Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Operation Queens Biathlon

    Saturday night, I tossed and turned in bed. I was anxious, nervous and excited in one orbiting ball of energy as I lay in bed. Tomorrow was the day. A day I had put in a lot of thought, effort and emotion. This was "for all the big bucks". Years ago, I always wanted to do an event like this. I did a diabetes bike ride and saw all the other multiple fundraisers for certain diseases. A lot of them did have a personal connection to me. For example, cancer research, my father had lung cancer diagnosed days after my wedding; diabetes, my father and my wife are diabetic. I wanted something that not only did I have a connection to, but to something I was a victim to. So I saw the Wounded Warrior Project as that organization and I wanted to help them with their mission.
Writing names of fallen brothers on my shirt

   This semester I was voted as the Vice President of the Student Veteran's Association. Nervous before to meet other veterans at my school, I put my chin down and went head first into my first meeting. After I overcame my fear to re-associate myself with my former military life, I saw something different. I saw civilians, except I saw a lot of potential in them. These were military trained students that I felt can do anything. So when it came to vote for who would head the organization, I put myself out there for Vice President. I wanted to represent the leaders of tomorrow. Why not President? It was my first meeting and I did not know how things ran so doing so would be a blind man's mistake. I gave the best speech I can on why I should be Vice President. Minutes later, votes were taken and I was voted with a landslide victory. There were 20 members present. It was pretty funny afterwards that my name still ended up as a vote for President.
Jane customizing a shirt
   Not everything turned out the way I had hoped. I saw this as a moment to organize a group that were veterans like me to help veterans. I felt this cause was different than the other causes in that we volunteered and knew what we were getting into. Cancer, diabetes and other ailments seemed to occur just randomly. We knew the ultimate price of death can occur. Lost of limbs and experiencing the hell of war were all known to us. Veterans still signed the dotted line in this still voluntary armed service. So I let the club know about my intentions that I would like to do the Queens biathlon and would ask for people to sponsor us and the money would go to the Wounded Warrior Project. I was in the veteran's center at Queensborough Community College just promoting my idea to the other student veterans. Anticipating a "Hell yeah, I'll fucking do it!" followed by an applaud and high fives as my fellow veterans would march out the room yelling "Ooorahs and hooaahhs". The room was silent. Instead all I got was "Uh, that sounds hard", "Man we're out of shape", and from our president "Nobody wants to do that!". I looked to her and just thought "Thanks motivation killer, how about you go to combat first before you tell me such negative things".
   Deterred I pondered why in the hell would they not want to do this. I mean, I feel so much for this cause because I lost a lot of friends in Iraq and a lot of friends were severely wounded. It wasn't something I heard that happened to them by word of mouth but I saw it happen. Right in front of my own fucking eyes! I thought this is something the other students saw too. I was wrong. I was basically the only infantry grunt. The rest were technicians fixing radios, submarine personnel, basically bean and battery counters. Pencil pushers, the ones I hated when I was in the Marines. Plus, I was only a small percentage that went to Iraq and actually saw combat. That's why they wouldn't understand what I was talking about or why I was so passionate about what I was seeking to do. It ends here I thought, this would never happen now. My friend Jose spoke to me and he told me about the problems he had with his Student Veteran club in California and how it was hard for him to get them to do things for veterans. He said to me, "Fuck them Z, you don't need them for this." An email had come from Linda the administrator for the QSVA (Queensborough Student Veterans Association) and she was asking if we ever planned to do anything as a club. I can tell she was getting frustrated with the group in that they never did any group events and that planning was horrible. I visited her at her office and told her what I was trying to do and also expressed my frustrations. She said "I'm not surprised". Her experience with the club was that they hardly did anything. She said "Go do whatever you have to do if it involves the club or not, it's your own thing and I support you". I walked out with my spirits even higher and I said to myself, "I'll do this even if I have to do it on my own."
    Saturday night, I was still there tossing and turning. I looked like I was break dancing under the covers. Look at where we are now. I had initially told the Wounded Warrior Project I was going to try to recruit about 5 people for the team because that's the amount I thought that would do the biathlon. Boy was I wrong. I underestimated that number. Race day morning there would be 24 of us. It was like pulling out an uninflated balloon to impress a small child. You start blowing it up only to find out you're trying to inflate a blimp. It took my breath away.
    One challenge and difficulty I had when I returned from the Marines was trying to fit in. I was cultured in the barracks of Camp Pendleton. All my Marines went off in separate ways, and they were the closest I had been to anyone. I came back to New York, unfortunately life went on without me while I was away. Friends had tales that didn't involve you. No one spoke the way you did, no one experienced or did the same things you did. I saw everything and everyone different. I felt like I stuck out walking the way I did with the haircut I wore and the squint I had from days of desert sun. Friends didn't have time for you like they did before. They had careers or their interests and hobbies were no longer the same as yours. There were friends I thought were best friends that didn't write a single letter to me while I was in Iraq even when I had written them. Things changed, people change, I changed. Now Corporal Zoleta was a jigsaw piece that came in the wrong box and now couldn't fit into any part of the puzzle.
    Sunday morning, someone had finally turned that jigsaw piece the right direction and found it was part of the puzzle all along. On that beautiful gloomy rainy morning as I pulled into the parking lot I saw nothing but yellow figures waiting. Team Zombie was assembling, yellow team shirts on, stretching, shaking hands, high fiving and taking bikes of their car racks. No matter what mother nature threw at me that Sunday morning, that morning still would be as beautiful as Easter, as bright as 3 suns. It was the greatest feeling in the world. Not only because there were a lot of us but that none of them were veterans. Some were children of veterans, but only Jason C. and I were the only veterans. You didn't need to be a veteran to believe that the cause we were racing for was just and worth their time and physical pain. Some may have been their just to race, but my mission was that I influenced them and motivated them to race for my team, my symbol for everything right I learned in the Marines. It was my portal to spreading my ethics and everyone jumped on board. That is my feeling of accomplishment.
Zhiyu and Jeff checking tire pressures

