To Alaska….

This story was an assignment for my J337F: Long Form Feature Writing class. This narrative had to be more than 3000 words. Enjoy!

The trip of a lifetime had barely started. Hye Ryang Yang was barely on day two of a summer full of bike riding.

Literally.

The sun tried to attack her skin to bring her down, but Hye wanted nothing to do with the sun. All she wanted to do was keep a promise to her friend and teammate.

She promised her teammate that she would never leave her side during the summer.

And Hye was going to keep that promise.

The pedal work had become a routine already. Pedaling looked like clockwork.

Hye and her teammates on the 2013 Texas 4000 team were biking from Cedar Park, Texas to Lampasas, Texas. On August 09, 2013, they would end up in Anchorage, Alaska. It was barely June 1, 2013.

Hye could not wrap her mind that the long days of training physically and mentally were finally being used.

The road was filled with pebbles with each one determined to discourage the riders. With hands vibrating like cellphones, they were in for a bumpy ride. Hye kept pushing through the pain.

But, she wanted to give up.

She knew she could not give up. She dedicating her bike ride to many people. How can we do this? We still have 68 more days to go.

Hye spotted her friend Kristina, who looked ready to give up too. Hye would not let her give up no matter how tired they were.

“You cannot give up. You are doing this for your mom,” Hye told Kristina.

At the top of a hill, they noticed a spectacular view that took their breath away. Hye took this as a sign that things were looking up for them.

The road got better and the weather treated them well. The ride took a lot of energy from them, but they were one day closer to their destination.

Since the start of the Texas 4000 program, there had been two routes: the Sierra and the Rockies. As a celebration of the 10th annual Texas 4000 trek, a new route was added: the Ozarks. Hye was part of Rockies team.  The Rockies route passed through nine major cities: Austin, TX, Dallas, TX, Oklahoma City, OK, Colorado Springs, CO, Denver, CO, Helena, MT, Calgary, AB, Banff, AB and Anchorage, AK.

Anchorage was the goal.

The Application Process

Texas 4000 is a non-profit organization was founded in 2003 by a group of University of Texas at Austin students who wanted help cancer patients and people who had lost someone to the disease. Every year, around 50-60 students make the trek from Austin to Anchorage to raise money, education people about cancer and bring hope to people who have to deal with cancer.

The bike ride always starts on June 1 and lasts for 70 days. Riders often face rain, sleet, win, snow and heat. Many of the riders pedal at elevations up to 14,000 feet and end their trek within 300 miles of the Arctic Circle.

Every route that the bikers take is twice as long as the Tour de France. The emotional and physical struggles that every rider goes through is dedicated to someone close to them that is dealing with cancer.

Hye’s bike ride was personal.

“I ride for my family. I ride for my father, my inspiration, my rock, [and] my memory keeper. I ride for my mother. I ride for my brother. I ride for my grandparents who had to experience the pain of seeing their son go before them. I ride for my aunt and uncles for losing an extraordinary brother. I ride for Mr. Owen Hopkins who showed that not even cancer could stop passion. I ride for all who suffer from cancer and their family members so that they will stay strong and never lose hope,” Hye wrote in her Texas 4000 blog.

Hye was born in Suncheon, South Korea and lived there for six years before her family immigrated to Corpus Christi, Texas. In summer 2008, her mother was diagnosed with a tumor. Doctors caught the tumor early, and her mother won the battle against cancer.

“As a little girl who was fond of watching depressing Korean soap operas, I never thought that cancer was real. I thought cancer was just a figment of the writers’ imaginations and that no disease that robed those affected so badly existed in the world,” she wrote on her blog.

Then, a teacher she met through Academic Decathlon, Owen Hopkins, passed away from cancer on March 29, 2011. He inspired her to live life with passion. Even though he was weak due to cancer, he always went to her class to lecture them about the formation of the Earth.

A year later, her heart broke once again.

Her father was diagnosed with diffuse large b-cell lymphoma when he was in Korea in December 2010. He began to receive treatment in Korea starting in January and received chemotherapy for six long months.

