COVID’s Challenge for UT Students Cycling to Fight Cancer
By Sarah Kate Scribner
Armed with bikes and with helmets in hand, a small troop of students from the University of Texas at Austin greet the morning sun ready to train for yet another arduous battle against cancer to be waged in a 4,000-mile campaign.
It was 6:45 a.m. on a recent Saturday and the five UT students showed up in the parking lot next to the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Building on campus. Their uniforms declared their
mission: “Texas 4000: Fighting Cancer Every Mile.”
After the first crew took off, several other groups between three and six identically-dressed riders — all wearing masks — appeared until all 115 riders departed for the same training route around Austin.
“Everyone’s just as careful as can be, which is the only way that we can make Texas 4000 still work and happen this year,” said Ramya Yedatore, a 2021 rider and travel coordinator for one of the four routes Texas 4000 members will be taking to Alaska.
The trip every year is a massive undertaking of coordination and collaboration with a message that resonates with the millions of people somehow impacted by cancer. But, unlike years past, this trek will be made during a pandemic. Adding to the physical challenges of social distancing and mask-wearing, the riders will have to navigate their message through the noise of a more immediate global public health crisis.
“This year has been Texas 4000’s most challenging year as an organization,” said Javier Romero, Texas 4000’s Ride Director for the Rockies route. “But by doing more virtual volunteering and highlighting that cancer patients are typically immunocompromised, we make sure folks understand the gravity of supporting cancer patients even with the world up in flames.”
Texas 4000 culminates in a 70-day bike ride of over 4,000 miles from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska during the summer in support of cancer research. The longest annual charity bike ride in the world was started in 2004 by two UT engineering students, Chris and Mandy Condit.
Chris Condit, a stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor started the ride to “provide hope” for cancer patients and to raise money for research.
Condit’s goals for Texas 4000 conceived the three pillars of its mission — charity, hope and knowledge. Sixteen years later, the mission remains.
Findings released in May 2020 by the Epic Health Research Network reveal there has been an abrupt decline of between 86% and 94% nationwide this year in preventive cancer screenings for cervical, colon and breast cancer, as compared to equivalent weeks from 2017 to 2019. The drop stems from anxiety about visiting a physician in person and the lack of health insurance due to unemployment during the pandemic.
According to the National Cancer Institute, as many as 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colorectal cancer alone over the next decade can be expected because people failed to get screened. Although cancer mortality rates have dropped in recent years, it appears the coronavirus could quickly reverse this trend.
And it remains this pandemic and future ones will be brought under control long before cancer, a disease that has stumped clinicians and researchers for decades.
“Regardless of whatever global circumstances are going on, cancer doesn’t stop and so the organization doesn’t stop,” Romero said. “We feel a sense of duty to continue providing and helping and serving and spreading the mission.”
Fulfilling this mission during an unprecedented epidemic has resulted in several changes to the structure of the Texas 4000 summer ride. For instance, the last one took place in June over Zoom, where riders logged in the thousands of miles on stationary bikes. However, members of the 2020 team were given the option to defer to the next year’s ride if they preferred the possibility to ride in person.
With an extra 40 riders on the 2021 Texas 4000 team, there are now four routes instead of three to Alaska in order to limit the group sizes to 20 or 30 riders. These routes are called Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks with the new addition of Smoky Mountains.
There have also been changes in the preparatory work leading up to next summer’s ride in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Shannon Cunningham, Texas 4000’s associate development director, said the cycling industry has had its supply chain disrupted while simultaneously experiencing a huge increase in the demand for bikes. These factors have caused delays in bike manufacturing, meaning the bikes Texas 4000 ordered for its riders will not arrive until March. The riders usually have their bikes by September to officially begin training.
“We appealed to our alumni and cyclist community to ask if we could borrow bikes and our community responded so beautifully so now every single 2021 rider has a bike until their actual bike gets here in March,” Cunningham said.
The Texas 4000 team was able to officially start their mandatory Saturday training rides the week before Thanksgiving. Though the start for training was delayed, the fitness team has planned out how to increase mileage per week so that the riders can stay on track for logging the required number of training miles ahead of the summer ride.
