UT cyclists fighting cancer from Austin to Alaska

Riders outside Texarkana

Emmy Laursen is on the trip of a lifetime to raise money for cancer research and to honor her father, who died of colon cancer a year-and-a-half ago.

The 21-year-old student at the University of Texas in Austin said joining the Texas 4000, a 70-day charity bicycle ride from Texas to Alaska, was an act of selfishness on her part but it’s turned into so much more.

“It’s been amazing,” Laursen said during a stop in Texarkana, Texas, on Monday. “Joining was a selfish thing for me. I wanted to grieve for my father, to have a way to fight for my dad, and I found it.”

During the 18 months the Keller, Texas, native has trained for the ride she’s found it’s more than a way to honor her father; it’s given her the strength to lead others and to befriend those who share her pain and her hope that a cure for the disease will one day be found.

Laursen and 78 other bicyclists began their 4,000-plus-mile journey in Austin on May 31 and will end their trip in Anchorage, Alaska, on Aug. 8. All of the riders are UT-Austin students or recent graduates and they all have a story to tell about how cancer has affected their lives.

The Texas 4000 features three routes across the U.S. and Canada, all beginning in Austin and ending in Anchorage. The 27 riders who cycled into Texarkana on Monday afternoon are taking the Ozarks Route, which is the newest for the 11-year-old fundraiser.

Ross McGarity of Austin, who is riding in honor of his mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, said each participant must raise a minimum of $4,500 to be part of the Texas 4000.

“She’s in remission now. Before she got sick, cancer didn’t feel so real,” McGarity said.

He explained the students’ journey is based on “three pillars:” hope, knowledge and charity.

“We spread hope by riding,” McGarity said. “We try to touch as many people as we can in the United States and Canada.”

Knowledge comes from presenting cancer prevention and awareness programs as they trek north, and charity comes at the end when participants decide where to award grants from the money they have generated from the trip, he said.

The Ozarks route has already taken the cyclists to Houston, where they visited with children at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and to Shreveport, La. Day 10 brought them to Texarkana, and today they will head into Arkansas, first to Hot Springs, then Little Rock and Eureka Springs. The long road to Alaska will lead them through Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, before crossing the border into Canada and heading west through the provinces and territories of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon.

Two other groups of Texas 4000 cyclists are traveling either through the Sierra Mountains or the Rockies before all reunite in Canada to ride the last nine days together into Anchorage.

During their 18-month training period, they have raised money, ridden at least 1,500 miles with their team, volunteered more than 50 hours in the community, and arranged their own accommodations. They have planned every stop ahead of time, and will stay with families, churches and schools for shelter, as well as camp out when those options are not available.

In Texarkana, they were welcomed by Dwayne and Rhonda Jones, whose son Braydon attends UT and is a member, along with McGarity, of the Tejas Club, one of the oldest men’s leadership and social organizations on campus.

This is the second year for the Joneses to host the riders, and 2014 is much more organized, Rhonda Jones noted.

Last year–the first for the Ozarks Route–the Joneses were pegged because Braydon was the only member of the fraternity who lived in this area and several of his Tejas friends were Texas 4000 participants.

“He and his dad really didn’t tell me the details last year so I wasn’t expecting 30 riders. I teach school at Nash Elementary. My last day was a Friday and they arrived on Saturday,” Rhonda Jones said, laughing. “But it was great and we are very happy to do it again this year.”

The cyclists begin each day by gathering in a circle, often with their hosts, to remember why they are on this journey and to dedicate their day’s ride to someone, often a cancer survivor they have met along the way or in memory of a new friend’s loved one.

“It’s the greatest thing being able to talk about cancer and seeing the relief on people’s faces,” Laursen said. “They want to talk about their experiences with cancer or, like me, they want to talk about someone they have lost. It’s incredible.”

Laursen said she also looks forward to the trip home to Texas as she will drive back with several of her friends through the Rockies, where her father grew up.

“I have some of his ashes with me, so he’s making this trip too,” she said.

For more about the trip, its riders, events and donations, visit www.Texas4000.org.

by Brenda Brown