Six months later, her father halted treatment because the cancer cells in his body had disappeared. Wanting to be with her father, Hye traveled to Korea. A week after the visit, Hye heard news that no child wants to hear. Her father had to start receiving chemotherapy again because the cancer cells had metastasized to his brain.

“Upon receiving the news overseas, I was struck by disbelief. My father, who always told us, ‘health comes before anything,’ who only consumed the healthiest of foods, who exercised every night for [two] hours, who had killer six pack abs even at the age of 50, became immensely fragile within an incredible brief amount of time,” she wrote in her blog about her father’s diagnosis.

On March 25, 2012, Hye’s father passed away.

While she visited her father at the cancer unit of Chonnam National University Hwasum Hospital, she saw the impact that cancer played in many families and people who were fighting for their lives.

During her senior of year of high school, Hye received an email about events around the University of Texas at Austin campus. One organization caught her eye – an information session for Texas 4000.

“I think Texas 4000 was on the front page of the email or something and I was interested. I asked myself, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ I looked at it and realized that [Texas 4000] was an amazing thing. I knew that I wanted to do it, but didn’t know if I could,” said Hye.

After learning more about what the organization does, she decided that she was going to apply.

“My mom was like no, don’t do it. But, I told her I was going to [apply] anyway,” Hye said.

Chelsey Pena, who has known Hye since middle school and is one of her close friends, did not think that Texas 4000 was a real thing.

“[Hye] has never been athletic before so I laughed a little bit when she told me she was applying because 4000 is a lot of miles to bike and I just imagined my little freshman friend that could eat 7 plates at J2 biking that much,” said Pena. “Nonetheless, I thought it was cool that there was a team that bikes to Alaska.”

The application process to the organization is competitive and personal. Applications ask about their athleticism, cancer stories and academic achievements. The interview process is where things get personal.

Interviewers are all alumni and Hye did not know what to expect in the interview room. She walked in, nervous about what was going to happen.

During the interview, Hye ended up crying about her dad and why being part of the team was so important to her. She thought that the alumni would not want her in the team for being such a mess during her interview.

“When I went in, I thought it went really badly. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to make it,’” said Hye. “I was sad for a whole month until I got an email saying that I made the team.”

“[Hye] is very passionate about finding a cure to cancer. I knew that she would get in right when she told me she applied,” said Aaron Gutierrez, a close friend of Hye since high school. “[This] meant a great deal to her since she had so many family members who had cancer so she felt this was a good way for her to represent her family members who were afflicted with cancer.”

Getting Ready for Alaska

            To ride a bike to Alaska requires extensive training. Members of the Texas 400 team are required to start eating healthier and working out more to build endurance. A good year and a half before the ride is filled with workouts and rides.

“Before we got out bikes in November 2012, [the team] would have weekly group workouts. [We were] encouraged to workout during the week as well,” said Gilpreet Koomer, one of Hye’s Texas 4000 teammates. “[Hye] and I worked out together about 2-3 times a week.”

The girls would have high intensity workouts. Their usual routine was to go for a run and then do some strength building exercises. Once the team got their bikes, they had weekly team bike rides every Saturday.

To build their endurance, they would increase the mileage each week. During the week, they were also encouraged to go on shorter bike rides. That meant that a lot of time was dedicated to the team and building endurance for the bike ride.

Chelsey and Hye were roommates living in West Campus while Hye was preparing for trip. Chelsey said Hye would wake up at 4:30 am on a Saturday to go the team’s weekly bike ride.

“If [she] can wake up that early every Saturday for nine months that is dedication,” she said.

Living with a Texas 4000 member was not easy though.

“The only thing that changed [between us] was that I remember her being mad when I would come home late on Friday nights or have friends over because she had to wake up early the next day. That was annoying because it was literally nine months of that.”

Yet, there was a period of time where Chelsey was concerned for her roommate.  Hye kept falling off her bike, which worried Chelsey a lot.

“One time she fell so hard that she dislocated her arm and had to wear a sling for a very long time. She had to stop training for a while, but she still wanted to go biking and do the workouts,” said Chelsey. “The whole time I was very concerned because I felt like she was just putting off her own recovery time.”

