On the eve of the big Alzheimer’s Breakthrough bike ride, I was sequestered with my fellow riders, John Cirrito and Jess Resvito from Washington University, and Ben Timson, from Missouri State University, at the Comfort Inn in Sedalia. Since I hang out at the University of Missouri (in Columbia), we had most of the state covered. I think all of us were excited and a bit nervous, at least I was. Adding to my anxiety was watching Howard Palmer (Washington University) ride in from Kanas City, 110 miles away! While alive, he looked exhausted, and arriving before him was Tim West, also from St. Louis, who had been on the trail for four consecutive days (from Wichita, Kansas to Sedalia, Missouri), over 300 miles! I began to think that maybe I was over my head here.
Passing time by checking my messages I found one from Linda Fisher who lives in Sedalia and who is the author of an edited book of personal stories of persons personally affected by the disease, including one from me. She wanted to come and take pictures, get some quotes, see us off in the morning. I replied, "Sure," and just in case it was too early for her, I gave her the quotes listed below:
"Linda, you ask why am I doing this? Many reasons:
- I believe in the cause -- research funding levels for Alzheimer's Disease is dismal given the tragic toll it is taking on individual lives, families, and others. And the cost of care is simply staggering. We are riding to encourage Congress to push funding to $2 Billion and make AD a major priority like other devastating diseases.
- We must and can find a treatment and cure; science has come a long way and we are on the cusp of major discoveries but need research funding and commitment of the U.S. government to follow-through with groundbreaking research.
- I am the current President of the Board of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, and I want to make a statement to all those who support what we do that we are very serious about finding a cure for this disease and that we are dedicated to helping caregivers who truly live 36-hour days with those who suffer from this cunning, baffling disease.
- I am 68 years old, have a stent, poor knees, and lousy hearing, but I am functional and I know I can ride this bike 71-miles for this worthwhile cause. I'm looking forward to it."
Absolutely, these are indeed the reasons why I volunteered to ride one of the segments in this coast-to-coast marathon. I should add that my great aunt that helped raise me died of Alzheimer’s, and I dedicated this ride to her.
Linda did show up the next morning, ate breakfast with us, and followed "The Pony," our huge RV-like support vehicle and two support vans. In a slight foggy mist in a beautiful park, she took pictures as we prepared for and began pedaling away. It was about 58 degrees and never climbed above 80 the rest of the day, we were so lucky to avoid 100+ degree heat indexes that had characterized our respective training runs during the previous several weeks.
I promised my donors and others that I would keep them posted on this adventure upon which I had embarked, and this is the story. I should first add, however, that I am very grateful for all the generous support. Collectively nearly $2,500 was raised on my behalf, and many signed the online petition in support of the cause. Just in case anyone reading this has not signed the petition, go to http://alz.org/breakthroughride and follow the instructions. It will take you less than 30 seconds.
Most likely the oldest and least experienced breakthrough rider, I wondered if my amateurish training had been sufficient to see me through the day. My longest attempts had been 42 and 35 mile outings on the KATY trail, a scenic but flat abandoned railroad path converted to one of the most magnificent Missouri State Parks stretching across the state for more than 200 miles from Clinton to St. Charles, Missouri. Little did I know that riding on the asphalt and concrete back roads of Missouri would in no way be similar to the hardened chat and rock floor of the KATY. Nevertheless, short rides on this and extended street routes to work and back constituted my preparation. My trusty TREK bike with hybrid wheels was going to be another factor that I had not put into the mix. Perhaps I should have trained with more experienced riders; no one this day had tires the size of mine. These were my thoughts as we were taken to the start point on the northern fringe of Sedalia on county road HH.
Within the first two miles, and for the rest of the day, John, Jess, and Ben, easily outdistanced me. Mel’s van became their support vehicle, and Glen’s mine. I caught up at all the rest stops and lunch so we did bond and I felt very much connected to them, but Glen was my companion and life line; having him following along with a yellow light circling atop his van was a buffer from traffic and allowed me to take in the countryside and enjoy the peaceful sojourn beside and along endless soybean and cornfields. Adrenaline must have been pumping because the first three hours passed quickly. Cool temperatures and only occasional hills tested my legs and strength, and I felt great by the time we reached our first rest stop with "The Pony." We were at the 28-mile mark and all feeling chipper and more confident than at the beginning that we could accomplish our goal. We stopped in Bunceton, a small ghost-like wild-west town, but with loud construction work trying to save one of the dying buildings. Bananas and Gatorade helped fortify us along with peanut butter; chips, high-energy chocolate bars, some oily-looking goo that mimicked hot fudge, and water. Gatorade and water were, however, the most important items on the picnic table. Mel, Evan, and Glen made sure we each drank plenty of it. Returning to my bike I fell off a high step and rolled along the ground drawing a bit of blood below my knee. No one laughed; I guess age has its advantages. We pushed on; I was beginning to feel very much attached to my bike and begin to think of it as my friendly horse. The route was HH to 135 to E and then J followed by 87 to 179; sounds like directions across Los Angeles.
