More University of Texas students were in the Bulkley Valley this weekend, en route to their final destination in Anchorage, Alaska.
This is the second group to pass through the in the past eight days. The Texas 4000 – Sierra Route athletes spent Saturday in Burns Lake before heading to Smithers on Sunday for a turkey dinner at the Smithers Legion and some shut eye at the Fellowship Baptist Church.
The 22 students are on a 70-day, 4000-plus-mile bike ride to raise money for cancer research.
While participants have said that nothing prepares you to battle almost all of North America’s elements, there is a mandatory 18-month training program. Each participant must first fundraise $4500 and volunteer 50 hours in their Austin, Texas community before even getting on a bike. Physical training begins about nine months before the departure, where everyone bikes a minimum of 1500 miles.
22-year-old Stefan Scrafield is a Winnipeg-native and is the sole Canadian participant in the fundraiser’s 12-year history. He says he got involved with the organization after losing his aunt and grandmother to cancer.
“When you have something like that happen to you, I just felt helpless. It’s a terrible disease and there just doesn’t seem like there’s much you can do. I heard of this organization and thought ‘hey, this is a way for me to make a difference, raise some money and, hopefully, make it to where a kid doesn’t’ have to lose his grandmother.'”
Sunday’s stop in Smithers was the 58th consecutive riding day for these students. They biked 89 miles (144 km) from Burns Lake, exceeding their already impressive daily average of 70 miles. Making their way through the desert-like Southwestern States, up the sunny California coast, and into the rainy, mountainous North Pacific, and now into BC, the group had seen some extreme weather.
“We’ve had everything from 40-degree heat to 5, 6 degrees, and pouring rain. The body gets pretty beat up. We spent some time in the desert: my lips were bleeding, my nose was bleeding every morning, you’re totally dehydrated and [there’s] not much you can do about it and the next day it’s pouring rain. The body definitely takes it pretty hard, a lot of tough climbs but overall, we understand that what we’re doing is a small, physical battle in comparison to what people fighting cancer do every day,” says Scrafield.
20-year-old Cecilia Lopez is a second year UT student from Houston, Texas. She rides for her older sister, Natalia, the “most beautiful bald person she’s ever seen,” who was just 16 when she lost her battle to leukemia.
“I would just never think that a 16-year-old girl would be able to have so much life and spirit about her even [she’s] having to take 10 medications a day and talking to doctors,” says Lopez, “you don’t know if you’re going to take a turn for the worse or if it’s going to take a turn for the better, but she always had a smile on her face that infected every person.”
Cecilia said when the climbs are hard and the days are long, it’s Natalia that gets her through it. During a hot, 12 000 feet climb in South Lake Tahoe, California is one of the times Natalia helped her most.
“Before the ride I had written my sister’s name and a friend she knew in the hospital, Johnathon, on my leg. When you’re pedaling and you look down and see their names … I can’t stop.”
All teammates have been touched by cancer, and emotional experience that has created a binding comradery. Sometimes this compassion is shown through a deep, emotional act like teammates dedicating days to Natalia’s memory despite having never known her. Other times, it comes through light-hearted laughter, like when Stefan got an uncanny Patrick Kane mullet. Both Stefan and Cecilia say they’ve created 21 new best friends through these experiences.
They also admitted that, by choosing to bike this far, they are insane. “We’re starting to feel a little crazy… What we’re doing isn’t about 22 people on bikes, it’s about every community we touch and that’s what keeps me pedaling and keeps my mind from just going nuts,” says Stefan. Cecilia confesses, despite having “the time of her life,” that “we are crazy, but it’s a good kind of crazy.”
The students have about 1500 miles, or 2400 km, to go before reaching their finish line in Anchorage, Alaska.
Donations can be made here.