Suburban cyclists bike across nation to fight cancer
A bunch of college students on an "epic journey" sounds like the premise for the next spring break movie.
But for members of Illini 4000, it's something much more meaningful.
Twenty University of Illinois students -- many of them from the suburbs -- are biking 4,000 miles this summer to support a variety of cancer-related causes. The ride began May 25 in New York City, rolls through the Chicago area June 11 through 13 and is expected to conclude Aug. 3 in San Francisco.
The trip includes 63 days of biking and eight days of rest, with stops at hospitals and efforts to document the cancer experiences of everyday residents across America.
Riders such as 19-year-old Grace Deetjen of Naperville say they were attracted to the team by the all-out challenge of bicycling coast to coast.
"It sounded like something new, something pretty crazy and just like an epic journey," said Deetjen, who is heading into her junior year as a bioengineering major.
But something even bigger than the promise of a challenge helped translate interest into action for Deetjen and other riders from Algonquin, Buffalo Grove, Gurnee, St. Charles and Wheeling.
That something is cancer, and its devastating health effects on their loved ones.
"People do the ride for all sorts of reasons, but everyone has their own connection with cancer," said Tory Cross, Illini 4000 president.
Deetjen's connection is her mother, Kim, who was diagnosed when a tumor in her jaw was identified as non-Hodgkin lymphoma in November 2012.
"Looking at the risk factors, my mom had none of them, and it was also a really rare form of cancer," Deetjen said. "Finding out that my mom had cancer was hard for all of us."
The cancer connection for Illini 4000 rider Marissa Castner of St. Charles is her grandmother, who was diagnosed with lymphoma when Castner was 14. While the disease has been slow to progress, Castner says her family still worries every time her grandmother has a doctor's appointment.
For Josh Weisberg of Buffalo Grove, it's his uncle.
"I actually lost my uncle to cancer when I was in seventh grade," Weisberg said. "He was actually really into biking and hiking and climbing and all the outdoorsy stuff."
The cross-country ride and its cancer-fighting crusade, he said, are "the perfect connection" to his uncle.
On behalf of these relatives and all affected by cancer, each team member committed to raising at least $3,500 before the trip started.
Through bake sales, date auctions, sponsorships and selling grilled cheeses to late-night passers-by on the Urbana-Champaign campus' main drag, Castner said every rider hit the fundraising total this year for the first time in the team's eight-year history.
More than $650,000 in previous Illini 4000 funding has gone to cancer support organizations, research foundations, laboratories at the University of Illinois and camps for cancer patients. The Lombard Junior Women's Club's TLC Camp, which is for kids with cancer and their siblings, received some of last year's $115,500 pot, as did Camp Kesem, which hosts summer programs in the Champaign area and nationwide for children whose parents have cancer.
Even as a cancer survivor, Deetjen's mother Kim said she had some reservations about her daughter spending the majority of her summer pedalling across the country. Kim said she worried about safety and questioned which causes the fundraising would support. If it were just to pay for typical cancer treatments -- like the six rounds of chemotherapy Kim went through, which caused her to lose her hair and take sick leave from her job as a teacher in Elmhurst -- she might not be so supportive of the endeavor.
"Cancer prevention is where I would like to see more of the funding, rather than additional chemotherapy," said Kim, whose cancer now is in remission. "Chemotherapy is a pretty awful thing. It's nice to be alive, but it definitely has some pretty nasty aftereffects."
Grace Deetjen, whose bioengineering career interests are more about prosthetic limbs than cancer treatments, said she has learned more about ways to fight the disease since her mother's diagnosis and her decision to sign up last fall for the mammoth bike ride.
"I've learned a lot about different new therapies. Anyone who's had cancer just hates chemotherapy and what it does to you," Deetjen said. "I've learned about things that are targeting the actual cells and have less side effects."
Now that the team is on the road, riders will be relying on hours of training they completed in the gyms on campus and on the miles of rural roads through rolling cornfields and hillier forest preserves near Champaign.