Now that these rides can take place, Texas 4000 must adhere to the guidelines from the city of Austin and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Texas 4000 protocol entails meeting in small groups with staggered times, social distancing between ride group members along the routes, and wearing masks whenever the bikes are stopped or the riders are off their bikes.
Raising money to fight one health problem during a global public health crisis adds to the challenge.
“Personally, I was not comfortable fundraising when COVID was just starting because I didn’t know people’s financial situations,” said Morgan Thompson, a Texas 4000 nutrition coordinator and rider for the Ozarks route. “Yes, Texas 4000 is doing an amazing thing, but there are also people who are potentially facing more urgent situations, like if they lost a job and they’re needing that money for their family to keep food on the table.”
Yedatore said she took a few months off from fundraising earlier this year for that same reason.
“I think COVID has led to Texas 4000 going, ‘We need to do a better job of supporting people as they’re fundraising and not just setting these deadlines and telling them if they don’t make it, they’re off the team,’” Thompson said.
Another obstacle for riders is deciding what fundraising tactics to use. A Texas 4000 fundraising routine involved standing at street corners or outside football games with signs and flyers to encourage passersby to donate. With COVID, this form of fundraising was not possible for much of 2020.
Yedatore said Texas 4000’s fundraising coordinator came up with the idea to put large QR codes on signs so people can scan them from a safe distance and donate electronically. Those who have been panhandling have come in small groups for allotted time slots and worn masks.
Riders also have set up challenges such as dyeing or shaving their hair if they raise a certain amount of money. They have also written letters, sent personalized emails. create merchandise like Texas 4000-themed bags and t-shirts.
Each individual rider is expected to raise $4,500 — $1 for each mile biked on the way to Alaska. They also must perform over 50 hours of community service, attend weekly meetings, participate in mandatory team rides and log at least 2,000 training miles before the summer ride.
“One of the hardest parts of being in this organization is just pushing through and having determination,” said Maria Burgee, a 2021 rider for the Sierra route. “There are some days on a ride where you’re like, ‘I’m like the least athletic person in this group,’ or ‘I don’t have as much training as they do and I’m a lot slower,’ and you almost feel a sense of like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I forcing myself to do all this biking?’”
To answer that, riders look to their “Why I Ride” statements, which are shared on their rider profiles online and explain who or what they’re riding for.
“[Why I Rides] help you realize you’re riding for something bigger than yourself,” Burgee said. “They allow you to push through the hurdles where you’re like, ‘I can’t make the last six miles,’ or ‘This hill is horrible and it’s raining and it’s like 30 degrees outside.’”
Many have certain loved ones impacted by cancer in mind when they ride.
Burgee said she rides for her aunt who passed away a couple of years ago due to additional damage done to her spine from spinal cancer surgeries she had. Burgee also rides on behalf of the mom of one of her childhood best friends, who passed away three years ago from a brain tumor.
Yedatore rides on behalf of her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer and beat it after many weeks of chemo.
Romero rides in honor of a close friend he was in high school drum line with who had a sudden onset of neuroblastoma.
As Thompson puts it, she feels she has a broader purpose with her ride.
“For me personally, it doesn’t feel like a ride that is dedicated to a specific person,” Thompson said. “I have been affected by loved ones with cancer in my life and so of course, that is a big part of it, but I’m riding also to support people on the team who have stories with cancer and helping them through what can be really, really difficult.”
The three other riders also shared this sentiment to some capacity, saying that they were inspired by their peers when they presented their “Why I Ride” statements and wanted to show their peers their support.
“Cancer is not just one story,” Burgee said. “It’s so many different stories and there’s just always more reasons to ride.”
All of the riders have either met or surpassed the $2,000 mark by the Dec. 7 deadline and are spending their winter breaks brainstorming more ways to fundraise. Some riders have even already met the $4,500 individual goal, like 2021 Sierra rider and travel coordinator Grace Ann Hornfischer.
“I think we’re on our way and I think we’re gonna make it,” Hornfischer said of Texas 4000’s fundraising goal of half a million dollars and the additional help they get from businesses and other sponsors that make the ride possible.
Texas 4000 is also getting help from medical professionals in shaping the actual ride so that riders can stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.
“I think when you’re telling someone you’re biking 4,500 miles for cancer,” Cunningham said, “it’s kind of hard to say no.”