Hye did not know how to clip herself to her bike so during one of the training sessions, she ended up falling over, which led to a dislocated elbow.

“She was in a sling for about a month and missed our team training camp. She felt really behind on fitness because she had to be off her bike for a few weeks to let her elbow heal. Once her elbow healed, I think she was also a little scared to get back on her bike for fear of falling again,” said Gilpreet. “But Cindy is so strong. She got back on her bike and finished a 36 mile ride.”

            As bike rides became longer, they became more memorable. The rides ended up like feeling as if they were at the mall talking about life.

“My favorite training ride was when I was with Hye and our teammates, Val, Khoi and Cassie,” Gilpreet said. “Cindy and I both had long hair before we shaved our heads and I remember talking to her about what if felt like to ride bald. We could feel the wind brush through our baldheads. The ride was a hard because we did a lot of really ‘famous’ and tough Austin hills. The people we rode with made the ride fun. We were all smiling and just having a good time cheering each other on.”

Not only do Texas 4000 members have to get in shape for the ride, they must also raise money for the cause. Members have to raise a minimum of $4,500.

“It’s hard to make money when [someone] exploits all [their] resources. I got most of my donations online so we started to sell shirts. I got a lot of revenue from the shirts, but one of my dad’s very good friends helped me by hosting a tennis tournament for me. They raised almost $2000 and donated that to me,” said Hye.

Fundraising can also be hard if one does not know a lot of people so there is a lot of work and effort needed to raise the minimum amount. Hye had to sacrifice a lot to raise the money and money, which included going out on the weekends with friends.

Another way team members raised money was by panhandling. Hye took advantage of this form of gathering money.

Gilpreet and Cindy went panhandling a few times. Panhandling is like gambling. Sometimes people give money and sometimes they do not.

“I can’t remember how much money we made but its all just very dependent on how long [someone] panhandles, the weather and if people are in a giving mood or not,” said Gilpreet.

The team also bonded by fundraising for St. Baldrick’s. St. Baldrick’s is a volunteer-driven charity where volunteers raise money for pediatric cancer. At the end of the fundraising event, they shave their heads.

Many of the team members volunteer to shave their head for the cause. Hye was one of them. She dedicated the process of shaving her head to a baby named Tai, who was battling cancer. Hye met his mother during a ‘Tough Mudder’ event as she was doing the event for her son. Most importantly, she was doing the shave for cancer in general.

She ended up raising more than $6000 for St. Baldrick’s.

While she sat there getting her head shaved, one thought that stuck was how she would look with a baldhead. Holy crap she would think to herself.

“I cried because I thought of my dad a lot. I also thought of the people I’m doing this for and all the pain they endured, which was another reason why I started crying.”

During the shaving, she was holding hands with her friend and teammate Gabby, whose mom was going through cancer treatment at the time. She had also lost her friend to cancer a year of the shaving. This is emotional.

“I’ve never felt so beautiful in my life,” Hye said after the shaving. “I was in pure bliss.”

On the quest to Alaska, the team makes stop throughout the route to give presentations about cancer. The team has formal programs for new hosts and a question and answer event for second time hosts.

“People had different stories and everyone’s stories should be heard,” said Hye.

The Summer

During the first day of the long summer, the team rode around Austin to thank their sponsors Jack and Adam’s and LiveStrong. The official sendoff was from the LBJ Foundation at UT and they biked to Cedar Park.

That was the start to an unforgettable summer for Hye.

On day five of their trek to Alaska, the team was heading to Gainsville, Texas.

That day was great to Hye even though the view was not as beautiful as one would have thought. The grass was absorbing the sun’s strong rays and trains kept passing by. There was also no time constraint, which meant that the team could take their time to soak up the view and enjoy the ride.

“[Gainsville] was when we mastered how to ride with no hands,” said Hye. “It was a simple day, but great.”

Day 15 was the Rockies longest bike ride. They had to travel from Lamar, Colorado to Pueblo, Colorado.

