America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride with Team in Training 2016

On Sunday I completed the America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride (AMBBR) 100-mile bike ride around Lake Tahoe with Team in Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This was my 4th event with TNT and was definitely the most special.

I started all of this (“this” = cycling) when I signed up for the DC AIDSRide in 2002. I wanted to give back to the DC HIV nonprofit organizations that were so amazing to me during the 30-day period after I got a false positive HIV test result (yes, it was really negative… yes, another story entirely). Over the course of several years I built a collection of “AIDSRide friends” who will always have a place in my heart.

When I came back to PA I started to rebuild my cycling group with Team in Training because the model was similar, and I was glad to hear that they make sure that 75% of funds raised go to the mission (not so with AIDSRide, as it turned out, and they went out of business). I’ve made some of the best friends I have now through TNT and this past weekend definitely reminded me of that.

About 5 years ago, one of our chapter’s coaches, Eric, decided to create a Facebook event for this year’s America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, as a celebration of the remission anniversary of one of our patient heroes. A bunch of us said yes, and we actually stuck to it. Eric and I actually did our first TNT event together in 2008, so I wasn’t allowed to say no.

We had one of the biggest cycling teams ever in the Eastern PA chapter because of Eric. And the chapter might not have chosen to send a team to Tahoe this year if it hadn’t been for the fact that all these alumni bombarded them with emails about Tahoe. The final tally was around 30 people, after all was said and done with recruitment. And by this year we had not just one patient hero to honor and/or remember by doing this ride. A super awesome dude and TNT cycling friend of ours died 2 years ago of cancer, and before our last (80-mile) training ride, Coach Fred read a story about him and played a slideshow of photos that had me making an ugly-cry face. So we rode in his memory, too.

This training season was MISERABLE. It freaking rained and rained and never went above 60 degrees. Granted we started in February, but by April we were all feeling pretty demoralized by the weather. But, as coach Fred says, “nothing you’ll experience on the bike will ever be as bad as what blood cancer patients experience.” So we sallied forth. We met at ungodly hours of the morning, froze our asses off. We changed flats, we muscled through rides with broken bikes and broken bodies. We crashed. We got up. We dealt with angry motorists. We raised our fundraising minimums and more. And despite how tough it was, we always joked and had fun on the road. We were always laughing!

It turned out toward the end of training that one of our two head coaches had to be in Germany for work over event weekend. This just happened to be Eric, the guy who started this whole thing in the first place (see “Facebook event,” above). It was a huge bummer.

But we all shipped our bikes and then we flew out to Tahoe at the end of last week, including a friend who had signed up with her husband but then gotten pregnant – she supported us through the whole weekend, carrying around her future cyclist. And friends from other cities who used to ride/work with TNT in Eastern PA flew out to meet us to ride or cheer/help along the course. We all had an incredible weekend together. It’s hard to explain how close you feel to people who have this charity endurance event mindset. (Side note: I have never had so many social media notifications in my life.)

Here is a bunch of us with our sweet airbrush tats at the top of the switchbacks on practice day.
Here is a bunch of us with our sweet airbrush tats at the top of the switchbacks on practice day the day before the century.

And the LLS “inspiration dinner” the night before the event was the most moving any of us had ever been to – for me, it ranked up there with the riderless bicycle ceremony at the AIDSRide. The speakers were amazing – one woman told her story of “life minus 1” – before her husband died of leukemia he asked her to do the ride with Team in Training that they had signed up for when he was diagnosed. She and her father did the ride together on a tandem, and now she’s a TNT cycling coach. I had tears streaming down my face – and I know there were a lot of others who did, too.

And we raised a bunch of money for LLS. The largest individual fundraising amount was $174,000! He was a 4-year survivor from Ohio whose 3-year fundraising total was $550,000! The 800 cyclists for TNT – 100 of whom were survivors – raised a total of $3.6 million. I’m so impressed. It means a lot to actually meet people who have benefited from the money we’ve raised. We had 3 survivors on our team alone, and one was celebrating her 30-year remission anniversary.

So, event day finally arrived, and at 5am (thanks, Fred) we all gathered to head over to the start. The sun was still rising, we ate a few nervous mouthfuls of bagel or whatever, and rolled over to Harrah’s. And we rode 100 miles to find a cure for blood cancers. The weather was amazing, too.