Jason (Left) prepping and Adrian (Center) rain jacket in hand

Wet ground from rain overnight

    After we set up our transition zones and helped a late Gary and David get registered and set up, we made our way to the starting line. The race was small in number. Approximately 130 competitors in total. My team would be 24 of those competitors and we lined up near the front. The color yellow strung back a long way to the rear as we were 2-3 wide from the front. The starting gun went off and rest would be history to me. The first 300 yards would be downhill from the upper Alley Pond Park parking lot as we made our way to Winchester Blvd. Team Zombie's fastest runners were up ahead in a pack, stride kicking back, arms swinging in sync. Other racers were yelling "Go Team Zombie". I felt good, we were being recognized as being a group with presence. We then cut past the lower parking lot and behind the tennis courts. I smiled at this part of the trail, we had ran this path so many times and I knew we were more than ready to combat the upcoming hill. Zoom went Team Zombie up the hill. Months ago, some of us were walking and out of breath trying to make it over. Like a Zombie now, we were covering ground and going further and further. Left foot, right foot I heard my Team Zombie running with breath calm. Inhalation deep, exhalation effortless. The turn around point came quickly and we were heading back to the starting point. Everyone's pace seemed great. We were now spreading out. A biathlon is an individual effort so everyone found their own pace and went with it. Only a fool would race at a too fast pace and burn themselves out before they even got to hop on their bike. I learned that during training. What we didn't practice was the hill that would lead us back to the upper parking lot. We trudged on, I thought its too late now but we are still more than prepared for this.
Look how many Zombies there are

