Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Pelotonia Story

This is my initial account of my Pelotonia experience. I wrote it for my employer's internal newsletter, so it has a distinct American Chemical Society focus.

I was not able to tell a number of sub-stories in this version. I will be expanding my account to include these sub-stories.


Ray Whitney joined ACS in 2006 and is a Web Product Manager with the Web Strategy and Operations team. He’s a husband, father, cancer survivor, competitive cyclist, and blogger . He is riding in Pelotonia 2010 as rider #4517, and he is looking to put together a combined team from ACS Washington and CAS to join him.

It was the end of July, and summer vacation had just ended for me. After traveling to New England with my family, I returned to Washington and was welcomed by stuffed mailboxes. As we all do, I sifted through my emails and sorted through the pile of publications.

One item grabbed my attention. The August Newscaster, the CAS (Chemical Abstracts Service) equivalent of The Phoenix, displayed a cover photo of an enormous banner that read: "Ride with Lance Armstrong."

I read more. At the end of August CAS would host the opening ceremonies of a three-day bike tour named "Pelotonia" that was raising money to fight cancer. Every dollar raised would go directly to fund cancer research.

I was hooked.

Ride with Lance. Help to end cancer...
er, OK!→

We all make decisions in the blink of an eye. Some of those decisions involve bewildering calculus. This was one of those moments for me.

So, why did I commit to two days, 180 miles, and a $2000+ fundraising obligation?


I'm a cyclist. I'm also a shameless fanboy of Lance Armstrong, I admit it. But not for the reason you may think. You see, I owe him one.

I started at ACS in June, 2006. Three weeks later I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer--just like Lance. Within weeks I had undergone two major surgeries, and I had started what would be a long road to recovery.

Happily, something from this book
stuck in my oft-fuzzy mind...

I knew I had cancer because I had read his autobiography "It's Not about the Bike." Somehow I had retained his description of his symptoms. Yes, I attribute my discovering my cancer to his book.

Giving Back

I had been working at ACS for less than a month when my life turned upside-down, and I will forever appreciate the support I received from colleagues and management.

One of the amazing hidden benefits provided by UnitedHealthcare is access to Cancer Resource Services. This program helped me manage my treatment at one of the nation's top cancer centers. It also helped me to manage my travel costs, and provided my family with access to counselling and other resources to support us through a harrowing time.

Like many survivors I struggled with survivorship. How could I repay the faith shown by others?  How do I live up to my own expectations of my changed life? There are no easy answers.

Pelotonia was an opportunity for me to give back to the cancer community. But it was something more. There was a real ACS tie-in as well.

Improving People's Lives...

ACS has a compelling vision statement. We work to improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry. But I confess: sitting at my desk, this vision doesn't always seem real. There seems to be a disconnect between my daily work and the ACS vision.

As I read more about CAS and Pelotonia, however, something clicked. CAS's promotional material extolled: "The cure for cancer starts with research. Research starts with CAS."

At first glance, it may seem hokey, but look a little resonates.

Digging deeper, I learned how cancer researchers use the CAS databases to assist with drug discovery and development, as well as cancer diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

This is the ACS vision made real. This is improving people's lives.

1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be affected by cancer in their lifetime. At ACS, we are helping to change this situation.

That is inspiring.

Commit Me

With the support of my family I committed to the ride, and all that it entailed. I needed to plan my travel to Columbus, make housing arrangements, and raise $2000.00.

All in a little over three weeks.

Here's the Pelotonia Day 1 profile: 102 miles, 2400+ feet of climbing.
That vertical line at mile 53 is a short, brutal climb.

Oh, and I needed to maintain my training as well. I was already riding 200+ miles a week, but 180 in two days is something different.

People Are Amazing

I wrote a few emails and made a few calls, eventually connecting with Don English at CAS. He was responsible for logistics and coordination with Pelotonia. Within minutes of my expressing interest he offered me a place to stay for the weekend. He also let me know that I could drive out to Columbus in a day.

Housing: check! Transport: check!

I then focused on fundraising. In the first 24 hours I raised $750, all from colleagues at ACS.

In the remaining three weeks dozens of people contacted me, contributing more than $2000.00 to enable my ride. Humbled, I was amazed at people's generosity. Most had a story about how cancer had impacted their lives, and I understood that their contributions were to the cause. My role was merely to bring focus to the fight against cancer.

I made an effort to raise money, and in the process I discovered a community.

Entering Columbus

I drove to Columbus with my bike on its roof-rack and butterflies in my stomach. At times I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I was driving to destinations unknown. I had never been to Columbus before, and my only contact was via phone and email. I had never really “met” Don. I didn’t know a soul! I didn’t need any caffeine; there was enough anxiety and excitement in me to keep me well awake for the drive.

I met Don at CAS on Friday evening, prior to the Opening Ceremony. We made small talk about the event as we watched the scene unfold for us from his office window. Thousands of volunteers, riders, CAS staff, and members of the cancer community gathered on the front lawns of the CAS campus.

The entire Columbus community seemed to have come together for the event. There was food and music, and an infectious, positive vibe. It’s cliché, but the excitement was truly palpable.

I left Don and went to register. We would meet again later in the evening, as I was to spend the night at his home.

When I finished registering I (literally) ran into a high-school classmate of mine—someone I had not seen for over 20 years. Slack-jawed, we played catch-up, and he asked me who I was riding with. “No one”, I replied. “You’re riding with us!” he declared, and proceeded to introduce me to his crew.