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The team getting ready to hit the road on event day. They’re peeps on our heads… born in Bethlehem, PA. lol

My little ride-day “pack” consisted of my ex roommate (who I met through TNT), her Iron Man partner in crime, and another TNT hero who rode across the country last summer to raise money for Team. We added one more who dropped back from our very front group for the last half.

Poster children / the pack.
Poster children / the pack.

We saw many friends along the way, and tried to give them all a “GO TEAM” as we rode by. At lunch, our friend who used to work for Team in Training in Philly and had driven from San Diego was at the ready to help. She literally RAN across the street to get me a Coke Zero when I said I was fantasizing about it. Another ex participant ran for sunscreen. Whaaaat?! And they did this for our whole team. Like I said, these people are amazing. We laughed, we pushed, I almost died on the 7-mile uphill that is Spooner.

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This is what I look like close to death. Not so bad, eh?

We screamed down the hill after Spooner (my max = 40.1 mph – not my fastest ever, but we were braking to take in the views). We ate fruit, energy bars, trail mix, potatoes, more fruit, more potatoes. We ate lunch at King’s Island beach. We rode all the way around Lake Tahoe, with a little swoop off the NW corner to Truckee and back. My stats:

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And we all made it safely and happily across the finish line! I’m so proud of everyone. There was a TNT victory tent, and a beer tent, at the end, thankfully. As we were watching a few more teammates cross the finish line, I noticed a buzzed head and sunglasses that I recognized – I yelled, “IT’S ERIC!” He had flown directly from his meeting in Germany and driven from the airport just in time to see half his team cross the finish line. It was a really special surprise for all of us. Again, more crying.

With our surprise cameo coach!
Right after the surprise coach cameo!

It really could not have been better in any way. Oh, and get this! Two of our participants even got engaged over the weekend (Roomie: “I SO wanted someone to get engaged this weekend!”)! Thank you to all of my amazing teammates and coaches. I love you. My heart is full. And that’s saying a lot for someone who’s getting married in 6 weeks!

For good measure, here’s a video TNT produced this week after the ride (it even features one of our peeps! Also, THAT’S what those kids were doing with that drone. Duh.).

When You’ve Survived, You Know What’s Important

Sarah: Everything is always changing.

Jen: Do you think there’s anything that stays the same?

Sarah: Oh, yes. Family.

______

If you don’t have time to read this very long post about my experience at the 2015 Downingtown High School holocaust survivor symposium, I’ve already given you the takeaway gem: the only thing that doesn’t change in life across decades and generations is how important family is.

This is the second time I’ve volunteered as a driver for this event. I had a really magical time with Manya in 2012 (read more here). The event is set up like this: Philadelphia-area survivors are invited to speak to the sophomore class as part of the kids’ education about the holocaust, and several students are competitively selected to be one-on-one chaperones of the survivors for the day. The drivers’ (i.e. my) job is to get the survivors to and from the school. This time I was much less nervous and more excited. My charge for the day was Sarah Danon Meller, and when I googled ahead of time I discovered she is from Split, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia). Yes! I was just in Croatia! I couldn’t wait to talk to her. I was also excited to go back to the school, which used to be a junior high school – MY junior high school – and became a high school when the school district split the high school into two. I hadn’t been inside since 1995.

I waited a few minutes outside Sarah’s house and then out came a very sprightly little lady in a lovely black pinstripe suit. And because I’m 5’2″ when I say she’s little you know that she’s TINY! She must have been 4’10”. She needed no help from me to get in and out of the car and we chatted like old friends from the time we got on the road to our arrival at the school. I made a point of not asking her to tell her war stories since I knew she’d be telling the whole story later that morning. We talked about Croatia and how beautiful the Dalmatian islands are, and the places that I visited. She was still disappointed that I hadn’t been to Split, even though I’d seen a good number of other places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Korcula, Orebic, Cara).

SarahMellerI asked her all about how she met her husband and what she liked to do growing up in the states (she was not even a teenager by the time she got to NY). She said she loved going dancing, and told me that her husband asked her to go steady on their first date in January 1952, then he asked her to marry him 3 months later, and they got married on July 5, 3 months after that. I said, your anniversary is my birthday! And then she told me that her husband had died almost 3 years ago on July 6 – the day after their 60th wedding anniversary. He had waited for their anniversary and told everyone he saw in the hospital all day long that it was their anniversary. How beautiful and sad is that? She had a wonderful marriage, and has 4 children and 7 grandchildren. She told me that no amount of time she had with her husband would have ever been enough.