Transition set up

Stretch it out

This ones for you guys

    Hopping on to my bike took longer than it should have as I sat with my ass on the ground trying to put my shoes on. I ran out and their was Patty, my cousins wife cheering us on. Wow, it made me feel better as I rode out onto the Cross Island Parkway. The roads were wet but luckily the course was mostly straight with only the turn around points being the only sharp turns. The first quarter of the CIP was downhill and I dropped it onto faster gears as I rode gravity like Sir Isaac Newton. "This is it!" I thought, "Drop the hammer Joe and make up that shitty run time". I pedaled concentrating on being smooth and keeping a nice cadence going with just the right amount of pedal resistance. I flew pass a few cyclists and started seeing Zombie's ahead in their yellow shirts as I was finally catching up. Coming back, a light mist started coming down. It didn't bother me, it was exactly what I needed as I felt more alive and it helped cool my body even more. Coming back we fought the uphill on the hill that we used to fly down in the beginning of bike course. Bud, Zhiyu, Dave, Kevin, Eddy and Han were far ahead and looking great on the bike. Bud was still smiling and Zhiyu had a face he was putting out max effort. Coming back on the second leg of the bike, it hit me. I was starting to feel a cramp on my right calf. During training, a cramp would usually come during my second run but never this early. "Oh shit" I thought. I had been pushing it hard and would I survive the run now. Coming into the transition zone. I got my shoes on without a problem and I was out of there.
Sam trying to look amused

Team Zombie is focused

We're smiling now, wait till later

     300 yards out the transition zone, that cramped locked my foot outwards. Adrian was right behind me and asked if he needed me. I waved him on as I pulled out to the side to stretch and then began running backwards. Leeanna had taught me that during training as I cramping and it was working. Still running, I began passing those that decided it would be easier to walk. Easier but not faster. Bud passed me going the other direction towards the finish line and yelled "Joe!". I was thinking "How the hell is he still smiling?" Zhiyu followed and gave me a high five followed by Dave with another high five. Team Zombie's fastest were now finishing. I just trekked on. I made it over the hills with no problems but now I was developing a cramp on my left quadricep. The finish line was coming too soon to worry about it so I pushed on. The sound of cheers started echoing down the hill as I made the turn to the upper parking lot. There they were. Team Zombie in yellow at the finish line cheering to finish strong. No one else but Team Zombie there. Such good sportsmanship and team unity. I threw a fist in the air in victory as I crossed the finish line. I then joined them as we cheered others crossing the finish line, Zombie or not. A competitor said to us "I give you guys props for all being at the finish line cheering everybody else on." Yes, cause we compete with honor. We waited till the last one came in.
    We were a happy bunch. Joking and laughing despite the exhaustion. The team would win 2 awards. Leeanna won first place in her age group for Females 30-34 years old and my wife Jane won third place for her age group for Females. Congratulations to them both. They had no idea they would win an award and the look of surprise on their face was priceless.
     After wards, it was off to my house for the post race barbecue. Food and booze awaited us as we took today to be one hell of an accomplishment. I had marinated some ribs and wings the day before. Dave picked up a keg of Blue Moon for us and we put it on ice Saturday. My team deserved to relax and more. They had shown commitment, great spirit, and a lot of heart. People have said to me that I make a great leader especially to what this team has done. I don't believe it one bit, I had to say little and explain little, Team Zombie just took it out of my hands and ran with it. Sunday was one of the best days of my life. Thank you to each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. Semper Fidelis and Oorah Zombies!

To view full race results follow this link: Queens biathlon Results
Adrian finishing strong
Me flying in

Jane sprinting in

Otto finishing

Sam making it look easy

Jason strong finish

Cynthia finishing strong

Jeff's victory

Marilyna crossing the finish line

Vincent's victory pose

Dave barreling through the finish line

Maria still got some energy left

Eddie's war face

Sabina strolling through

Team Zombie cheering

Our winners!

Team Zombie at the finish line

They will never fade

Monday, May 16, 2011

Group Date Night

    During our fundraiser at Turtle Bay we had a date auction in which the money we sold our lovely ladies and gentlemen would be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.
    My wife Jane helped organize a lovely group date which took place May 7th in the evening. The place for romance would be a french restaurant named Jadis in the East Village. The restaurant was able to reserve 4 separate tables for us. Meet up time was 7pm. The couples would be on time, difficult in New York.
  Jane and I sat at our own table and let the couples chat away in conversation. I took a quick glance at everyone and they were all dressed to impress. Gentlemen had their "A"game faces on. They were all deep in conversation and the wife and I just let everyone be.
   I would like to thank the auctionees for being great sports in giving their time to support the cause during the fundraiser and for participating in date night. Also, to the winners for donating money to the Wounded Warrior Project. Thank you all and I hope you had a beautiful night.

