Pedal To The Mettle; As Her Bike Conquers The Miles, Mary Hunt Turns Loss Into A Celebration Of Friends Who Died Of AIDS.

Pedal to the Mettle

A mirage ripples over the road, blurring the image of a woman pedaling uphill.

Mary Thompson Hunt swooshes by, a haze of blue jersey, shiny helmet and mirrored sunglasses.

"Lance Armstrong coming up; she can take him," Hunt says aloud, like a commentator.

It's just after 10 a.m. on a sticky July day, and already the temperature threatens to hit 90. Sweat drips from Hunt's face. She breathes heavily. She wishes she drank more water earlier in the morning.

But she smiles, imagining her friends Tom and Arnold cheering her on, whispering in her ear, "You can do it."

Hunt rides for Tom and Arnold, and for Bradley and Frank and Chuck and David and Albert and Thomas and George and Dean and all the others who died. In their honor, Hunt has cycled 5,000 miles and raised $10,000 for AIDS research. Later this month, she will embark on her most-challenging journey yet -- the Empire State AIDS Ride, a 500-mile trek from Niagara Falls to lower Manhattan.

Hunt once started a list of friends and acquaintances who died of AIDS. When the number hit 30, she stopped counting.

"It felt," she says, "like a personal holocaust."

Hunt, 44, never considered herself an athlete.

"I hate exercise," she says.

Biking doesn't feel like exercise to Hunt.

"It becomes a moving meditation," she says.

During the past six years, Hunt has cycled next to a man with prosthetic legs. She has pedaled alongside a partially blind man known as Flagman because he rode carrying a white flag emblazoned with a red ribbon, waving back and forth like a sail. Long bicycle rides once existed in a realm past Hunt's comfort zone. Today, she thrives on pushing herself beyond her limits, testing her personal expectations.

By night, Hunt works as an improvisational comedian at Disney's Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island. Every day she faces a new situation that requires her to think on her feet. She has no script.

She has found that life works that way too.

Six years ago, a friend told her about an AIDS ride from Orlando to Miami. It seemed like a good opportunity to channel her grief into action.

Hunt attended a meeting, figuring she would volunteer on the support crew. At the meeting, she watched a video that featured a 65- year-old rider, and Hunt decided she could do it too.

Jason Hunt greeted his wife's plan with skepticism.

"You don't have a bike," he said.

"I'll get one," she said.

"You're not an athlete."

"I'll become one."

Mary Hunt bought a bike within the week and took it to a sand trail in Windermere -- everyone told her that was the best place to ride. She didn't realize they meant the best place to ride on the street.

She rode three feet on the sand and promptly wiped out. Then, she clambered onto the bike again and rode five miles.

She ached when she came home, wondering how she would keep going. But she did just that, kept going.

Eventually, she ventured into traffic for the first time, riding along busy Lake Mary Boulevard. Someone threw a can out the window, narrowly missing her.

"How do I keep going?" Hunt gasped to fellow rider Beth Lanes.

"Just pretend you're on stage."

"You don't really die on stage."

Just as she was ready to stop, Hunt passed the Church of David. She thought about David, the first friend she'd lost to AIDS.

TOO MANY FUNERALS

David. Arnold. Chuck. Tom. Bradley. Frank. David. Albert. Thomas. George. Dean.

So many stories, so many names.

Hunt met most of these friends in the '80s in New York, where she was working as a waitress and aspiring comedian. They became her family.

David, the Robert Redford look-alike, was a maitre d' who taught Hunt the ropes of working in a fine restaurant. In 1985 he told her: "I got the big A." He died a year later.

Arnold, a kindergarten teacher, left Hunt $100 in his will, because he wanted her to know what it felt like to be an heiress. He died in 1991.

Chuck, a skater for the Ice Capades, walked 12 miles in the snow to bring Hunt orange juice when she was sick in bed one winter. He sang "We've Only Just Begun," by the Carpenters, at Hunt's wedding. Chuck died in 1997.

For years, Hunt refused to go to funerals. There were just too many. She couldn't take it.

And she knew her friends would prefer that she celebrate their lives rather than cry at their graves.

MEMORIES FUEL SPIRIT

Sometimes, when Hunt rides, she can feel their presence.

She pushes upstream against a Lake County hill known as The Wall, and thinks about the director and the producer of her first comedy show, who never got to see her perform in Orlando. She knows they would be proud of her.

As she cruises through the Mayberry-like village of Montverde and passes a mailbox painted with the American flag and a church sign reading "A clear conscience makes a soft pillow," she thinks about how fortunate she is. How much she loves her husband of 22 years, how much she loves the comedy she has performed for 13 years.

She says a silent prayer for the dead animals on the side of the road.

And then she reaches Sugarloaf Mountain, the closest thing to a mountain in pancake-flat Florida. From the bottom, Sugarloaf beckons 312 feet high at a steep incline. Hunt takes a deep breath and starts the climb. When she reaches the top, she smiles, enjoying the view of Lake Apopka.

A FRIEND'S POEM

Hunt knows her friends would get a kick out of seeing her on a bike.

"They're probably glad they're gone," she says with a laugh. "I'd make them come with me."

Hunt's husband and her friend Randy Williams will be waiting for Hunt at the New York ride finish line.

Several years ago, Williams, who has HIV, made Hunt a collage of photographs of loved ones she has lost to AIDS.

In the middle of the collage is a poem, the author unknown:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there.

Successful Journey. Rising off her bicycle seat, Hunt puts some extra effort into climbing Sugarloaf Mountain. Hunt says she knows her friends would be proud and would get a kick out of seeing her on a bike.

Orlando Sentinel - Orlando, FL