The total ride was almost 130 miles. Not everyone would be able to finish the ride since they had to be at their host’s by a certain time.

Hye and Gilpreet made it their personal goal to finish the ride.

“We started the day riding with the fastest people on the team and some of them are part of the UT Cycling team,” said Hye. “About 40 miles, we got dropped from the group. Gilpreet and I kept going. We stayed together throughout the ride until we finished it.”

Gilpreet found the ride to be special to her.

“This was the first time during the summer that Cindy and I decided to push ourselves. I’m not the fastest cyclist so it felt great to be able to push myself like that,” she said.

What was monumental for them was that there where mountains waiting for them in the distance, which made them feel better about riding the distance together.

“I would have not done it without Gil,” said Hye. “I’m so proud of her.”

As if playing a real life video game, the Rockies team had the option to complete challenges. Hye decided to do the Mt. Evans challenge.

She had to bike up a mountain and through all four seasons to complete the challenge. Within an hour of the challenge, she had been rained on and snowed on. The sun then dried her and then she felt the cool air surround her. Even though her body was telling her to give up, Hye kept going. She used the beauty of the scenery to motivate her to finish.

“The mountains, they moved me. They are so grand and it’s like ‘WOW.’ They are so beautiful,” she said. “That’s how I knew I chose the right route.”

Unlike her route through Oklahoma and Kansas, which smelled like manure, the rest of the ride was filled with beauty.

What motivated Hye to go up the hills and mountains was the constant reminder of who she was riding for and the care packages that Chelsey left for her at almost every stop they made.

“Sometimes I got busy and slacked a little, but I tried to send her protein bars and stuff that she might need along the trail. It was hard though because they did not have any place to put the stuff they did have,” said Chelsey.

Hye and Chelsey tried to stay in contact as often as possible throughout the trek.

“She would mostly update me on her location and what weird thing she that day, but oddly what she ate as well,” Chelsey said. “I would tell her all the latest gossip about people we knew because that’s important in any friendship.”

On day 27, the team arrived at Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming, where the view took Hye breath away. The mountains were beautiful, huge and green and looked like they were touching the sky. Even though mountains surrounded their trek, Hye was never tired of the view.

Day 30 and the team was in Bozeman, Montana. Hye’s hosts fed her and allowed them to finally sleep on a bed after sleeping on hard grounds for weeks. Hye spent the night with Barbara and Norm, an old couple whose children lived in California.

“I remember talking to Norm about a lot of things and he called me his granddaughter. That felt so nice,” said Hye. “It was like having family on the road.”

Day 32 had a fun surprise for the team. The high of the day was in the hundreds, which made Hye’s jersey stick to her body as if the jersey was a second layer of skin. They were heading to Great Falls, Montana from Montana City. Yet, the heat did not bother her anyway. She continued to soak up the view of the mountains and she kept pedaling her next stop.

On day 35, they ended up at Glacier National Park, Montana. The main road for the park was named ‘Going to the Sun Road.’ The name of the main road had brightened the spirits of the team and especially of Hye. She felt the name suited the park, which was beautifully grandiose.

“I did not think that the views can get any better, but they do,” said Hye.

In Whitehorse, Yukon was day 60. That was the day every route met for the first time since they split up earlier in the summer. Tears were shed as they all hugged each other and admired the funky haircuts of those who ended up cutting their own hair.

“It was great seeing them and seeing how inspired we still were to finish what we started,” said Hye. “We wanted to finish this ride for all these people.”

Day 70 arrived. Hye arrived to Anchorage, Alaska. After a summer of butt sores, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sunscreen, mountains and gallons of water, the team finally finished their goal. They all hugged each other with eyes filled with emotions, in disbelief that they had actually biked over 4000 miles.

“I didn’t have any family in the finish line, but it was nice seeing all the love. I know my dad would have been really proud of me,” said Hye.

What made things more emotional for her was when she realized that that would be the only time when all of her teammates and her would be together. Tears fell from her face as more emotions filled her eyes.

“I would do this trek again with the same people,” said Hye. “I would not change any moment of it for anything in the world.”

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s