I was particularly good at "calling cows." I think my mooing imitation tuned them on as they raised their heads in anticipation that I might stop. Dogs were less predictable. Some would wag their tails, others would charge toward me until they felt thwarted by Glen’s "caboose" close behind me. I enjoyed speaking with farmers along the way, one who urged me to stop and help him with fence repair, and another who wanted to know our cause giving a thumb’s up when I yelled, "All for Alzheimer’s research!" In Prairie Home we pedaled by a perfect replica of the "Field of Dreams" baseball field surrounded by corn stalks on all sides. At lunch we all talked about it, but none of us had stopped for a photo opportunity, a real loss. My first of two flat tires occurred soon after. Glen was outstanding repairing both in less than ten minutes, what a gift to know these cycling machines so well. I must admit that repairing the first flat gave me some needed rest as well as the strength to carry on to lunch in Jamestown, Missouri.
"The Pony" was becoming one of the most welcome sights along the route. Equipped with a comfortable dining area, comfortable sofas, refrigerator, toilet, and basically all the comforts of home, it was indeed a highlight of the adventure. At lunch we shared stories. Melanie and Evan were particularly fun to listen to as they shared stories of other riders and experiences since leaving San Francisco more than a month ago. While enjoying the beauty of the mountains and plains, it was the riders about whom they talked the most. It was obvious to us that they too had become consumed with the cause and felt a close chemistry with all of us. Glen had stories too, but this stop he spent repairing my second flat, what a guy. I urged Mel to produce a documentary from all the blogs, their personal journals, and thousands of photos. She is giving it some serious thought. I am looking forward to seeing all of them in Washington D.C. in September. It will be a great reunion as we make the last 14 miles to the steps of the Capitol to deliver our petitions.
Following our lunch respite, the longest and most welcome of all our stops, we continued down the road, Highway 179 to Jefferson City only 21 miles distant. At this point I knew I would make it, what an exhilarating feeling! And the first 10 miles were fantastic, the first five downhill, and the next relatively easy as we reached Marian Bottoms in close juxtaposition to the Missouri River. Evan was waiting at a river access point with The Pony, and we all celebrated a fun stop skipping rocks across the mile-wide expanse of the "Big Muddy." Glen remarked that he never realized how big it was, Evan took pictures, and Mel watched as the rest of us feeling full of ourselves, laughed and joked about the journey.
The last five miles, were however, grueling. Hill, hills, and more hills! One of my knees began to throb and I begin to worry about a blown knee, torn ligaments, and an emergency room. Glen and I had dropped pretty far behind at this point, and spent a good five minutes deciding which way to turn at Hwy 179 and County Road Z. The debate allowed my knee to sufficiently recover, but I asked Glen to drive me up three of the remaining four giant hills. I felt no guilt as I coasted down the other side of them and ultimately joined the others just short of reaching our destination. So while I didn’t complete the full 71-72 miles, I did go 68-69 of them; ironically numbers that match my age. Within view of the Fairfield Inn in Jefferson City, all four of us entered the parking lot side-by-side; the Four Musketeers. Like at the end of the three New York City marathons that I have run, I felt a few tears slide down my face. No one saw me, but I was not ashamed.
A shower never felt better, and dinner with Ben Timson who was able to stay the evening, was wonderful. The next morning, the two of us joined a ceremony in the shadow of the Missouri Capitol as a proclamation was read on behalf of Jean Carnahan, Secretary of State. Staff of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association had organized the event. All of them were present as well as several Board Members. The event also served as a send-off for the next segment of breakthrough riders, David Holtzman and Varad Hacharya of Washington University. David moved the group as he dedicated his ride to the one-week-ago death of his father from Alzheimer’s Disease. We were all reminded what this is all about.
Thank you all who contributed to and followed this story. It is just one of thousands of stories that have been collected along the ride to Washington. I truly hope it ends in a significant breakthrough in research funding to find a cure for this devastating disease.
-David B. Oliver, PhD
Department of Family and Community Medicine
University of Missouri Interdisciplinary Center on Aging