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Article Published October 9, 2014
Greg Kirby's Ride of a Lifetime
Second-year UConn med student Greg Kirby, a member of Daniel Hand High School's Class of 2008 and Boston College's Class of 2012, recently completed a cross country road trip-on his bicycle.
It wasn't just for fun. The Coast to Coast for a Cure bike ride has been a tradition for the past nine summers, Greg says. Each year a group of medical and/or dental students bikes from San Francisco to the UConn Health Center in Farmington to raise money and awareness for Lea's Foundation for Leukemia Research, Inc., a Connecticut-based non-profit that raises money for the research and treatment of leukemia and other blood-borne diseases. Greg was part of the ninth team.
Greg says, "The foundation is fantastic about working with us to set up fundraising events and letter campaigns, as well as providing us with some direction on the logistics that must be tackled in order to pull off a cross-country bike tour."
Greg and two of his fellow med students, Gregory Oudheusden of Greenwich and Jonathan Kobles of Farmington, jumped at the chance to raise more than $30,000 for cancer research-even though it meant forgoing most of the comforts of home and living off of a bicycle for almost two months.
"Unfortunately, they were both able to only complete portions of the trip due to illness," Greg says. "Greg from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, and Jonathan from Boise, Idaho, to Farmington, Connecticut. We sat down together in May and decided what route we wanted to take across the country. We tried to maximize the number of national parks and landmarks that we would see, with naïve regard for any terrain or weather patterns through which we would bike. The result of planning was incredibly rewarding, but also presented us with some of the toughest challenges, physically and mentally, we have ever faced."
Against the Wind
On June 19, their first full day of riding, the Gregs had to bike 44 miles up the California coast.
Greg says, "Unbeknownst to us ahead of time, there is a strong prevailing north-to-south wind that blows throughout most of the summer in that part of the country. This led to a 25- to 30-mile-per-hour headwind blowing in our faces all day, causing even the descents of our ride to require strong, tiring pedaling."
The relentless wind and the restless riding led to two "extremely exhausted" medical students by the time they reached their campsite, Greg says. And they still had a few hundred miles to go. Greg wasn't sure they could do it and he spent his cell phone's remaining battery life searching for a less punishing route. He never found one, so the original plan-continuing straight into the headwind-was still on.
"Over the course of a week, I learned to push through what seemed like never-ending obstacles," Greg says. "This part of the trip led to some of my greatest personal growth and will stick with me in my personal life and professional training."
Completing a century, or 100-mile bike ride, is on almost every biker's bucket list. Greg's first was a bit tougher than most.
"My first century had a bit of a twist," Greg says. "The day started with my alarm at 3 a.m., and Greg and I were on the road by 3:30. We had to bike across the Oregon High Desert, a total of 137 miles in one day-almost double the distance that either of us had ever biked in one day. The temperatures in the morning started around 50 degrees, and by mid-afternoon had reached over 100.
"Compounding our issues was the fact that the desert did not have any services or sources of drinking water for 90 miles between the gas stations located on its north and south borders. This day shattered the expectations I had of myself, and made the rest of the trip seem very attainable. With careful enough planning, I knew that before long we would be in Connecticut."
These challenges made the high points of the ride even sweeter. As the men crossed Idaho, they were routinely cautioned about their upcoming passage over the Rocky Mountains, namely Teton Pass, Greg says.
"This climb would last for about 25 miles, with the last 10 miles having long sections of 10-percent-grade climbs. The climbs that had challenged our abilities back in California and Oregon paled in comparison to what lay ahead of us."
Teton Pass required hours of pedaling in their bikes' lowest gear, allowing them a speed of just four miles per hour up the steep slope.
"Our legs burned and the air thinned as we reached Teton Pass's peak at [an altitude of] 8,432 feet," Greg says. "After having dragged our 33-pound bikes, plus six pounds of water and 45 pounds of gear up the Rockies, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, below. It was incredible to see snow-capped mountains in all directions, with some snow located only a couple hundred feet above us.
"It wasn't until our exit from Yellowstone National Park through Sylvan Pass at 8,524 feet that we would have the chance to bike above the remnants of last winter's snow," Greg says.
It was mid-July, so they did what any self-respecting medical students would do: They had a snowball fight.
The Kindness of Strangers
Once Greg and, by then, Jonathan (Greg O. had gone home) had reached flat Nebraska, the steep mountains were behind them, but different challenges awaited.
Greg says, "The scenery was unchanging minute-to-minute, day-to-day. This was compounded with yet another tough headwind. One night we pulled into a small town called Brady, which had a population of about 400, and found that our only option for dinner was at the town bar. We sat down to eat, and stood out a bit as we were the only patrons wearing Spandex.
"Upon hearing about our ride and cause, our waitress informed us that our meal had been paid for by another customer. While she would never tell us who that person was, we assumed that it was most likely [her]. In the midst of the challenges we faced on a daily basis, this kind gesture reaffirmed that we were completing this ride for reasons that resonated with so many of the people we met across the country."
More help came later in the form of a mom and her SUV. In Pennsylvania, Greg and Jonathan met up with Greg's mother, who carried their gear for them in her car over the next couple of days and paid for a hotel room.
As they crossed from Pennsylvania to New York, they faced a 13-percent grade descent, the steepest they had encountered their whole trip.
Greg wrote in his blog entry for that day, "We bombed down the side of the mountain down to Tannersville, topping 42 miles per hour, new highs for us on the trip. As we descended, the drivers became more aggressive as more New York and New Jersey license plates appeared on the road."
The next day, on Aug. 11, they rode 93 miles to the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
Greg writes in his final blog entry from the trip, "We passed Miss Porter's School and landed out on Route 4 once again, this time heading toward the
I-84/Route 4 intersection. Traveling through the jug-handle turn, we could finally see the Health Center. Never before have I been so excited to see that building...Hugs, kisses, champagne showers, flowers, pictures, and TV interviews welcomed us back to Farmington."
Back to Business
On Aug. 23, a little more than two months after dipping their bike tires in the Pacific Ocean and leaving California, Greg and Jonathan rolled into Hammonasset to dip their tires in Long Island Sound. Not long after that, it was back to the books for both of them.
Greg felt medicine was a natural field for him to enter.
Greg says, "Studying medicine was a goal that began developing while I was a college freshman at Boston College. I knew that I had a love for math and science, but wanted to be able to apply my knowledge and interact with individuals in a meaningful manner. My training and shift work as an EMT strengthened my confidence in my decision and led me to complete substance abuse screening and intervention in a Boston hospital. My substance abuse work reaffirmed the rewarding nature of forming effective relationships with patients and convinced me that my path toward medicine was not a misguided one."
As a second-year medical student, Greg doesn't yet have to declare a specialty, but he's eyeing emergency medicine.
"This is likely due to my previous work in this field, but also due to my tendency to perform my best under stressful circumstances."
Like riding into 30 mph headwinds on the California coast with almost 4,000 miles of biking between him and his destination.
A daily blog from the trip, complete with scenic photos taken along the way, can be found at ride.gregkirby.net.
Learn more about Lea's Foundation at www.leasfoundation.org.
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