An early-morning downpour soaked spandex but did not dampen the mood at the finish line of Saturday’s Obliteride, the annual fundraiser for science at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. A record number of people — nearly 2,500 — registered to bike, walk or run in the event, which this year has already raised more than $2.5 million and counting.
Starting at the University of Washington, participants walked or ran 5 kilometers, or biked 25, 50 or 100 miles on routes that all led to the finish at Seattle’s iconic Gas Works Park on Lake Union. They were met by food, beer, games, DJ’d tunes and summer sun, which finally overcame the unseasonable clouds and rain.
Over its seven-year history, Obliteride has raised more than $17 million, 100% of which funds research at the Hutch thanks to the generosity of the event's corporate underwriters. Fundraising continues through Sept. 12.
For many Obliteride participants, those dollars are personal.
One of them was Jay Goyal, who did the 5K route as one of 44 members of Team Bheem, named for Goyal’s son. Bheem, age 8, is in treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, at Fred Hutch’s partner organization, Seattle Children’s.
Over the past year since they learned of Bheem’s diagnosis, research has meant everything to the family, Goyal said.
“We’re lucky because our son has a cancer that’s pretty well researched,” Goyal said as his son and other kids on the team ran around him at the finish line party. “For everyone that doesn’t have a standard treatment for their cancer, this money goes to support them — ALL was in the same situation 40 years ago. We’re just trying to support them.”
Funds from Obliteride support science across the Hutch and enable researchers to explore a range of approaches with the potential to prevent, treat or cure cancer and related diseases.
Dr. Bruce Clurman, Fred Hutch’s executive vice president and deputy director, walked the 5K with his daughter as part of CureCyclists, Obliteride’s top-raising team. Clurman’s research focuses on a set of fundamental processes that allow cells to multiply by cycling through phases of growth and division. Defects in these processes can trigger cancer to develop or progress.
Philanthropic funds raised via Obliteride “allow us to do high-risk, high-gain work, the kind of research you can’t really write a grant for, because it’s high-risk. But that’s where the big breakthroughs come from,” said Clurman, who holds the Rosput Reynolds Endowed Chair at Fred Hutch. Although high-risk experiments don’t always work out as scientists hope, he said, “when they do come through, it’s a huge return on investment.”
The event isn’t just about the fundraising, participants said.
“What I love about Obliteride is the community coming together to support cancer research and cancer survivors,” said Kristin Fitzpatrick, who was volunteering at the finish-line party in a science-demo tent. Fitzpatrick, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Hutch faculty member Dr. Justin Taylor, is developing strategies to genetically engineer immune cells to pump out disease-fighting proteins. At the tent, tucked between the cornhole and giant Jenga games and the Elysian beer taps, Fitzpatrick was using clothespin-based models to show kids how those immune cells and their special proteins, called antibodies, work.
Obliteride is “humanizing,” Fitzpatrick said, because it brings together people who don’t normally interact. Patients can see that scientists are real people, “not just a lab coat,” she said — and, at the same time, scientists gain a first-hand glimpse of the impact of their work.
She remembers the little girl, a cancer survivor, she met last year walking the 5K. Seeing the girl’s face during Obliteride made Fitzpatrick think about all the lives her science could impact over the career ahead of her.
Those moments “help keep me going,” Fitzpatrick said.
Beginning with Friday night’s kickoff party, the weekend was full of such moments, driven by the stories of people affected by cancer and those like Fitzpatrick and Clurman who are racing to help them.
Participants were inspired by those stories — some told on stages and huge video screens, or more quietly through names written on a giant chalkboard "Honor Wall," on a jersey, or on one of the hundreds of signs lining the Obliteride routes.
One of those was the story of Arlene, whose name adorned the jersey of 25-mile biker Dan Grinnell of Team Pudding Cake. Arlene was his wife, and she died of a type of cancer called sarcoma 15 years ago.
“I was looking around for something to contribute to for cancer research,” Grinnell said. He discovered Obliteride. He and his friends started their team, which they named after a favorite party nosh.
As they rested around a table on the Gas Works lawn sipping beers after their rides, Grinnell and teammates shared a few of the stories that inspired them to participate.
Team member Ron Melencio, for example, lost both his parents to cancer — mom to pancreatic cancer and, a few years later, dad to mesothelioma. Coping with their losses was “a bit of a struggle,” Melencio said. Participating in Obliteride with his friends is a way he’s found to help. He’s already looking forward to next year.
“We plan to do it as long as we can move our legs,” he said.
Interested in participating in Obliteride 2020? Discounted registration is available through Aug. 31.
Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.
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