By Aaron TannenbaumA typical day on the 4K for Cancer begins with our youngest teammate, Rachael, circling the floor of our host residence, usually a church basement or high school gym, and kicking us awake through our sleeping bags. Up and moving before the sun, we load our luggage into one of our support vans before the not-so-strictly-enforced 6 AM deadline. On mornings when our hosts provide the team with a hot breakfast, we feast on eggs and toast and silly amounts of coffee. On other mornings, we peck at leftover granola bars and eagerly search for the nearest cafe. Once the floors have been swept and the tables cleaned, we file outside to spray sunscreen and pump tires. Before we hit the road, the team gathers in a circle to set the tone for the day. One by one we share a few sentences about who we’ll be riding for that day — often someone who inspired us to participate in the 4K or someone who has supported us along the way. Once we’ve all spoken we break into our riding groups and pedal out.
We executed that routine flawlessly the morning of June 20th and were making record time as we flew out of Lansing, Michigan. All was going according to plan when my group decided to pull off the road to take a picture with the sign that welcomed us to a small farming town called Portland. As we posed for a selfie, a man pulled up beside us in a beaten up truck and offered to take the shot for us. A few minutes of idle conversation later, we learned that the had lived on that street his entire life and earned the moniker of Ted Goodman, unofficial mayor of Looking Glass Road. Ted, meanwhile, learned that we were cycling across America to support the Ulman Cancer Fund for Adults. “Want to come over to my house for a cold drink?” Clearly, we had made an impression.
Nearly an hour later, our team of twenty-two riders piled into the garage by Ted’s farm. “I mostly grow corn and soybeans,” he told us. “Got some dairy cows too a little farther down.” Over some much-needed waters and snacks, we told Ted about the strangest yard sale items we’d seen along our route. Ted countered by telling us about how he had run down an escaped murderer with his truck not fifty feet from where we stood. We showed Ted photos from the day we had spent in Ann Arbor, which gave Ted the opportunity to share something even more personal: he had driven to Ann Arbor for his final round of melanoma treatment eighteen months prior and has been cancer-free ever since. His garage erupted in cheers. We promised that we’d all be riding for him the next day.
After weathering out a thunderstorm in a pizza shop run by a friend of Ted’s, we continued pedaling through the beautifully monotonous farmlands. Our boredom was just starting to get the best of us when we happened upon an unexpected gem of a town. We arrived in South Haven just before lunchtime, thanks to an oddly short day of riding. Our route of just forty-eight miles afforded us plenty of time to hang out on the shores of Lake Michigan and explore the charming Main Street. Sitting out on the pier and talking for hours on end, we almost forgot that our team had barely met one another three weeks prior. I also forgot, briefly, about why we were doing this ride in the first place. I forgot about my friends and family whose lives had been impacted by cancer and about the people like Ted who had shared their stories with us and supported us along the way. For that afternoon, we were just twenty one friends traveling together for the summer, having the time of our lives biking across the country.
Two days later, we rode into Chicago for a rest day and were powerfully reminded that we were so much more than a group of friends on summer vacation. Every year, the Ulman Fund awards several scholarships to young cancer patients whose families struggle to pay both medical bills and tuition. Our team had the honor of presenting Kelsey, a recent high school graduate and current cancer patient, with her Ulman Cancer Fund scholarship check. Kelsey is a soft spoken yet ambitious recent high school graduate who spent her senior year battling cancer and will start her freshman year at the University of Alabama in the fall. Over lunch, Kelsey told us about her hopes and aspirations that she gets one step closer to achieving with each day of treatment. She radiated a confidence and perseverance that continues to stick with our team even weeks after we parted ways.
Though the sleep-in and free time that we got in Chicago helped recharge our batteries for another tough week of cycling, the energy and inspiration we gleaned from Kelsey is what really kept us going when the going got tough.
Aaron Tannenbaum is a rising sophomore Applied Math major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.