French Food

Tasty cuts

Kevin and Wenky

Jane regulating and making sure everyone is well behaved

Colette and Mike

AJ and Betsy

Wife and I

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Renegade

     I have always been looking for ways to think outside the box and to make do with what I'm given. That's pretty much the life story of the US Marine Corps, the smallest branch with the smallest budget given the toughest job. So, when it came to making up the next training plan for May 1st, I wanted to focus on our cycling skills. Unfortunately, New York City does not offer a lot of  bike routes that offer a large amount of mileage. I mean there are, but it'll involve a lot of intersections, turns, pot holes and wreckless drivers. Luckily, that training day would be the same day as the NYC 5 borough bike tour.
    A few of Team Zombie's members were already signed up as front end marshalls. It would be too late for the rest of the team to sign up. The event was sold out and I don't think any one of us wanted to pay its high registration fee. So we decided to ride bandit. Normally, I would condone illegal acts, but come on! You can't miss a great training opportunity when it presents itself. 
Renegades ready to jump into the pack
     We all met up around Astoria along the area in which the bike tour would have a rest station at Astoria park. Everyone was set and ready and hopped right into the flow of bicycles, thousands of them. We were headed south on 14th Street in Queens, headed towards Brooklyn. Cyclists owned the road and people along the side cheered on. It was a beautiful day in New York. No better way to experience the city than on a bike. You're not restricted to the confines of an automobile. Negotiating traffic is easier but you still must think safety.
Apex of the Gowanus BQE. Regrouping and enjoying the view
Zombies helping fellow cyclist fix a flat

Jeremy loving his fresh new ride

West bound Brooklyn Queens Expressway all to ourselves
    As we rode into Brooklyn, I noticed the road paint and saw how much of the road was a dedicated bike lane, some parts all green. We rode through Greenpoint, Williamsburgh and DUMBO before hopping on to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Given the amount of traffic, road construction and highway closures in New York, it felt great to have a highway to yourself while riding a bike. I definitely felt privileged. Then came the uphill portion of the Gowanus. I said to a guy on a bike on my right "Now I know why there's always traffic here. It's a hard up hill and even the cars have trouble making it up the incline". He laughed as he slowly drifted behind. Probably conserved his energy from laughing to be used for getting up the hill.
    Our group was strung out thin as we got to the top of the hill. We decided to stop and wait for others and took a moment to take a glimpse at the massive amounts of bikers off in the distance. I was in awe. I imagined what life would be like if we only rode bikes instead of having automobiles. Team Zombie helped a cyclist fix a flat and we were off downhill to continue the rest of the route.
    We were going smooth and fast down the highway, an awesome joy ride. It would be cut short as the 3 lane highway merged into one lane. Ride organizers created a stop in which they would send off a small amount of riders at a time down the one lane. This created a stand still and a headache. Everyone dismounted as we moved up to the stop.
A congested highway. Awesome t-shirt!!
    We finished our ride at the foot of the Verrazano bridge. If we had crossed we'd get stuck in Staten Island with no way getting back and supposedly there's a checkpoint there to make sure all riders were registered tour riders. Being in western Brooklyn, you can't turn down a good opportunity to grab some chow and for Team Zombie, that is the moral builder.
    Finding a small Korean BBQ restaurant we parked our bikes on the sidewalk and caught lunch. Afterwards, some took the subway home and some of us rode our bikes back to Astoria. Great way to end the day.
video
Thumbs up from Vincent who also got a new ride

Verrazano Bridge in the background
video

    On a different note we are now about 3 days away from our biathlon. The team is ready. I don't know about the rest of team but I definitely feel a lot of excitement and my heart races as I think about it. The hard work we put in will definitely show come race day and I know for a fact everyone will be successful.