarely do you actually have the opportunity to meet. It’s a strange feeling knowing someone and never meeting them but it’s strange in a comfortable way.
That night Lee had some friends over; we had a few drinks and enjoyed the Saturday night in his great back yard in his pool and hot tub.
It’s a surreal feeling being in a hot tub with a beverage while it’s raining. The alcohol along with the heat of the water really helped my back and when it was time for bed it helped that the bed in Lee’s guest bedroom was one of the most comfortable beds on the planet.
The next day we dropped the car rental back and went for lunch at one of his favourite joints. The place was awesome I loved the colour and atmosphere in Fort Lauderdale, there’s something about palm tree lined streets that makes me smile.
We spent all day talking about what had happened over the past few years. We were friends on MySpace for a year then fell out of touch until I found him on Facebook late last year when I knew I would be passing through Florida.
We spent the day playing with the dogs and catching up on the last few years around his pool.
My diagnosis, the death of my father, his moving house, the recent hurricane there was a lot to catch up on.
I don’t know how many cranberry and vodkas we put away that night but I was knocked out and ready for bed.
Ocean and 5th
Early the next day when I woke up and told myself…”This is the day.” I was heading to South Beach, Miami Florida, a short journey but my final one.
The journey there was a blur, I was in shock most of the way and when I reached Ocean Drive and cycled along the beach I was a bag of nerves.
I tried recording a video but I couldn’t get my words out I was mumbling. I wasn’t so much excited as I was empty.
As I pulled up to the intersection that’s when the rain came down. Everyone scampered underneath the awnings of the delicatessens and restaurants just opening up for business that day… I stood there thinking….
“OK – where now?”
I was so used to stopping at major junctions and intersections to check my GPS for the next turn… although I knew the route half the time it was always nice to see my progress, it was a reassurance thing.
But when I reached the intersection of 5th and Ocean Drive that was it, no more directions, no more turns I was at my final destination.
I was cycling at a snail’s pace, I didn’t know why because I wasn’t tired, I was trying to take it all in. I looked down and saw Ursula’s front tyre flatter than normal, her first puncture all the way from Fenway Park… She waited for me.
I didn’t know what to do with myself so I did what I had become accustomed to when I found myself in such perplexed states, I went to the beach.
I climbed off Ursula for the last time and laid her on the sand before walking to the ocean. The day wasn’t as clear as it could have been; I guess the sky was mimicking how I felt.
I stared into the distance trying to think about something… anything, when a deep voice behind me said…
“Hey man is that your bike?”
I turned around to see the life guard setting up his deck behind me. He was a huge burly guy who was wearing a jacket 3 sizes too small for him.
He looked like the jock in those teen horror movies that always dies after trying to avenge the death of his ditsy cheerleader girlfriend.
“Yeah sorry is it in your way?”
“No dude… you’re cool…your accent… Where are you from?”
We did the whole, ‘wow your from London, do you know the queen, were you at the Olympics, do you guys really have bad teeth’ talk before I told him what I was doing there.
He took a photo of me standing by his deck which read “Miami Beach.” It wasn’t until that moment when he handed me back my phone, shook my hand and looked at the photo that I realised where I was and what I had just done.
I picked up Ursula and walked her back to the intersection in the rain. I looked around at the locals going about their daily business and couldn’t help but wonder…
To them I look like a guy out for a Monday morning cycle on the beach…they had no idea.
I crossed the street and went into the smoothie bar across the street, Fresh on Fifth. I walked inside and tried to order myself a mango smoothie… that’s when it all came to me, the waterworks.
The waiter looked at me as if I was crazy. I was in shock and had about a dozen emotions swirling around like a vortex in my mind. I didn’t know how to feel, happy, sad, relieved, excited, lost, found… I just let it all out there and then.
I sat down outside under the awning next to Ursula and overlooked Ocean Drive. Before the journey started I didn’t set a definitive finish line but where I was just felt right, I think Ursula’s flat told me that.
As I sat there gulping down my overly thick and overly sweetened smoothie that’s when I tweeted my location and for the next 30 minutes my phone whet crazy.
People all over the world were congratulating me and singing my praises. But the ones that really hit home were the guys not praising me but thanking me.
Thanking me for instilling belief back into them that they can overcome their illnesses and go on living life. That’s what I aimed for when I set out a plan for Boston2Miami in December 2011.
Boston2Miami wasn’t a fundraiser, I didn’t do it to raise money, it was a challenge set out by myself for myself. I was proving a point to myself and in turn helping thousands more help find their points to prove.
So when people ask me why I did what I did, I show them the ‘Thank You’ messages I’ve received from around the world.
When I finished my drink and the rain died down that’s when I saw my buddy Ronny come around the corner ready to pick me up with a smile.
He was my Miami-born friend I’d met in London who had since moved back to his home town of Homestead Florida.
I dismantled the front tyre and retired Ursula in the back of the car. My back was so stiff but I didn’t care, I was happy.
“Well done bro you did it!”
“I know, what a journey…”