When we got to the school I passed Sarah off to her student chaperone and wandered the school a little, trying to get my bearings. The entrance to the school had been moved, which was disorienting. There were some vestiges of the old building, though, and that was fun to see.

There was a general assembly where 4 of the survivors told their stories to the entire sophomore class. One told of being in Vienna during Krystalnacht. Another woman was a child during the war and was sent away from her family on a train to England in the kindertransport. And Peter, whose father was a mechanic and conscripted by the German army to work on their vehicles. That man attributed his survival to his father, because even though eventually his father died in Buchenwald, because of his skill the Nazis had kept the whole family in a civil prison for a time before eventually sending them to concentration camps. Peter calls April 14 1945, the day he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, his second birthday. And then Manya, who I drove three years ago, told her story, too.

Manya closed with, “I hope I will be an example to others. We have only one life to live.”

After the assembly were break-out sessions, and I followed Sarah to her room to hear her story, which was incredible. She was 9 years old when Italy occupied the coast of Yugoslavia. It was a fairly benign occupation, aside from the burning and looting of the synagogue and beating of the congregation. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Nazis came in to take over, and the neighbors warned the Danon family in the middle of the night. Sarah’s father and brother (his Holocaust Museum oral history here) took their backpacks and escaped to the mountains, joining the partisans in sabotaging the Germans (they assumed that women and children were safe). Sarah eventually knew she and her mother and little sister had to get out of Split but could not convince her demoralized mother to leave. Nine-year-old Sarah practiced jumping out of her 2nd story window so she could escape if the Nazis came to the door. Sarah remembered that the woman who used to bring their milk had always told her to come visit her farm. Sarah told her mother they needed to go there and ask her to hide them. Her mother said no – that woman wasn’t serious; she won’t help us. Sarah packed a blanket and a sweater, took her little sister and started walking. A few minutes later her mother called to them: “Sarah! I’m coming!”

“I wouldn’t have left without my mother, but she needed convincing,” Sarah said. Sarah became the family hero.

The woman at the farm DID hide them, in a little room, with a single mattress on the floor. They had to be completely silent during the day, for months. When the farm owner became too afraid to hide them anymore, they hiked into the mountains and joined the partisans like Sarah’s father and brother, although they still didn’t know where they were. They hid behind rocks during the day and walked at night. They begged for food. The partisans continued to fight against the Nazis. The group, which had collected many Jewish refugees, got word of a British destroyer that had agreed to rescue the refugees, and in the middle of the night Sarah, her mother, and her sister got in a rowboat and, under Nazi fire, rowed to the British ship and made it to Italy where they miraculously found her father and brother. If they’d arrived 2 weeks later, her father and brother would have already left for New York without them, but they were able to all go together. Sarah moved with her family to Philadelphia and she started her new life. She told us that all of the other Jews from Split who didn’t escape to the mountains were killed. She also told us she was sure she was alive because of God. The kids were all very respectful, but there wasn’t enough time for questions or interactions.

During the event and the luncheon I recognized a few teachers I had known. For a moment I felt like an honored historical relic myself when the student escorting Sarah said he had some “old photos of the school” on his phone and asked, “Do you remember it looking like this?” I realized that he wasn’t even born when I went there. Just another reminder of how special the opportunity is for those kids to meet the survivors. This opportunity won’t be available much longer.

I drove Sarah home and gave her a big hug when I dropped her off. I hope I see her next year.

Here’s a full list of the survivors who participated in the symposium this year: Larry Buchsbaum, Lilly Drukker, Dorothy Finger, Anne Fox, Ralph Franklin, Marius Gherovici, Gertrude Klein Gompers, Ernest Gross, Michael Herskovitz, Joseph Hirt, Joseph Kahn, Manya Perel, John Spitzer, Peter Stern, Erica Herz Van Adelsberg, Sarah Meller, Seymour Levin, Joel Fabian.

Songs Lost in Time

Fritz-KruegerMy grandfather was a professional musician: a tenor in the Philadelphia Opera Company in the ’30s and ’40s (check it out! He’s mentioned in the Philadelphia Opera Co Wikipedia page), a performer in many other settings, and eventually a voice professor at West Chester University (where incoming freshman can still win the Fritz K. Krueger Memorial Voice Scholarship). I have written about him many times but I am continually fascinated by his life and work.

