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Cyclists ride 3,000 miles to fight polio

At 3 a.m., Bob McKenzie thought about quitting. 

“I was miserable,” he says. “It was freezing cold and raining.” McKenzie had already been cycling for six days, competing in the 3,000-mile Race Across America, one of the world’s most grueling bike races. He and his teammates had made it to Grantsville, Maryland, just a few hundred miles from the end of the ride. But in the darkness of the night, the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy were pelting him relentlessly. He thought he would take a break and allow his teammate to take over for a while. Then he had a thought that inspired him to keep going. “Kids who contract polio do not get to quit. They are in for life.” He kept pedaling. 

The team finished the Race Across America in 7 days, 49 minutes, and raised $550,000 to fight polio.

Photo courtesy of Race Across America

For McKenzie, a member of the Rotary Club of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2017 marked the second time he participated in the Race Across America to raise money to fight polio. Two of his 2016 teammates – Kurt Matzler, a member of the Rotary Club of Innsbruck-Goldenes Dachl in Austria, and Steve Schoonover, a member of the Rotary Club of South Valley in Utah – were back in 2017. They were joined by Matzler’s girlfriend, Ruth Brandstaetter (Matzler proposed marriage at the end of the race, and the couple married in August). 

The team made it through a sandstorm, driving rain, hail, extreme temperatures, and two broken bikes while racing from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland. “The first year, we didn’t even have a flat,” McKenzie says. “In 2017, we had all kinds of weather and issues with broken bikes.” Still, the team managed to finish in 7 days, 49 minutes, and raised $550,000 with matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support Rotary’s fight to end polio. 

The 2018 race will mark the third time a team has represented Rotary in the race. This year, they hope to raise $1 million to support polio eradication with the 2-to-1 match from the Gates Foundation. 

“We’ve learned a lot,” McKenzie says, talking about how the team manages the logistics of the race. In 2016, several vehicles, including an RV, followed the racers. They took turns sleeping in the RV and rarely stopped. Last June, several minivans still followed the riders, but they opted to complete the relay race by breaking it up into 10-hour shifts, with two riders trading off cycling duties (one riding, one resting in a minivan following the rider), typically riding in one-hour shifts, while the other two rested at a nearby hotel for 10 hours. When they woke up, they would drive to catch up with the rest of the team and trade places. Better rest may have helped their endurance. They cut 27 minutes off their 2016 time, despite facing more weather and equipment problems. 

Despite lightning, hail, and two broken bikes, the riders persevered with the support of their team

Photo courtesy of Race Across America

Still, the race was arduous. The route takes riders across three mountain ranges: the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. In total, the cyclists ascend over 170,000 feet, the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest six times. But that’s the easier part for Kurt Matzler, who trains in the Alps. “The worst for me is definitely the desert,” he says. “Once we are out of the desert and into the Rocky Mountains, I feel like I’m home and I know that I can survive the race.” 

The mountains weren’t so easy for McKenzie, who nearly collided with two deer while careening down Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado at about 45 mph. The team’s driver leaned on the horn to scare the deer off the road. 

The team had to stop for 46 minutes in Ulysses, Kansas, because of a severe lightning storm. On Day 6, Matzler snapped his shifting cable. He was already using his backup bicycle, as he had broken the handlebars on his original bike. But a stroke of good luck kept the racers on track. “We found a bike store that was five minutes from closing,” McKenzie says. It stayed open and fixed the cable in 45 minutes. The group also had four or five flat tires. 

There were positive moments too. From Fort Scott, Kansas, to Athens, Ohio, to the finish line in Annapolis, crowds of Rotarians gathered to cheer the racers on. (The RAAM website offers live tracking of the teams.) That support inspired the team to keep going and to ride again in June 2018. 

“We have to keep doing it while the momentum is here,” McKenzie says. As the oldest racer on the team at age 66, he says he’ll ride again this year because he remembers when fear of polio was widespread in the United States. “I was born in 1952, and my mom told me we didn’t go anywhere. Everyone was scared to death.” 

Matzler and Brandstaetter will ride again too. “Riding with Rotarians 3,000 miles across the country is an unbelievable team experience,” Matzler says. “But the best part is combining the passion for cycling with raising funds to end polio.”

–Vanessa Glavinskas

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