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Braking the Mold: Clay Williams Embarks on his Fourth BRAKING AIDS™ Ride

Braking the Mold: Clay Williams Embarks on his Fourth BRAKING AIDS™ Ride

Photo by Alan Barnett Photography

The BRAKING AIDS™ Ride brings together advocates, allies, and people living with HIV/AIDS to channel their power into a civil rights march on two wheels.

That synergy caught Clay Williams’ eye. Clay, who is turning 50 this year, was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, and he never thought that he would live to see this milestone, let alone participate on a 285 mile-ride from Boston to New York. But Clay is an astoundingly resolute man, and after his health improved, he signed up for the Ride in 2009 and never looked back, only taking a break in 2012 to get married to his devoted husband, the poet David Groff.

This year, Clay’s fundraising goal is $25,000—$500 for each year he’s been alive. I had a chance to talk to Clay about his passion for the Ride and HIV/AIDS advocacy, and most importantly, how life continues to inspire him.

Sunny Bjerk: Why don’t we begin with where you’re from and how you first heard about Housing Works?

Clay Williams: I grew up in Farwell, Texas, a town of 1,200 people right on the New Mexico border. My house was four blocks from the state line, which is the geographical transition point from the Central to the Mountain time zone. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had a very unusual childhood. I wasn’t a typical small town boy, as I was more interested in science and style (what a combo!) than football. In high school, I used to sit in my room listening to Blondie albums and looking at ads for New York City establishments in the back of Interview magazine.

I tested positive for HIV in 1991 during grad school and I moved to New York in 1994. Shortly after moving, I began exploring the various agencies providing services for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was then that I learned about Housing Works and the essential work that they do. I also discovered the Thrift Shops, and became both a regular donor and shopper.

SB: I understand that your husband is quite the poet, and titled his first collection of poems Clay. Can you tell us a little bit about the collection?

CW: My husband is poet David Groff, and the book is actually his second published collection. His first was called Theory of Devolution, which was selected by Mark Doty as a winner in the 2001 National Poetry Series. His second, Clay, was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the 2012 Louise Bogan Award and was published by Trio House Press.

When David told me he was going to name the book Clay, I was blown away. HIV/AIDS is a primary theme in the collection, and it explores living, loss, and survival in the midst of the epidemic, and this occurs in a broad matrix of subjects including mortality, sexuality, friendship, and nature. And love—let’s not forget love! The book ends with a poem in the tradition of the epithalamion, which is a wedding poem meant to be sung to the bride and groom. David wrote this poem for our wedding in August of 2012. He likes to joke that usually another poet writes the epithalamion for a couple, but he wasn’t going to wait for that. I cannot read it or listen to it without crying. It really captures the crux of our relationship over the past sixteen years. It starts with our meeting, and arrives at the awakening that any couple must eventually have, which is to realize that at some point, even if they stay together for life, they will ultimately be parted by death.

SB: Can you tell us about how you first heard about BRAKING AIDS™ Ride, and why you are riding?

CW: When I moved to NYC, it was the early days of the AIDS rides in the 1990s. I really wanted to do one, but my health was too precarious to do it safely, so I sat them out. I had resistant virus and didn’t find a combo that worked until 2004. Once I found such a combo, I quickly regained my vigor, but kept procrastinating on signing up to ride. Finally, in 2009, I bit the bullet and decided to ride. I rode again in 2010 and 2011, but skipped the Ride last year to get married.

I ride for two reasons. First, I want to make a difference for those who are still struggling with HIV/AIDS. The Ride does this in two ways. Most obviously, it brings much needed financial support to the cause, but it also brings visibility to a disease that has largely gone quiet. The second reason I ride is to celebrate life — my own and that of a community of people committed to activism until this disease is conquered.

SB: How do you prepare for the 3-day, 285-mile Ride? Do you find that you prepare more mentally or physically, or do you prioritize both?

CW: Physically, the secret is to stay in shape throughout the year, and once it gets warm enough, train, train, and train some more! The training is straightforward. It really comes down to finding a set of people that you like to ride with, and riding with them as much as you can. Blake Strasser is our amazing coach for BRAKING AIDS™ Ride, and she will help you set up a training plan that works with just about any schedule.

The mental preparation is actually a little bit subtler. I am a student of Zen, and the Ride is very much of a koan, which is a knotty problem that can’t be solved via traditional logical means. For me, there was a slow process where I realized that this wasn’t about completing every mile during the Ride (although I always try), but about participating in a community that refused collectively to give up. We carry each other when we need carrying, and it’s ok to admit that. I struggled to find a way to know when I was pushing bravely forward versus doing something foolish. One day during a training ride, a thought came into my head that serves as a guiding principle for me during the Ride. My head said to me, “If you are giving yourself to the Ride, that’s the right effort. If you are treating the Ride as something to take, you’ve crossed a dangerous line.” So, when I’m tired and pondering whether it’s wise to push a bit or take a break, I ask myself a simple question: Can I just give myself to this, or am I trying to grab something or prove something?

SB: There are a lot of noteworthy fundraisers for HIV/AIDS in New York — what do you think is unique about BRAKING AIDS™ Ride?

CW: The community of riders is by far the thing that makes BRAKING AIDS™ RideRide special. I’ve been involved in a lot of HIV/AIDS charities, but I’ve never seen anything like this group. When I saw that Housing Works described themselves as a “healing community” it really resonated for me. That is what the BRAKING AIDS™ Ride family is as well, so it’s a great match.

SB: Each year, more and more rookies sign up for the Ride, bringing waves of enthusiasm and visibility to the fundraiser. What advice would you give to new riders?

CW: What matters most is the friendships you will find on the Ride. I know people who’ve missed this by being too focused on the Ride as competition, which it isn’t. If you’re a really fast rider, slow down and spend some time in the middle of the pack. You’ll meet some amazing people and that’s where the fun is. When you are in the middle of the pack, you arrive at the oases at their busiest, so the crew members are at their wildest, and the party atmosphere really picks you up. Or, if you are really slow, don’t be afraid to be swept forward and go from there. This isn’t a race, and there aren’t any prizes beyond the connections that you build.

SB: How has your fundraising been going so far?

CW: Let’s just say that I have a knack for procrastination and that this question will light a fire under me. Seriously, I’ve always started late, and I have some very generous friends so it has always worked out. However, this year I’ve decided to set myself a very ambitious goal and start earlier. The money is really needed, so I need to do all I can.

SB: What other causes are close to your heart?

CW: My mom died of pancreatic cancer, which is a terrible disease that is basically 100% fatal in a matter of months. I am supportive of research on this and other cancers. I am also very interested in contemplative practice as a means for transforming our world and support a variety of institutions that seek to engage the public in the development of contemplative practices.

Help Clay reach his $25,000 goal! Make an online donation to his fundraising page.

To learn more about the Ride, register, or RSVP for a Ride Preview, visit

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