Alumna to cycle 6,000 miles across country for breast cancer research

On May 1, I will exchange this computer for a touring bicycle. Instead of prowling around Boston and Harvard’s Baker Library where I’ve been doing research for the past few years, I will be in Key West embarking on an epic summertime expedition. Together with a team of four cyclists, I will begin riding from the tip of Florida to the edge of Alaska with a group organized by Keys to Kenai, Inc.

Traveling nearly 6,000 miles, our goals are to acknowledge women’s struggles against breast cancer, promote education on ways to improve women’s health and lifestyles to prevent breast cancer, and raise $200,000 for continuing breast cancer education and research. It’s a thrilling opportunity and I’m excited to share the story with you.

Keys to Kenai was founded by Colleen Hough specifically for this year’s journey. The inspiration for this expedition came about a year ago while Hough, a Major in the Alaskan Air National Guard, was traveling home to Florida. On the plane, she read about one man’s experiences kayaking through the Alaskan wilderness.

Hough recalled “The one thing that impressed me the most was that here was an ordinary man who made the effort to do something extraordinary with his life. As I flew through the night, looking out the window and seeing only the reflection of the book in my lap, I admitted to myself that I wanted to do some pretty extraordinary things too. I wanted adventure and purpose, but done in a way that would make a difference for others also. I have had four friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Only two are survivors. It’s sobering to see people just like yourself be fine one day, and then suddenly be fighting cancer and starting on that long, hard road to recovery on the next. Since I enjoy cycling a lot, I thought that organizing a team of women to do a cross country bike trip would be the perfect way to promote a healthy lifestyle and educate women about early detection.”

So, Hough began planning the expedition, training, and recruiting a team (both cyclists and fundraisers). She described her decision to take such an unusual route. “My favorite place in the world is Alaska. I had lived there for five years and loved everything about it, so when I thought about doing a bike trip, I naturally thought about cycling to “The Last Frontier”. Since I live in Florida, I thought that a good place to start would be from the southern most part of the United States, a spot in Key West. There’s a huge red, black, and yellow buoy that marks the exact location and that’s where we’ll begin.”

With that in mind, Hough set about recruiting teammates. First came Tammy Dorst, a native of Alaska (who grew up on a homestead), kindergarten teacher, and fellow Air National Guard member. When Hough initially told Dorst about the trip, Dorst offered her bike for the journey. A few months later, Dorst called with some news. “Colleen, the bad news is you’ll have to get a bike. The good news is I’ll be riding mine alongside you.” Hough was thrilled.

Then Dorst broached the idea of cycling to a fellow Guard member and lifetime Alaskan named Kim Stoltz. Newly married, Stoltz was reluctant to commit before consulting her new husband, but convinced him that this was a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity. A busy social worker in the midst of completing her masters degree in Management of Health Services, Team Member #3 was raring to go!

I heard about the trip in mid-February after e-mailing an Alaskan friend in search of an adventure. In the nearly three years since my graduation from Williams, I’d spent slightly more than two years working as a case-writer and researcher for the Harvard Business School. I had a great two years working for the faculty members who teach MBA leadership courses, a topic that’s much closer to the religion I studied for my major in college than one might first expect. The school sent me all around the world, including two trips to Wuhan, China, to write about emerging leaders. It was a fabulous experience, and when I finished I went to work for a startup company here in Boston.

For six months I played the entrepreneurial game and loved it. However, I realized that it wasn’t a long-term fit—work had taken over my life (as startups are wont to do)—and I was not making time to do the things I love like running/hiking/biking and taking peaceful time. So, I quit and took two weeks just to reflect on what I wanted in life. What I quickly realized is that I wasn’t certain of the answers to that question, but I knew what I didn’t want: to sit in an office for another summer. I wanted an adventure. A big one. So I wrote to my friend, and signed on within the week.

I’m delighted to be going, and many things have fallen into place to make the trip possible. I’ve taken a temporary job at HBS, which gives me time to train amongst friends. The team, with whom I exchange daily emails – though I haven’t yet met any of them in person – is madly organizing to make sure what can be ready will be. I couldn’t be happier.

While it’s more than a little overwhelming to realize that I’m packing up this life in a few weeks, I’m excited to be on the road, biking with the team and raising money for a cause that’s close to my heart. Both my 92-year-old grandmother and my aunt survived and thrive after bouts with breast cancer.

We plan to ride an average of 50-70 miles per day and will camp or stay with friends and supporters along the way. From Key West, we will ride up the coast of Florida. Then we will cross through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, before reaching the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Tracing along the river through Missouri, they will then ride through Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Climbing into Canada, we will ride up the ALCAN highway through Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory before crossing into Alaska. Hough selected Homer as the end point after reading Tom Bodett’s (you remember him, the guy from the Motel 6 commercials: “We’ll leave a light on for ya.”) description of his hometown “The Town at the End of the Road”. It seemed to Hough the perfect place to end the journey. We anticipate a mid-August arrival.

We estimate that this trip will cost approximately $30/rider/day, and are collecting both sponsors for the trip’s cost as well as donations toward the $200,000 goal. Excluding the trip’s minimal costs, the money will go directly to four organizations: W.H.E.R.E. (Woman for Healthcare Education, Reform & Equity), the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Breast Cancer Detection Center of Alaska, and the Breast Cancer Society of Canada.

If you would be interested in sponsoring part of this journey, your contributions are welcome and should be sent to Keys to Kenai, Inc. P.O. Box 7001, Delray Beach, FL 33482. If you have further questions, or would like to contact me directly, I’d be delighted to hear from you. I can be reached via e-mail at jsuesse@mindspring.com or at the team’s Boston HQ: (617) 628-5119 before I leave on April 24. Finally, more information about this expedition is available online at http://www.keystokenai.com.