We were getting an early start to the day so I woke up at around 6:00 to pack up my things before heading down to the lobby. Once I got down there it was pretty much a complete anti-climatic scence since I seemed to be the only one down there. Plus, since we were all dressed up for the White House ceremony, I couldn't tell who was with WWP and who was not (we were at the Hilton, everyone was dressed up)!
I had been to Walter Reed once before, but it's like a maze from hell so I knew my way around no better than if I'd never been there before. If you take a wrong turn, you can count on there being a dead end ahead. Not just a dead-end though. A dead-end with so many cars parked on each side of the street that you have to back down the entire road just so you can turn around. Then once you've turned around you're no better off because there is still no parking. I watched as my gas gauge dropped an 1/8 of a tank (3 gallons) just looking for parking. That's about $12 these days in gas. And I didn't even go anywhere. But once I'd parked, I turned over the driving to someone else and didn't have to set foot in front of a steering wheel for the next 4 days.
We hit the usual traffic driving down to DC on a weekday morning, but we got to the Capitol in time for a decent tour. It was rather uneventful and my thoughts had quickly skipped past the tour and on to lunch since I had missed (chosen not to pay $12 for) breakfast that morning. Lunch was finally served out of the back of one of the vans on the lawn behind the Capitol building. A delicious boxed lunch with the typical tasteless sandwich, greasy chips, and tempting cookie. Yum.
At this point it was still only noon and time to head to the White House. Security was tight although compared to what I'd been expecting it was like walking into a public museum in New York. I have a harder time getting through security at most airports.
Once into the north wing we were escorted to Mr. President's private tennis courts where our bikes were waiting. We were asked to change quickly so that we could get the ceremony rehearsal underway, which was relaly just another way to ask us to hurry up so that we could then sit and wait. We did a lot of waiting. And rehearsing. By about 2:00 they were ready to begin the event. Condolezza Rice gave a very nice speech. Then there was more waiting. Then President Bush went up on stage to give a speech and shake each of the soldier's hands. I took pictures. Lots of them! Then the horn was tooted and we started the 2008 White House to Lighthouse Challenge.
The first ride took us through downtown DC with a police escort that stopped traffic in all directions. There were a lot of unhappy drivers, but it was pleasant enough. I hung out in the back and got to know a couple people as we road along through DC to our first stop, which ironically enough was back at Walter Reed. One of the guys was having real problems with his stumps, so unfortunately he decided to stop riding at that point. I tried to persuade him otherwise, but he was done. Everyone else was doing well even though, for most of these guys, this was their first time back on a bike since their limb loss. They had been unfazed by the hills we tackled just 20 minutes into the ride. One of the guy's handcycle's handle broke, but he managed to climb the hill with the only handle left and still stay near the front of the pack.
After our relaxing break at Walter Reed we started our ride again, making our way towards Baltimore. We kept up a decent pace and hit the final stop (at the top of a massive hill) just in time for dinner. Perfect timing since the U-Haul facility there was throwing us a huge BBQ party. I finally got to sit down and talk to a couple of the guys, hear their stories, and tell them why I had joined them on this ride. Yes, I am an amputee, yes, I have done Ironman (2X), and yes, I am still completely awe-struck at the resiliency of most of these guys who are ready to get back out on the front line even though they aren't even out of their check-sockets yet.
Not all of the guys were amputees. Some of them were in wheelchairs. Other guys had lost function in a limb although it was still intact and semi-functional. Although I couldn't provide them same resources and advice to them, there was still an understanding there, a connection, that we were coming from the same place. Every day they woke up they had to face the same challenges again; the same pain and the same limitations. Brian joked that he'd never been a runner before and after losing function in his leg he'd never be a runner in the future. But he had a passion for handcycling after just one day in the chair and was already talking about competitive handcycle events. One door may close, but another will open. Go find the open door and walk through it.
I was exhausted by the time we got to the hotel, but some of the guys were going out for a beer. I couldn't pass that up. That's soldier ride. Too much beer and too little sleep. So we headed out to a bar, pulling up in the wrapped WWP van. Who would've thought that would initiate a night of free pitchers and shots on the bar owner who wanted to show his support for the event. Thanks Pickles. You're the reason I drank a lot more than I planned on.