On Sunday morning, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s campus was a sea of orange and metallic silver.
A tiny dog wearing an orange tutu darted through the crowds, followed by a pair of children carrying orange pompoms. Orange banners and tablecloths fluttered in the sun. And, of course, there were the hundreds of orange bicycle jerseys — against a backdrop of the glinting silver and black of hundreds of bikes at rest, waiting for their turn to roll out — as riders milled around at Obliteride’s starting line.
This weekend’s fundraising bike ride — the fourth annual — was an event of big numbers. Nearly 1,500 riders cycled across start and finish lines, pedaling routes ranging from 10 to 150 miles. The teams and individual riders have so far raised nearly $2 million to fund cancer research at Fred Hutch, with donations continuing to roll in for the next month. And everyone there — riders, organizers, volunteers, scientists — held the hope that their dollars and research will one day lead to better treatments and cures for the more than 14 million people around the world diagnosed with cancer every year.
But it was also a weekend of individuals. Cyclists’ orange jerseys were festooned with white “I ride for …” stickers, filled in by each rider: “I ride for Mom.” “I ride for Irwin.” “I ride for James.” “I ride for Allistaire.”
Many of these names were repeated on the dedication wall, a large, four-sided chalkboard with “I ride for …” in big white letters on the top. The wall’s blank lines were completely full of names written in different colors of chalk by the second hour of Friday’s kickoff party at Seattle’s Gas Works Park, with more names squeezed into spaces between the lines and written around all the margins.
Those hundreds of names — names of loved ones lost to cancer, like Allistaire Anderson and Abby Calvo, and names of survivors, like Nancy Evans and Brian Tracy — faced Obliteride cyclists as they celebrated Friday night and greeted them again as they crossed the finish line into the park on Sunday.
Abby Calvo’s name was also written on a jersey hanging over Obliteride’s starting line on the Fred Hutch campus. The starting line jerseys — six in total — belonged to past Obliteride riders or volunteers who have died of cancer since the ride’s inception in 2013. Calvo, an avid cyclist, died of Ewing sarcoma in April. Her husband, Justin Calvo, spoke to the crowd of riders at Sunday’s starting line.
Abby had been hoping to ride in this year’s Obliteride, her husband said. This past winter, she’d challenged her “army” of friends and family to ride with her. This weekend, many of those supporters showed up at Fred Hutch as part of the Abby’s Army team to ride in her memory.
“Today, 50 of Abby’s Army, her friends, her supporters, and all three of her bicycles will cross the starting line. Abby won’t. Cancer takes and takes and takes,” Justin Calvo said, going on to list other loved ones lost to cancer in recent years. “So many more beautiful names. Too many, too soon,” he said.
But for Justin Calvo and many others at the Obliteride starting line, new treatments on the market and those still under development in research labs are offering new hope. Fred Hutch immunotherapy researcher Dr. Phil Greenberg also spoke at the starting line, giving the audience a glimpse at the path immunotherapy has traveled in the decades of his career. For some people in early-stage clinical trials, immunotherapies like those Greenberg has developed have showed progress against cancers that no other treatment has touched.
“It’s a dramatic outcome and one we want to see expanded. The only way we can expand this now is with resources … The only way we can do that is with philanthropic support such as the kind of event you’re supporting today,” Greenberg said. “I just want to tell you that we share your passion. We’re out there, we’re trying to make this happen, and we can only do it because of the efforts of people like you.”
Justin Calvo echoed those sentiments when he spoke. “I’m reminded that we’re all in this together,” Calvo said, acknowledging those touched by cancer and those developing new advances. “It’s our turn to create the change that this world so desperately needs, to create our new vocabulary: from chaos to cure, from fear to love … and from someday to today.”
Last week, Fred Hutch News Service profiled two cancer survivors who are also Obliteride riders: Nancy Evans, 76, living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma for more than five years; and Brian Tracy, 33, diagnosed 15 months ago with a brain cancer known as an anaplastic oligodendroglioma. We caught up with them to find out how their rides went.
Evans, a four-time Obliteride participant, tackled the two-day, 150 mile route with her daughter, Dr. Heather Evans, and son-in-law on their fundraising team, The Big Wheels. Saturday, on the 85-mile route from Seattle to Tacoma, Evans made it 43 miles of a hot, hilly ride before she developed bad muscle cramps in her thighs. On her daughter’s advice she let the Obliteride support van pick her up and she stopped her ride short. Later, another rider taught Evans a new tip for stopping cramps — shots of pickle juice.
Evans is proud that she completed the entire second day of her ride — 65 miles back to Seattle and the finish line, and is looking forward to tackling the 150 miles again next year, armed with some “pickle shots.”
“I was so disappointed with not being able to complete my goal of riding 150 miles,” Evans wrote in an email Monday. “The great news is that I was grateful to ride 100 miles in two days, which I had never done before.”
Tracy, an outdoor-sports enthusiast, finished the last chemotherapy cycle of his treatment plan for his brain tumor just a month before this year’s Obliteride. Tracy, who also spoke at the starting line for the 25-mile ride, was new to the fundraising ride this year and completed the 25-mile ride with his team, Be Positive. He and his friends and family all rode together, and the experience was “overall awesome,” Tracy said, despite some of his blood counts still being low from the chemo. The team took the ride slowly and let him set the pace, Tracy said.
Tracy loved the spirit and the purpose of the event, he said, but it also felt good to just get out there and ride again — and not think about his cancer every minute, which is a change from just a few months ago.
“During the ride it was just nice to be in the moment,” Tracy said on Monday. “I was really blown away by the organization and the good energy that was around the whole event … I still am buzzing a bit from that energy.”
Obliteride executive director Amy Lavin agreed about that good energy.
“Positivity was a theme all weekend," Lavin said. "The energy at Obliteride is one of the fuels that keeps us all going forward together.”
Fred Hutch News Service writer Susan Keown contributed reporting for this story.
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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.