As I have said before, my family is lucky enough to have kept some old recordings of his performances, and my brother digitized them a few years ago. But the records sat in a chest in my parents’ house for decades and I guess over time that kind of record sort of deteriorates. So some of the recordings didn’t translate to digital very well.

I went back and listened to a few of the songs again the other day like I do occasionally, and I happened to zero in on one of the records (number 5 on the recordings page), which was labeled “B.J. Wedding Music” with a German song title written on it, but he was singing in English, so I thought I’d tap my mother for some more info by asking her about it on Facebook. Turns out that “B.J.” is Betty Jo, his niece, and he sang “Ich Liebe Dich” – “I love you” in German – at her wedding.

1412_thumbThe other song, “Because,” isn’t in the digital recordings, I guess because it was unplayable. So, I looked up the song, which was sort of hard to find. I did eventually find a Perry Como version (meh) and a performance of it that I liked, sung by another famous voice of the time, Mario Lanza (don’t worry, I didn’t know who he was until the other day, either):

Then I found this video of the song, which it turns out is from the 1938 movie, “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” yet another thing I’d never heard of.

And Facebook showed me its true value again that day because as more people saw my post I collected more historical nuggets:

1. My grandfather’s family and friends called him “Our Mario Lanza.”

2. He sang at so many people’s weddings, and all of those people remember it so happily!

3. His picture is up in the Wyomissing Institute of Fine Arts in Reading, according to another family friend. I’d like to find out if it’s still there.

But at the end of all this, despite what I found, the thing that is still lost is Fritz’s recording of “Because.” That is, it’s lost unless there’s someone out there with another collection of his recordings…

Run or Dye: I Didn’t Die

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Yesterday culminated a months-long journey to my first 5K. I bought a Groupon for Run or Dye back in February because it sounded like so much fun. The idea of being covered in color looked awesome and is something you’d never get at a cycling event. I thought it also might be a nice challenge to try running. Everyone seems to be doing it, and I’d done it before, albeit before a torn meniscus that still haunts me. I downloaded the RunDouble app and got started on training. I ran straight into a roadblock after a few weeks: knee pain. I ditched the Brooks shoes for a new pair of New Balance with their special inserts that have graphite arch supports, after going through their analysis (he said I had been using the worst possible shoes for someone with flat feet – awesome).

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Things got better with the New Balance because I was definitely able to run again, but still running sucked. Every training option – the track at the gym, the treadmill, the trail near home, running through town – was unpleasant. There was always pain that I discovered would sort of go away after about 10 minutes if I just ran through it, and then as the training runs got longer I really tweaked my knee by “running through it.” Every hill I ran I wished I were on my bike because I missed the reward of the downhill. Every curb I stepped off of brought a twinge of fear that I’d trip and fall. I even ran once in Central Park, when I was in the city for work, and although it was beautiful and interesting, even that had its down side: EVERYONE passed me. My friend Doreen was right – the more you run, the more you love cycling.

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Before, and after

Because of my knee I never really finished the entire RunDouble program. I got into week 8 of a 9-week program. So I had run only about 2.5 miles at once before getting to the event.
I originally signed up with one of my best buddies, who ended up having to travel for work on “race” day. Fortunately, Sister/Roomie (see related post, “Near Miss Weekend“), also signed up for the hell of it when I mentioned it to her. She completed Iron Man Lake Placid last year, so the thought of running with her sort of made me feel like an ass, since I could barely maintain a 12-minute pace. But she’s so wonderful that she made it fun. I got us slogan shirts in honor of our beastly bi’s. She got us some other appropriate accessories for getting covered in colored cornstarch.

PhotoGrid_1371311761981I must say the event was really fun. We ran around Citizens Bank Park, and at color stations volunteers chucked huge handfuls of colored powder at us. It ruled. The event has its roots in the Holi color festival in India (which is beautiful and of course is bastardized by these events, but I digress). And I ran at a decent pace and had no pain while I was there. There was no clock, but I think when we were actually running my pace was under 12 minutes. For this creaky cyclist, that’s pretty damn good. IMG_20130615_173018

I want to say this was my “first and last” running event, because I’m paying for it so thoroughly today, but you really never know. Roomie and I grabbed beers after the run and I actually heard myself saying I might consider doing another 5K. That was, of course, before my hip, knee, and foot got all hoogly-boogly last night. I’m going to get it all looked at. So you really do never know.

And now – time to saddle up on the bike!

