Closer to Free #3 breaks records, continues to lift hope

The sun was inching up but the air was still slightly chilly in the Yale Bowl as 900 riders gathered to get an inspirational send-off on their quest to raise funds for the work of Smilow Cancer Hospital.
The sun was inching up but the air was still slightly chilly in the Yale Bowl as 900 riders gathered to get an inspirational send-off on their quest to raise funds for the work of Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Closer to Free ride organizers could not have orchestrated a more perfect day for the third annual Closer to Free bide ride than Saturday, September 7.

This year's riders must have anticipated the perfection of the day because more than 900 signed up to ride — up from 481 in 2012 and 250 in its first year. More than 160 employees signed on to ride one of the three routes — 25, 62.5 or 100 miles — and more than 100 riders identified themselves as survivors.

Each rider pledges to raise $400 for Closer to Free which raises funds for cancer care and research at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center. At the time of publication, it is estimated that this year's ride will raise more than $1 million — up from $730,000 in 2012 and $400,000 in 2011. "Cyclists from throughout the tri-state area have heard about Closer to Free and want to participate," said Kevin Walsh, vice president, Development.

One of the many teams that rode together for moral support and to raise funds for Smilow was the YNHH livingwell Fitness Center Team. Shown before ride-out were (l-r): Steve Ronshagen, HVAC mechanic, Engineering; Judy Nunes, PA, manager, Surgery; Christine Picklo, project coordinator, Performance Management; Nick Kane, health and fitness specialist, Fitness Center, and team captain; Darriel Rolka, executive secretary, Administration; Kristine Festa, support coordinator, Smilow operations; Tracey Streit; Susan Shiely, equipment coordinator, Facilities Design and Construction; and Jacqeline Russell, RN, clinical documentation consultant, Care Management.

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"It is rare that you meet a person who has not been touched by cancer. Closer to Free gives people the opportunity to come out and try to help beat the disease."

Part of the reason for the popularity and growth of the Closer to Free ride is that it is organized around the needs and safety of the riders. In addition to hundreds who worked throughout the day at Yale Bowl, other volunteers ensured that riders were safe, hydrated and/or fed and that their bikes were functioning at rest stops from Hamden to Durham to Westbrook.

Trish Magee, RN, Labor and Birth on the Saint Raphael Campus, was a first-time rider in Closer to Free. She was a member of Carl's Crusaders, a team from Guilford, her hometown. Carl's Crusaders honored Carl Hubbard, a childhood friend of her husband, who also rode.

Hubbard had been treated for more than 100 days at Smilow Cancer Hospital but died last July. This year, a group of 68 devoted friends and family members formed Carl's Crusaders to honor his memory and, to date, have raised more than $60,000 for Smilow.

For the first Closer to Free, Andres Martin, MD, medical director, Children's Inpatient Psychiatric Service (CPIS), started a team to ride. This year, Betsy Kunz, licensed clinical social worker, CPIS, was the captain of the 14-member team which raised more than $12,800. Shown after riding 500 miles cumulatively are (l-r): Joseph Wolenski, PhD, Yale School of Medicine; Dr. Martin; Kunz; Ben Kunz, Betsy's husband; and Darrow Loucks, officer, Protective Services. Both Betsy Kunz and Loucks are survivors.

"I rode 25 miles this year and my husband did 62.5 miles," said Magee. "Riding in Closer to Free was very meaningful for all of us and we're already looking forward to riding next year. Our children may even ride with us!"

Liz Dickerson, RN, a nurse in Centralized Staffing who frequently works in Smilow oncology units, is a cancer survivor who rode for the first time. Maureen Raucci, RN, patient service manager, Medical/Oncology Unit, and captain of the ride's largest team Live Positive — encouraged Dickerson to ride on her team and she agreed.

"I've been in remission for three years but the experience of having cancer does change your perspective," says Dickerson. "You quickly learn that life is short and it is precious and can change at any time — so you go the extra mile."

For Dickerson, Closer to Free meant riding 25 extra miles in a remarkable two hours — something she could not have imagined doing three years ago.

"Cancer saps your energy but it also changes your determination and your will and your resolve," Dickerson, who is already planning to ride in Closer to Free next year, observes. "I'm going to train more regularly and if I can beat this year's time, I'll ride 62 miles the following year!"

Closer to Free will take donations until Monday, September 30 at www.rideclosertofree.org.