Patient #1 wraps up his fundraising ride for young adults with cancer

TJ on his “Parrot to Pirate” ride. Covering 525 miles over six days, the ride starts in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. and ends in Tybee Island, Ga.

Two years ago,  I went on a weekend cycling trip in the Florida Keys with former participants of First Descents, a non-profit that offers adventure trips to young adults with cancer. I was so inspired by the group and their “Out Living It” motto that I knew I wanted to do something to send a few of these “kids” on one of their week-long trips.

I decided to embark on a six-day fundraising bike ride of 525 miles from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. to Tybee Island, Ga.

A First Descents biking buddy challenged me to overshoot the initial $5,000 fundraising goal, so we pushed it to $10,000, half the cost of a full week-long opportunity to attend a surfing, mountain climbing, or kayaking adventure.

More than $21,000 in donations later, I set off last October only to have Hurricane Matthew stop me four days and 335 miles in.  A tropical storm had not made landfall in Florida in ten years… until the week I decide to channel Forrest Gump in spandex. Unfortunately, the ride was, as I continually said, put on pause. 

But you don't let friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers put up that much money to just give it a “nice try” two-thirds of the way through. I had two days and roughly 200 miles left to finish.

On May 26, I went back to the exact pier in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. where I ended Day 4, determined to ride every mile I pledged. This time, the rainy skies and 20+ mph headwinds were replaced with bright sunshine and a small breeze.

I cycled up the final few miles of the Florida coast, crossed the Mayport River by ferry, said goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean at Ferdinanda Beach, then headed west – and promptly laid the bike down in a patch of beach by the pier (here’s a pic of the divot I left).  Nothing makes a ride through the country more pleasant than being covered in grains of sand for the next 70+ miles.  

Ninety-four miles from Jax Beach, I stopped for the night in Brunswick, Ga. The next morning, I set out for the home stretch.

Turns out, the last day was the easiest of the six.  A tailwind pushed me through most of the morning, Rt. 17 was to be deserted (and mostly shaded), and I was halfway to Tybee by 10 a.m. The latter half of the ride was a little more complicated, as winding into Savannah included some sketchy urban riding, a few bridges, and more railroad tracks than Monopoly. I took a quick break on River Street, then the final 18 miles lay before me.

Of course, I made that last stretch as difficult as possible.  Tybee Island is “The Shore” for lots of Georgians, and there’s only one way in and out. (Imagine Ocean City, N.J. with only the 9th St. Bridge on Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend.)

Traffic was bumper to bumper for most of the 3-mile causeway (video here), so the only thing standing between me and the finish line was either sitting in the traffic, or cruising on the three-foot shoulder – which, of course, had rumble strips every few feet. Flying by stop-and-go traffic at 18 mph may be considered less-than-optimal safety in some circles; but after stage IV cancer, “risks” are seen through a different light.

Pulling into the driveway at Huc-A-Poo’s, my final destination in Tybee, was a calm moment – I even beat my wife and the gathering of family and friends thanks to the wind, adrenalin, and my lack of concern for getting run over.

There were plenty of great moments, but the euphoric feeling of arriving at the finish paralleled my entire battle – it wasn’t the act of biking 535 miles or beating cancer that gave me life, but truly living the journey.

When speaking of my cancer experience, I always mention the things I CAN do – write about my experiences, speak to the biopharma industry, interact with fellow patients, and, yes, get on a bike and raise money.  Every life I can touch is a small chance to pay forward the absurd amount of support I had over the last four years.  Each chance to impact lives is a blessing, the gift of time and circumstance and dedication converging. The words of Herb Brooks echoed in my head during those 200 miles:  “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”

I cannot cure cancer.
I can ride a bike.

I cannot help everyone.
I can affect someone.

I cannot promise a recovery like mine.
I can offer hope.

I cannot give up.
I can make a difference.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight as Patient #1 against Stage 4 Melanoma.