People! Multitudes of people! Come forward!

We ate together and listened to speeches. Various VIPs spoke, but the crowd was there to hear Lance. Near sunset he made an inspirational speech, focused on the fight against cancer. His best line was: “I’m not here today as a 7-time winner of a big bike race in France. I’m here as a guy who love to ride bikes. And because I hate cancer.”

 Le Patron speaks. We listen. We get amped!

The ceremonies concluded, and I made my way to Don’s house. Paula, his wife, was wonderfully hospitable—especially when you consider that one of their daughters was having a wedding shower the following day!

Columbus to Athens

I woke well before dawn to eat and prepare for the day’s ride—102 miles with one steep climb in the middle. It was raining lightly when I arrived for the 7:00am start.

They delayed the start for a half-hour, so we stood in the waning rain—packed together, wheel to wheel—and watched the sunrise. When we started, we surged forward like water released from a dam and poured out onto the roads of Columbus.

NOT me.

I knew Lance was out in front, leading the ride, and I desperately wanted to get up to him. Chances like this do not come often, and I was determined to make the best of this opportunity to meet The Man. I was several hundred riders back and losing ground as people had problems riding in the crowd. I told my new friends that they were welcome to join me, but that I was going, and that I would find them later.

I launched after the lead group, and pegged it at nearly 30mph for several minutes before I saw the sirens of Lance’s police escort. The roads were slick with the morning’s rain, but they were lined with spectators, holding signs, whistling, and cheering. This was a charity ride? It felt more like a race!

Coming out of downtown I caught the lead group. I could see Lance in his Mellow Johnny’s kit, and I was able to relax, riding in the draft of the shrinking crowd. I recovered and began moving up in the ranks of the paceline.

I worked my way up in the group,
and there he was...

We rode out of Columbus at a steady 23mph. Lance led, and he rode in the center of an arrow-shaped group. I discovered that there was a system already in place for folks to talk with the champion.

When he looked to his left side, he would chat with that rider for a few minutes. When they were done he would turn to his right talk with that rider. During this conversation, the first rider he spoke with would drop back, and the next person in line would move up. Then, when Lance turned back to his left, there was a new person to speak with.

I worked my way up. I was riding in Lance Armstrong’s group. What an honor. His efficiency on the bike was mesmerizing. Smooth, rhythmic, powerful.

When it was my turn to ride as wingman we entered a sequence of several technical, gravel-strewn, rain-slicked turns. I led the left turns, he led the right. Matching his acceleration after each turn was thrilling (even though I know he was taking it easy).

When we came out of the turns, he looked at me and said “That was fun!"

I had read that his fame had made Lance inaccessible. But Chris Carmichael, Lance’s long-time coach, has said that if you ever could talk with him in his office (when he is on his bike), he’s completely down-to-earth. He’s just a guy.

I spent the next several minutes with Lance Armstrong, the guy. I told him about my appreciation for his book and how it helped me to identify my cancer. We talked about treatment and recovery and the awkwardness of getting back on the bike. We talked about being around for our kids. And I thanked him for being there: for enabling the opportunity for me and all the others to say thanks.

I saluted him and pulled away, so the next rider could have his time with Lance. I let myself drop out of the group, pulled over, and waited by the side of the road for my group to catch up.

Rain-slicked roads. 23 mph. And some idiot amateur with a disposable,
pinhole camera is taking a photo. How does this guy
keep a smile on his face? (No, "this guy" is not me!)

We rode the remaining miles into Athens with full support. Every intersection was controlled by uniformed police. Crowds with signs, whistles, and horns greeted us in every town and at isolated farms along the way. When you read signs like: “3 survivors live here” or “Thank you Dr. Johnson for saving my grandma”, it’s easy to find the strength to pedal.

Athens and Back Again

We arrived at the University of Ohio. To help riders recover for the next day’s efforts, dinner was served and massages were available. We overnighted in the dorms.

The return route would be a little shorter—roughly 78 miles—but unlike Saturday, there was no formal start time. The morning was thick with fog; so much so that when the five of us started we looked like characters in a John Carpenter movie.

With sore muscles and lively spirits we headed back to Columbus. There were fewer riders making the round trip, and there was little of the support from the previous day. Some signs were still in place, but there were no crowds and there was little cheering.

The result was that the trip back felt like a Sunday ride with a bunch of friends.

Five horsemen of the...nah, nevermind...

We crossed the finish line together, five across.


Pelotonia raised more than $4.5 million in its inaugural year, and I have more stories from the weekend than I possibly can tell at one time.

When I left for Columbus I imagined that completing the rides would be a tremendous accomplishment.

When I departed from Columbus I realized that completing the rides was the least part of the journey.

The moment I committed to the event my perspectives changed. I experienced the immense generosity of my colleagues and all who supported my ride. I came to understand how the ACS vision manifests itself in people’s lives. I gained new friends in new places, and I reconnected with a long-forgotten friend.

I was able to thank one of my heroes and tell him how much I appreciated his work as a cancer spokesman.

I realized that I am a part of the cancer community. And I found a way to express my survivorship—working to raise money to end cancer.

Planning Ahead

This year I am riding again, and I hope that others will join me. I am committed to helping Pelotonia top last year’s $4.5 million.

To that end I am organizing a peloton that will combine riders of all experience levels from both Washington and Columbus, bringing the two ACS sites closer for a worthy cause.

Look for more information about Pelotonia and our ACS peloton after the National Meeting in San Francisco!

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