To a chorus of cowbells, clapping hands and the cheers of family and friends, nearly 2,000 bicyclists rolled into Seattle’s Gas Works Park on Sunday, a triumphant finish for this year's Obliteride fundraiser for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The rapidly growing event has already become a summertime tradition for an inspired — and inspiring — community dedicated to "curing cancer faster."
During the four previous years, Obliteride cyclists raised nearly $9.2 million for Fred Hutch, and this weekend’s fifth annual event promises to break all records. Riders this year have already raised more than $2.4 million, 100 percent of which goes to cancer research at the Hutch, and contributions will continue to roll in until Sept. 15.
“All of our lives are affected by cancer, but everyone here has a special story to tell, a special connection with cancer,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland. “Obliteride makes a difference for us. We need these resources to be creative, to be innovative, to think outside the box about how we can develop cures for cancer.”
Among those raising funds to spur research were groups organized around workplaces. Obliteride corporate team membership soared in 2017 and set many milestones. The construction industry showed up big time: Lease Crutcher Lewis total donations over the past five years reached $1 million, and its team was top fundraiser again this year. Close behind was online jeweler Blue Nile and Team Microsoft.
Team JHKelly, led by Hutch board member Mark Fleischauer, made its debut with 31 riders; Amazon employees showed up in force, their team growing to 82 members this year; and Starbucks Team Siren brought its biggest contingent ever, with 42 riders. From the realm of biotech science, Juno Therapeutics had 81 members riding, Seattle Genetics was 60 riders strong, and Adaptive Biotechnologies tallied 46 teammates.
A record 700 volunteers kept the event running smoothly from start to finish, supporting these teams and all Obliteriders along the routes.
This year Harvey Kanter, who in October will mark his 10th year as a survivor of non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma, broke the single-rider record for fundraising, topping $100,000. “This event is so energizing, and it’s growing,” he said. “My hope is we can make Obliteride an even bigger event.”
Former Hutch board chair Paula Reynolds was the second-leading individual fundraiser this year, raising $43,565; followed by five-year Obliteride rider Kevin McCain, at $21,600. This year, 1,250 riders participated in Obliteride for the first time, while 103 have ridden in every Obliteride since the event was launched in 2013.
The weekend’s event kicked off on Friday evening with a party at Seattle’s Gas Works Park. Riders, donors, family and friends, and volunteers drew together with a determined sense of purpose — to speed the work of Fred Hutch cancer scientists to find cures.
Just inside the gates of the venue, guests gathered before the Honor Wall, where riders or their family members wrote, in pastel-colored chalk, the names of loved ones either lost to cancer or facing it today.
Among the first names to be written beneath the words “I ride for…” was Lucy, the 5-year-old daughter of Nicole and Mark Watters of West Seattle, who is currently receiving treatment for a relapse of leukemia at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Lucy has been sick for 2½ years and has relapsed twice,” said her grandmother Rosalie Watters, who was one of 10 family members who would ride the 25–mile course as part of Team Lucy Strong. “We just believe it is time that childhood cancer was obliterated.”
At the Friday night event, guests were treated to music by rising Washington R&B star Allen Stone and a dinner of grilled salmon prepared by renowned Seattle chef Tom Douglas.
It is the fifth year in a row that Douglas has stood with his team at the barbecue to cook for Obliteride, this year grilling wild silver salmon for 3,000 guests. “My mom’s got colon cancer. We’ve got teammates with cancer. My dad died of cancer,” Douglas said. “I just think this is the right thing to do for our city.”
Whether alone, among friends or in teams, riders rode one of four Obliteride courses, traveling from the Hutch campus as far south as Tacoma, in circuits of 25 to 150 miles. They rolled in to Gas Works Park throughout Sunday afternoon, sometimes in clusters of 10 team members or more, sometimes in a long single-file train.
The research funded by these riders has touched many of them personally.
One family was riding for Sylvia Bauman, of Snohomish, Washington. In treatment for multiple myeloma at Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for three years, she started with chemotherapy, went on to an autologous blood stem cell transplant, and then had a second transplant with donor cells from her biological sister from Costa Rica.
Unable to ride herself, Sylvia basked at a table at Gas Works Park and greeted family members as they completed 25-mile rides. “My 20-year-old son Max, who has autism, saw a booth for Obliteride during a fundraiser for multiple myeloma,” she said. “He has always worried about me, and asked Grandma Carol if she would do this ride. She took off with the idea, and here we are.”
Sylvia’s mother, Carol Sullivan, is team captain of weride4sylvia, which has raised $8,210 so far for Fred Hutch. “She has gotten her treatment at SCCA, and has definitely benefitted from research and treatments developed at Fred Hutch,” Sullivan said.
One of the first riders from any route to reach the finish line on Sunday was Justin LaFord, from Lynnwood. His wife, Haley Neff-LaFord, and children Karlyn and Michael, cheered him as he arrived, speeding down the narrow chute with two other companion riders less than four hours after leaving Tacoma on the second day of the two-day, 150-mile loop. “He rides for his mom, a breast cancer survivor,” said Neff-LaFord.
Among those who came in a little later was team Lucy Strong, riding for the girl whose name they’d written in chalk. Lucy’s mother, Nicole, was battling pleurisy, a lung inflammation that causes chest pain with every deep breath. But she was determined to complete her 25-mile loop with the rest of her family, all of them riding for her daughter.
“As I crossed that finishing line, it was very emotional for me,” she said, her eyes pooling up again. “When I thought of all that my little girl has gone through, I was going to make it.”
Fred Hutch Obliteride thanks founding sponsors University Village and Sloan Foundation for their support.
Didn’t get to ride? You can still help cure cancer faster! Donate to Obliteride through Sept. 15, 2017.
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he 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.