Performing the National Anthem

Well this is pretty fantastic. I crossed something off my bucket list last night that I had never even dreamed of adding to it!

I — with my choir — performed the national anthem at a Phillies game. The experience was incredibly fun. We got to travel into the bowels of the stadium, get ready in a locker room, and then march out onto the field — THE PHILLIES BALL FIELD — and sing.

Much of it is a blur, and I was pretty nervous, but I do have a clear memory of watching my sneakers crunch on that red dirt, then stepping on to the grass, and seeing friends with tears in their eyes they were so happy to be there, and then hearing our voices reverberate back to us and thinking, “Man, there’s a really great choir singing somewhere!”

Choir members were allowed to buy tickets at a discount, so I had a bunch of groupies along who cheered me on from the stands while we sang. Sherpa took a video, and I’ve already loaded it in to YouTube. Then we stayed for the game, much of which I spent coming down off the adrenaline high.

I’m so glad I got involved with this choir. Unbelievable night!

So, for your enjoyment, here we are singing our national anthem!

Meeting Grandparents Through Digital Audio

My grandparents, Fritz and Margaret Krueger, both died before I was born. I do wish I’d met them, because I’ve heard so many fantastical stories about them. They were professional musicians (I wrote a bit about my grandfather in the post about choir auditions: D’oh! Re, Mi, Fa…) and very well respected ones as far as I can tell. My grandfather later taught voice at West Chester University here in the Philadelphia suburbs.

I’ve included a headshot of each of them so you may be dazzled by the glamour of a 1940s headshot. I definitely got Fritz’s genetically tenacious nose and mouth, but I think I also lucked into a little bit of likeness to the lovely Margaret.

I actually, by random Google search, found an advertisement about my grandfather’s vocal performances on eBay last year and bought and framed it for my mom. I added a photo of that below, too.

The first quote from a critic on that ad is “Raised the roof.” (I didn’t know that saying was that old! But I digress.)

He toured the country to perform, and sang with the Philadelphia Opera Co. My grandmother was a pianist and organist for churches and other events I think, and the two of them also had a Philadelphia-area radio show in around 1943 called “Mr. and Mrs. Music.”

So cool.


Well, my mother has had recordings of both of my grandparents for decades that she hasn’t been able to play for lack of equipment. So, finally, my brother was able to get hold of something that would digitize the audio played from a record. And he spent quite a few hours transferring the audio and loading it online.

When he emailed the link to the family, I was getting in the car to run errands. I listened to the first song from my iPhone and just cried and cried like a baby. It was so amazing to hear the voice of a relative I’d never met. And the performances by my grandmother on the organ are very impressive. My mother says she remembers watching her play effortlessly, hands and feet flying.

I had heard a recording of a Mr. and Mrs. Music show once before, when I was much younger, but somehow it didn’t have the same gravity for me, maybe because I didn’t realize how special it was to be able to preserve those recordings. I am so happy about it! If you’d like to listen to any of the songs, feel free: Krueger Audio Files.

THIRTY

Well, I made it. The big 3-oh.

I couldn’t have had a better time! My family and friends and El Sherpa threw me a big party the weekend before by birthday, complete with catered food, a bartender, and a photo slideshow set to music that my niece helped make and was super excited to have me watch. My niece also made me a necklace (“Aunt Jen likes necklaces with big beads!”). My nephews made me keychains. They all made me handmade cards. I got other lovely goodies from other lovely people!

Noodle got her first taste of watermelon!

And Sherpa got me my very first iPhone! Then he drove me home and I passed out in the car.

And this past weekend, the birthday weekend, I went out with another bunch, most of which couldn’t make it to party #1, to a whiskey bar in Philly, Village Whiskey. It was amazing and so was the food (um, hello, duck-fat fries and pickled beets!). And the company!

My beautiful friend Charlotte!

Then we stopped by a prohibition-era-themed bar down the street, Franklin, which serves all sorts of amazing cocktails with hand-chipped ice.

Then we went to a wine bar, Tinto. Then Sherpa drove me home and I passed out in the car.  (Thanks, babe!)

Then, to prove I can still do something with my body (still not riding Andie yet), Sherpa and another friend of ours took me rock climbing for the first time on my actual birthday. There were no photos taken of me, thank god, but I snapped this with Sherpa’s phone:

Me-yow!

So this post was an incongruous mix of infants and alcohol and boulders. Such is my life.