Grace Deetjen of Naperville set out on the Illini 4000 cross-country bike ride to raise money for cancer research with two people in mind.
One was her mom, Kim, a cancer survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. At the end of the 71-day journey, Kim met her 19-year-old daughter Aug. 4 at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The other person Grace kept in mind was her best friend's father. But he died from pancreatic cancer while the University of Illinois team was cycling through Ohio.
"I really wished that I could go to his funeral. I really wished that I could be there for my best friend, but I realized I was already there for her," Deetjen said. "What I was doing was enough, simply riding my bike in his honor and his memory."
The team of 20 students dedicated each day of riding to a specific person, usually someone like Deetjen's mom or her friend's dad, someone who has experienced cancer and is connected with one of the riders.
And as the team neared the end of its 4,000-mile trip, a sense of accomplishment set in. The group survived one really nasty hailstorm nicknamed the "Nebraskan hurricane," crossed four mountain ranges and 16 states while raising $92,000 for cancer support organizations, research foundations and laboratories.
"That was the moment when it hit me," Deetjen said. "I rode here from Central Park in New York City."
Suburban riders from Algonquin, Buffalo Grove, Gurnee, St. Charles and Wheeling joined Deetjen on the journey as team members rode up to 113 miles in a day, slept in churches or schools, ate 155 Dairy Queen Blizzards and more than 800 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches combined. They also shot videos of 30 people explaining how cancer has touched their lives.
Near the end of the ride, Illini 4000 visited St. Alphonsus hospital in Boise, Idaho. For Deetjen, a bioengineering major, the visit was a fascinating introduction to just how many specialists and scientists work in a cancer center.
She said she was especially intrigued by the job of a hospital staff member who designs treatment plans for radiation using physics, math equations and computer modeling to determine the angle the radiation should take to best treat the cancer and protect healthy tissue.
"I had no idea that much pure science and computer work went into the treatment of cancer," Deetjen said.
Back in Naperville, Deetjen said, a bit of melancholy has set in knowing that she spent her summer in such an amazing, meaningful way, yet the ride has come to an end.
She said this year's team will continue accepting donations at illini4000.org until the end of this month, with a goal of reaching $100,000. Organizations such as the Lombard Junior Women's Club's TLC Camp for kids with cancer and their siblings and the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation have received donations from Illini 4000 in the past years since the team was established in 2006.
"It was incredible being surrounded by the team," Deetjen said. "It was so much fun."