Wheeling woman embodies Navy motto as she bikes cross country to serve veterans
In summer 2016, Tracy Sefcik took part in RAGBRAI, The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
Sponsored by The Des Moines Register Media, it is the oldest, largest and longest recreational bike touring event in the world at seven days. It averages 468 miles, with daily rides that average 67 miles. No small potatoes.
But apparently biking across a whole state wasn't enough for Sefcik, who lives in Wheeling. So she decided to take her two-wheeler cross country.
"I wondered what was bigger. What could I do next?" she said.
So, in 2018 she decided to go coast to coast, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida.
Instead of just making it a trip to see America, though, she started Cross Country Cycle 4 Vets and made it a fundraiser for the Gary Sinise Foundation, started by the actor from "Forest Gump" and other films and television to create programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire and strengthen veterans.
This spoke to Sefcik's heart.
She comes from a long line of people who served in the military, from the Revolutionary War to Korea. Her father was in the Navy, and she followed in his footsteps after high school.
She served for four years stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, and in California. Her favorite time was in Japan working on a tugboat. At the time, the USS Midway, part of the 7th fleet, was based there.
"For three years I woke up looking at it, and pulled the ship in every time it left and came back into port," she said.
Which made it all the more special when she was able to kick off her bike trek from the flight deck of the ship in San Diego.
"It really has special meaning to me, so that meant a lot," Sefcik said.
So on March 2, 2018, she started on her way with Martin Conlon, her partner of 18 years. He traveled with her as far as Phoenix, Arizona, and from there she was on her own.
"I like to say he left me in the desert," she laughed.
When they were together, they camped out on the side of the road. But Martin said there was no way she was doing that by herself. So she made plans for stops in towns along the way.
She would stay in hotels or take the kindness of strangers through an organization called Warm Showers, which is where people open their homes to cyclists, offering food, showers and a chance to do laundry.
Sefcik said a typical day was waking up at 6:30 a.m., eating breakfast and hitting the road by 7:30 a.m. She would ride 65 to 75 miles a day, hoping to reach her next destination by 3:30 or 4 p.m. She would find a place to stay, shower, eat and then map out her next day.
Sefcik said the most memorable part of her trip was being chased by dogs in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In total, 32 dogs ran after her in those three states -- once, four at one time.
"They chased me down the street. One even bit my back bag on the bike," she said. "I came back from my trip afraid of dogs. I am just now starting to feel OK around them."
She said her favorite part was talking to the people she met, telling them what she was doing.
"I really wanted to motivate other women to do the same thing I was doing," she said.
At various stops along the way, people would hold fundraisers for her. She stayed in a town in Texas for four days while they held a barbecue to raise money for her cause.
"I felt so bad staying for so long, but they were raising money for me so I couldn't leave. And it was great barbecue," she said.
She said the worst part was having an occasional mental breakdown.
"Sometimes I would ask myself, 'What are you doing?' But I have always told my sons to give 100% in everything they do, so what would I tell them if I gave up? So I would scream and curse and have a good cry, then get on and just go."
But all of that might be easy if it were just riding a bike across the country. But Sefcik was also dealing with health problems.
She had a brain tumor at the base of her spinal column.
"It is something we were keeping an eye on. Finally, in 2019, it became big enough to remove and the doctor said we needed to take it out. So I had it removed in May 2020."
And as if that wasn't bad enough, she also was dealing with asthma and epilepsy.
She said she didn't really think about it until she was lying on the side of the road having a seizure.
"I could hear the rattlesnakes in the grass near me. I had my gun, but I couldn't fire it because I was shaking so bad."
In total, she suffered 16 seizures on her trip.
"I just got over them, got back on my bike and went," she said.
She said that three years later, it's hard to put into words how she feels about the journey.
"It is amazing that I finished. I am so grateful for the people who texted me along the way, lifting me up when I was down and out," she said.
After riding 3,042 miles and 61 days on the road, Sefcik rode into St. Augustine with a police escort, followed by 16 AmVet motorcyclists.
"They blocked off the streets just for me and escorted me in," she said. "I started crying. They were doing this just for me, and people do this every day. I did not expect it."
She was greeted by the mayor and other dignitaries and given a pin to the city. More importantly, her two sons, mom and Martin were also there to congratulate her.
"I saw them and wanted to stop and hug them, but I had the motorcycles behind me so I had to keep going," she said.
Her goal was to raise $25,000 for the Gary Sinise Foundation; she exceeded that, raising $30,685.
The next challenge
When Sefcik returned from her ride, she found a job and took care of her health. But she found that a piece of her was missing.
"I felt that I had lost the most important meaning in my life, which I had found as I rode across the Southern Tier. I felt lost. I thought that I had to find that meaning again," she said.
So begins her next journey in August. This time for the Oscar Mike Foundation, an organization that gets injured veterans and first responders "On-the-Move" again through adaptive sports. It was started by Noah Currier, a former Marine who was injured in an accident and is paralyzed from the chest down, and is based in Poplar Grove.
"I kept it local this time," Sefcik said.
The group is best known for its all-vets rugby team.
"It is so cool to see these guys in wheelchairs playing rugby," Sefcik said.
This time Sefcik will travel with Martin, leaving from Lake Forest and traveling through Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula through Michigan before heading into Canada. Her goal is to enter the U.S. by way of Niagara Falls to be in New York City at the Freedom Memorial Tower for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11.
Then she will head home and finish in Chicago on Oct. 1. She will travel through 10 states and two countries this time. In total, she plans to be gone for 42 days and travel 2,547 miles.
Hopefully by the time she leaves, Canada will be open to visitors again. If not, she will follow a different route.
Her goal is $25,000, but she feels she is far behind due to COVID-19.
"I am hoping people can donate. Most of my fundraising was canceled last year," she said.
But she is going to do all she can to draw attention to her cause.
"I bought a Baby Yoda, and I am going to take a picture of him at different places I stop for Instagram. If people can tell me where I am, or come close, I will send them a small present," she said.
Follow Sefcik on Instagram at CrossCountryCycle4Vets.
Even though it will only be a little over a year out after her brain surgery, Sefcik said she is ready for the challenge.
"My doctor tells me I can't do hills yet because pressure builds up in the brain," she said. "If I can't do it, I'll walk it. I did plenty of that on the first ride. But when the time comes, I'll be ready."
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Follow Tracy Sefcik
YouTube Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=okmHR753wqo
Buy her book: "10 MPH: Coast to Coast," available on Amazon.com