With new routes, a new starting line and — for the first time — an event for walkers, nearly 2,300 bicyclists and hikers rolled and strode into Seattle’s Gas Works Park on Saturday, marking a triumphant finish to this year’s Obliteride, the summertime fundraiser for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
In this sixth annual event, participants have so far raised $2.2 million, a total that is expected to rise as riders and walkers continue to gather donations through Sept. 13. Since the event began in 2013, Obliteride has raised more than $14 million for cancer research.
“It feels fantastic,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, who attended his third Obliteride event since taking the helm in 2015.
“The thing that feels different to me this year is this groundswell of support from the young people of this community. They care about the future, about trying to make a difference in the long haul,” he said.
Obliteride participants started their routes this year at the University of Washington, near Husky Stadium, as the event has grown too large to host the start on the Fred Hutch campus. Bicycle riders rode in six waves, beginning at 7 a.m. for those with 100-mile routes, followed by the 50- and 25-mile riders. Participants reached Gas Works Park as early at 10:30 a.m. and kept coming until 6:35 p.m.
This year, to accommodate non-bikers and young families, Obliteride launched a 5-kilometer fundraising walk from the UW starting line, over the Burke-Gilman Trail to Gas Works Park. Led out of the starting gate and then serenaded by Sound Wave, the official brass band of the Seattle Sounders, 656 walkers — clad in Obliteride orange T-shirts — made the first-time trek.
One of them was 11-year-old Kayla Kapur, of Sammamish. “I’m walking because my friend’s dad died from cancer a little while ago, and I feel really bad about it,” she said. “And curing cancer is something I want to do when I grow up.”
Kayla walked with her mother, Andrea Sparrey, who learned about Obliteride when she struck up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to her on a recent airline flight. When she told her seatmate about Kayla’s sadness, he suggested Kayla email his friend Dr. Jerry Radich, a researcher at Fred Hutch. Kayla did so, and Radich, a 100-mile route rider, quickly emailed back, inviting her to join the walk.
That spirit of community abounds at Obliteride. During the event kickoff party on Friday evening, famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas was standing by the grill, cooking salmon over an applewood fire. This is the sixth year in a row he has cooked for Obliteride participants and their guests.
“We all have a shared bond here of trying to fix this problem,” he said. “It’s just part of what we are as humans. We’re taking care of our village.”
Andrea Gomes Morrison, director of Obliteride, noted that the kickoff party was not the true start of this year’s event. “Obliteride started when all of our riders and walkers committed to help Fred Hutch cure cancer faster, and they have been training really hard and rallying their communities for months to get them to this weekend,” she said.
Each year, Obliteride has fielded larger and larger teams from corporate neighbors. This year, Amazon employees were out in force, more than 130 strong — the largest team at the event. They included Tom Peled, an employee in Spain who completed a “virtual ride” on his own 180-mile route near Madrid so he could raise funds for the Hutch from another continent.
Microsoft & Friends holds the lead as the top fundraising team, with a current total of more than $152,000. Former Microsoft executive Jeff Dossett, who has twice summited Mount Everest, has ridden in all six Obliterides. This year, he rode the 50-mile route.
“I ride for a friend of my wife’s, Joey Abramson, who died of colon cancer some years ago. I’m also a cancer survivor myself,” he said.
Dossett had successful surgery to treat melanoma in 2013. “As one who has benefited from the research, I just feel compelled to do whatever I can to raise awareness and funds,” he said. He credits Microsoft & Friends' top fundraising performance to its efforts to recruit retirees and other alums of the Redmond company.
“It has been a really great way not only to reconnect with my friends from Microsoft, but also to reconnect with Microsoft’s commitment to giving back to the community in which we get to work,” he said.
A large contingent of Obliteride riders are Hutch scientists. Fifty-miler Dr. Nina Salama, one of the world’s leading experts on the bacteria Helicobacter pylori — which can cause stomach cancer — rode for the sixth straight year on a team of eight dubbed the Helicobikers.
“The money raised here at Obliteride helps to fuel research in my lab on infectious cancers,” she told the Friday night crowd at the kickoff. “I take your tenacity and urgency with me. … When I need a boost, I think of all of us here together.”
Dr. Meredith Hullar, a Fred Hutch expert in studies of the human microbiome — in particular, gut bacteria — said she signed up for the walk this year after meeting the cancer patients and survivors who attend talks she gives about her research.
“I was so touched by their warmth, and how knowledgeable everybody was,” she said. “My father died of cancer in the '80s, and there was nothing like the patient education and support they have now. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Ann Nelson flew in from Kansas City to ride the 25-mile route, her fifth consecutive Obliteride. She rides for Team IPCR, led by her son, Fred Hutch prostate cancer researcher Dr. Pete Nelson, a six-time rider who finished the 100-mile event again this weekend. Ann Nelson used to ride the 50-mile route. “At my age, I decided, ‘why get all worn out?’” she said. “I am 83.”
Nelson, also a long-distance runner, said she rides in memory of many people, including her late husband, who died of acute leukemia. She credits her son Pete with inspiring her to take up running. She still finds time to run half marathons, most recently in June at Glacier National Park.
Gregg Palmer, a retired commercial airline pilot who underwent a bone marrow transplant 26 years ago that cured his chronic myeloid leukemia — and a 25-mile-route rider — addressed a wave of Obliteride riders before the start of their route.
“Cancer research has many people working together long hours to achieve one goal, to eliminate this damn cancer that has been wrecking so many people’s lives,” he said. “I’d like to thank every employee at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. … When you are having a bad day at work, remember you are making a difference in somebody’s life. That somebody is me.”
Obliteride is accepting donations through Sept. 13. To support Obliteride participants’ fundraising efforts, visit the Obliteride donation page.
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.