Plano students ride cross-country to raise funds for cancer research and awareness

Katie Russell is exploring American this summer. Armed with a 10-speed bike, lots of water and a passion for change, Russell is among 70 students from the University of Texas in Austin, riding to fight cancer.

Since 2004, Texas 4000 for Cancer hosts an annual bike ride from Austin to Anchorage to raise money for cancer research and cancer awareness.

Smith Ketterer, program coordinator for Texas 4000 said the organization was founded by Chris and Mandy Condit. In the inaugural ride, the Condit’s took 43 students on the world’s longest bike ride to fight one of the nation’s greatest threats.

“Why stop in San Antonio? Why stop in California? Why not keep going?,” she said. “We can spread more cancer awareness, cancer prevention.”

Each rider is tasked to raise $4,500, ride over 2,000 miles and volunteer about 50 hours before the ride. So when the riders were selected last November, they had about a year to prepare for the long ride ahead of them. There are three trails – Sierra, Rockies and Ozarks – which all guide residents through various scenic routes across America.

Ketterer said the ride between Austin and Anchorage is about 4,600 miles, so each rider can raise a dollar for each mile they ride. The 2017 class is on target to raise between $800,000-$850,000 for cancer research, which would break the 2015 record of $731,824.

All of the funds raised during the ride will be granted out to diverse organizations connected to cancer research. So instead of donating to one specific cause, Texas 4000 shares their proceeds to any organization affected by cancer whether that be medical schools, research facilities, family services and more.

“We don’t do any specific group, which is kind of cool because the riders have been touched – themselves or with family members or close friends – and affected by a variety of cancers, so we’re trying to cover a lot of ground,” Ketterer said.

Several Collin County students chose to ride this year. Students like Kelsey Ball, Trey Curran, Jen Gigliotti, Caitlin O’Beirne and Basil Hariri of Plano are among many riders who ride for someone they love. A father. A friend. A sister or a mother. For Katie Russell, she rides for her family tree, which has continuously be affected by all types of cancer.

In her Texas 4000 biography, Russell wrote, “Beginning in elementary school, I watched as this awful disease crept down my family tree. My great-grandma, my grandpa, my grandma, my aunt, my uncle,” Russell said. “I couldn’t understand why this thing called “cancer” was so prevalent in my family, and I feared it would inevitably control my life one day.”

After seeing her Uncle Chuck lose his fight against cancer, she said she didn’t want to sit idly by, powerless to make change. By participating in the ride, she hopes to raise grant money that can fund early-detection methods, and hopefully, one day a cure.

Russell and the Sierra team are approaching day 50 of their cross country ride, and she said spirits are still high.

“The first couple weeks were really the hardest part,” she said. “There’s nothing really to prepare you for riding 80 [miles] and then 90 [miles], and then 100 [miles] and then 80 [miles] the next day. I think I really struggled the first couple weeks, but after that, you start to get stronger. I think your confidence as a team and trusting in each of your teammates as you finish up a ride and everybody’s in it together,” she said.

The 24 riders on the Sierra trail all have a goal to finish each day for someone they love.

Some days are harder than others, but on the good days, the riders talk together and share stories of their families while they marvel at the scenery.

Many of the riders have lost loved ones to cancer like Russell, but she said instead of dwelling on their deaths, the riders tend to remember each friend, parent, grandparent or relative as they were and relive the best parts of them.

Many of the riders are documenting their rides on social media. Residents can follow Russell at her instagram – katie_bikes_alot – to see her day-to-day rides and reflections.

Through the rides, Russell said she’s learning patience and perseverance, on top of raising money for cancer research. In a team of 24, everyone has varying strengths and talents, so she said this journey has challenged her to put others before herself.

“Learning that I’m here for something bigger. This is not a vacation individually. It’s not about our wants and needs. [We have to] make decisions about what’s best for everyone. I think that’s a really good mindset to have that I want to carry into my life,” she said. “It’s not all about you.”

The toughest day so far was the day they rode around Lake Tahoe. The team rode over 100 miles in 14,600 feet of elevation. Not many of her team members finished all in one day, but she did.

“I’m really proud of my mental strength, knowing my body can do way more than I think it can because it really is all mental at this point,” she said. “It’s something that really gave me a boost in mental strength because if I can do that day, then I feel like I can do anything else.”

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