Riding Obliteride for a reason: Cancer has hit home for Robert Haugland, who will be powering a hand bike to raise research money

Cancer has hit close to home for Robert Haugland, who will be powering a hand bike to raise research money
Robert Haugland
Robert Haugland preparing for Obliteride Photo courtesy of Robert Haugland

When Robert Haugland heard about Obliteride, a fundraising bike ride for cancer research, he figured he had some good reasons to sign up: his sister-in-law had been diagnosed with cancer - twice. Then, earlier this year, her wife was diagnosed with cancer, too.

But Haugland, 45, also had a few challenges to overcome. First, he didn’t have a bike. And, second, he didn’t have full use of his legs.

Haugland, of Shoreline, Washington, has a degenerative disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia, which has gradually taken away the use of his lower limbs. He can still stand, and take a few steps, but for the last five years he’s used a wheelchair to get around.

He wasn’t going to let any of that stop him.

“Cancer is still a death sentence” for too many people, he said. Obliteride would allow him to do his part to help change those odds, and to join a community of people coming together for the same purpose.

Obliteride was launched last year by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to bring awareness to its work, and to give the community a fun way to support those efforts.

Today, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer in their lifetimes, ride organizers say, and federal research funding is diminishing.

“Now, more than ever, that research needs help from the private sector,” said Kerri Schneider, a spokeswoman for the event.

In its first year, nearly 700 cyclists raised more than $1.9 million.  This year, there are 800 and counting. One hundred percent of every dollar raised goes towards cancer research.

This year’s event takes place this weekend, with a kickoff party at Seattle’s iconic Gas Works Park on Friday night. There are four different routes, ranging from 25 miles to 150 miles, which wind their way through the scenic city and its surroundings.

Haugland said in his younger days, he was an enthusiastic cyclist.

“I rode from Santa Monica to Malibu with nothing but a stack of pancakes and an orange,” he recalled. “I just jumped on my 10-speed and went. Now that’s not happening.”

Haugland figured the 25-mile ride was doable. He convinced his wife Kim Wells, who hadn’t ridden in decades, to join him, as well.

Without a bike, Haugland began training in his wheelchair, putting in more and more miles to build up strength. Then, about six weeks ago, the Outdoors for All Foundation, an organization that helps people with disabilities to participate in outdoor activities, hooked him up with a specially-made bike that he could pedal with his hands.

“The hand bike is a beautiful thing,” he said. “But it’s still a lot of work.”

Haugland, a trained chef, has two jobs – working at a grocery cheese counter and running Chef Robert, his own specialty food business selling brownies and other items. He and Wells, who works in human resources at the Hutch, still found time to train.

“It’s been really fun to get reconnected to bike riding again,” Wells said.

It’s also been challenging. On a typical bike, your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps do most of the work. On a hand bike, you’re using the much smaller muscles in your upper body. On a typical bike, you can also stand up on the pedals, using the weight of your body to climb hills. On a hand bike, you don’t have any downward force.

All of that makes powering a hand bike a lot harder, especially on the hills. Haugland knows he’ll be among the slower riders this weekend, averaging around seven miles per hour.

“Part of the seven is you’re going 35 feet-per-hour uphill, and 35 miles-per-hour down the other side,” he laughed.

Fundraising has been the easy part. So far, he’s raised more than $1,000.

For some, asking for donations can be intimidating, Schneider acknowledged. But once you commit, it’s easier than you think to raise money for a cause, she added.

“If you get cancer or somebody you know gets cancer, the care you need is right here,” she said. “And the research done at Fred Hutch has far-reaching impacts around the world.”

Riders have until Friday to register to ride. But donations are being accepted until Sept. 30th.

Haugland is excited for the event. He also is intent on doing what he can, when he can. His uncle and his grandfather both had the same paralytic disease as he does, so he knows at some point, he won’t be able to get out of bed. But he noted, “it won’t kill me.”  Far too many people with cancer, he added, can’t say the same thing – yet.

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