By ones and twos and threes and fives, more than a thousand Obliteride riders rolled into Seattle’s Gas Works Park on Sunday, marking the end of a triumphant weekend of bicycle-borne determination to fight back against cancer.
Clad in orange Obliteride jerseys, or in colorful team gear of their own designs, the riders completed courses ranging from 10 miles to 150 miles, with every spin of the spokes raising money for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. At latest count, riders had collected pledges of more than $1.8 million — a figure that will continue to grow as donations continue to roll in through September.
For each rider, the long trip ended with a downhill glide, on a paved path lined with orange fencing and the cheers of families and friends rattling orange Obliteride cowbells. Dr. Rafael Santana, a lung cancer oncologist for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), Fred Hutch’s treatment arm, was among the early arrivals. Santana rode the two-day, 150-mile circuit from Seattle to the University of Puget Sound and back, his first ever. And there to greet him with hugs at the finish line: his children Lorenzo and Pia, and his wife Christina. “We are proud he covered the distance,” she said. “He had trained well.”
Two hours later rolled in Robin Rugh of Puyallup, Washington. Rugh is a three-year survivor of breast cancer. Despite the hot August sun, she said it was much more fun riding the 150-mile route this year. “Last year, I was in tears almost the whole second day,” she said. Her “Warriors for Robin” team has raised $4,400 so far this year, and the only difficulty for Rugh on this trip was a broken spoke. “I’m riding for my Dad; for Tina, Barb, Tracy; and friends who are patients or have passed away,” she said.
Rugh and 125 other riders started their two-day trek from the Fred Hutch’s Seattle campus early Saturday morning. Their ride took them downtown to the ferry terminal, where they sailed to Bainbridge Island and took a winding tour through the peninsula and eventually south. They picked up a friendly rider along the way: Washington Governor Jay Inslee, clad in an orange Obliteride jersey, who rode with them to Tacoma.
Fred Hutch was a sea of orange on Sunday morning, as more than a thousand riders readied their bicycles for one of four different courses. Some of the 100 milers and volunteers arrived before the sun for the 7 a.m. start, followed throughout the morning by the 50 milers, the 25, and the ten.
As the riders prepared to roll down “the chute” to Fairview Avenue, Hutch deputy director Dr. Fred Appelbaum thanked the crowd of cyclists for what they were about to do. “Every time you push those pedals, you push the science forward,’’ he said.
From an orange archway over the starting line at Fred Hutch hung four Obliteride jerseys, each with the name of an Obliteride rider or volunteer who had since succumbed to cancer. Sandy Cameron spoke of her late husband Walt, a bicycle mechanic who had helped riders tune up their bikes at the event, walked a hundred yards to SCCA for a round of chemotherapy, and then returned to work on the bikes. “Unfortunately he lost his battle with leukemia on March 8,” she told the hushed crowd tearfully. “This is my first ride without him.”
Ted Ave’Lallemant, a forester from Antigo, Wisconsin, said he was riding the 25-mile event this year with his best friend, Dr. David Harford. Ten years ago, Ave’Lallemant was battling acute lymphocytic leukemia. At Fred Hutch, he was able to knock down the cancer with experimental drugs. He enrolled in one of the first clinical trials for the drug that became known as Gleevec. But he was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, and none of his siblings could provide a match.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came “Donor Dave,” a U.S. Army Colonel who serves now as he did then as a pediatric oncologist at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio. He was a perfect match. Ave’Lallament had his transplant at Fred Hutch, and on Sunday stood with Harford on the podium, dressed in their orange Obliteride jerseys, ready to ride the 25 miles together. “In 2005 I donated marrow to Ted, and 10 years later, he is my best friend,” the doctor said.
In 1998, when Dr. Harford supplied a tube of blood to a bone marrow registry, there were only 2 million potential donors. Today, when a mouth swab is sufficient to sign up, there are now 25 million potential donors worldwide. “Who knows,” Harford told hundreds of cyclists, lined up at the starting line: “In a year or two, you may be riding here, next to your best friend.”
Despite the good cheer that surrounded Obliteride, thoughts of family and friends battling cancer were never far from riders’ minds. At the Friday night kick-off party in Gas Works Park, Jai Anderson stood on the stage before more than a thousand riders and their guests. “Each one of us is here because we are compelled by a story,’’ she said. “For me, it is my daughter Allistair’s, who right now is at Children’s.”
Katie Frei, of Longview, Washington, is a stage 4 lung cancer patient at SCCA. Her mother had died of the same cancer in 2001. When Frei received her diagnosis, her doctors gave her two years to live. “I’m on my third year now,” she said, looking fit and spry as she prepared to ride 25 miles with her family and friends. “This is a great event,” said Frei. “We hope we are funding a breakthrough.”
Sure enough, two hours and 45 minutes later, she rolled down the hill at Gas Works Park with family members riding by her side, and crossed the finish line. “I loved it,” she said. “My legs feel real solid. I only walked up one hill!’’
Twenty-one members strong, Team Frei is among the most successful of 100 fund-raising groups in this 3rd annual Obliteride, approaching $50,000 in pledges so far. Frei’s daughter, Julie, rode 25 miles last year, and rose early for the start of the 50 miler on Sunday. “I’m working my way up,” she said. “Next year, the 100.”
One Team Frei member couldn’t make the bicycle ride, because he was hiking the Continental Divide Trail in the Rockies. But in a phone call Saturday from Wyoming, he said he’s been passing out pledge cards along the way.
Sunday was a day of celebration, a day for riders and families to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The weather forecast called for a 30-percent chance of rain that day, but with so much orange energy circling Puget Sound, the skies stayed clear, and the sun shone on Seattle throughout a glorious weekend.
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at email@example.com.