Deetjen said each day of riding begins at 6 a.m. with a breakfast of oatmeal or "something yummier" if it's provided by the church, community center or campsite the team called home the previous night. Riders cover an average of 71 miles each day, stopping for a quick lunch of two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before continuing to their next lodging site.
"We're all physically ready," Weisberg said before heading to New York to begin the ride. "The challenge is just to be able to do it over and over and over again every day."
In the evenings and during several special stops throughout the trip, riders will conduct what they call the Portraits Project. As they spread their mission of raising funds for cancer research and support, they will ask those they meet to share how they have been affected by the disease. Stories of cancer survivors, patients, relatives and caregivers will be made into video clips as an online companion to the physical outreach of the cross-country journey.
"With the Portraits Project, we're really trying to build a community among people who have been affected by cancer and show that no one is alone in their fight no matter what stage of the fight they're in," said Cross, the team's president, who went on the ride two years ago.
"It can really result in some awesome, emotional stories," Deetjen said.
Each day of biking is dedicated to a specific person, usually a relative or friend of one of the riders. This gives team members another reason to keep going when they're sore or tired or sunburned or extra hungry or annoyed with a teammate or struck by any other challenge that can befall them along the endless plains or daunting mountains or winding roads of the nation's vast lands.
Cross said the mentality becomes one of pushing through adversity to "show people we won't stop in our fight against cancer until cancer ends."
And that's exactly what cancer survivors like Kim Deetjen want to hear from a group of college students on a crazy -- no, "epic" -- bike trip across the country.
"This is her way of giving back, and I think that's really good," Kim said about her daughter. "It's something she'll always have as a good memory."
Ride: Cyclists average about 71 miles each day of trip
Illini 4000 riders are two weeks into their 4,000-mile bike ride across the country. Along the way, they are raising money for cancer-related causes and telling the stories of cancer survivors, patients, caregivers and relatives. Here are some statistics about their ride.
Started in: 2007
Funds raised: More than $650,000
This year's goal: $150,000 ($85,649 so far)
Team members: 20 (13 from suburbs)
Average miles per day: 71 (range: 16 to 113 miles)
Days of biking: 63
Days of rest: 8
To follow: @illini4000 on Twitter or "like" facebook.com/Illini4000
To donate: Checks payable to "Illini 4000," The Illini 4000, P.O. Box 2431, Champaign, IL, 61825, or visit illini4000.org and click "donate" under the "support us" tab
Meet the team
The Illini 4000 team includes 20 riders whose hometowns and majors vary, but who all feel compelled to take to their bikes in the fight against cancer. Here are the basics on this year's team.
Eric Baehr, a chemistry and dietetics major from Gurnee
Jeffrey Bogue, an industrial design major from Naperville
Ellen Butler, a history and political science major from Rushville, Illinois
Melissa Castner, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major from St. Charles
Kevin Daliva, an accountancy major from Glenview
Grace Deetjen, a bioengineering major from Naperville
Shiqui Fu, a chemical engineering major from Guangdong, China
Alex Knicker, a civil and environmental engineering major from Crystal Lake
Blake Landry, a civil and environmental engineering major from Saint Martinville, Louisiana
Tyler Levy, an undecided student from Wheeling
Kathleen Mammoser, an English major from Algonquin
Ryan Newquist, an engineering mechanics major from DeKalb
Christy Nichols, a linguistics and Spanish major from Glenview
Isalia Ramirez, an agriculture and consumer economics major from Cicero
Connor Ramsey, an anthropology and integrative biology major from Rochester, Illinois
Anna Renardo, a nursing major from Chicago
Arthur Tseng, a civil engineering major from Hong Kong
David Walder, a computer engineering major from Oak Park
Anne Wave, a Spanish and global studies major from Park Ridge
Josh Weisberg, an industrial engineering major from Buffalo Grove