Every summer, students from the University of Texas bike more than 4,000 miles from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska, to raise money for cancer research. Riders Heidi Simmons and Reghan Conrey talked to Austin Woman about their journey.
By Abigail Rosenthal, Photos courtesy of Heidi Simmons and Reghan Conrey
Every year, selected University of Texas students don their jerseys and hit the road in support of the Texas 4000, a nonprofit that raises funds for cancer research.
Austin Woman caught up with rider Heidi Simmons in Dallas, a mere 200 miles into her journey.
“One of the things I love most about the trip so far is when you’re on the bike, you literally just have you and your teammates next to you,” Simmons says. “Already, I’ve gotten to know a handful of my teammates so much better because, as opposed to the obligatory 20 minutes at a dinner party, where you only get the surface level of someone, it’s like I have eight hours to sit on a bike next to someone and ask more info from them.”
One of three graduate students braving the ride, Simmons has an emotional tie to the cause. In 2011, her grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer while Simmons was working toward becoming a cancer nurse.
“The same month she got diagnosed, I moved in with her because I was starting an internship in nursing at MD Anderson Cancer Center,” Simmons says. “During the day, I was working as a nurse, and then at night, I was taking care of my grandmother.”
Sadly, Simmons’ grandmother passed away in 2015, but Simmons finds inspiration in her grandmother’s fight.
At the core of the Texas 4000 mission is hope, knowledge and charity, and for Simmons, the long ride ahead represents a brighter future for cancer research.
“We’re at the point where knowledge is what saves people,” Simmons says. “For my grandma, they didn’t know yet that she needed to get more frequent screenings for her lung cancer because she was a former smoker. As science and medicine and cancer research continues to grow and improve more and more, people are finding their cancers earlier and are surviving.”
Unlike Simmons, who is a triathlete, Reghan Conrey joined Texas 4000 with little bike-riding experience.
“I’ve done the whole thing where Dad teaches you how to ride a bike and you ride your little training-wheeled bike down the street,” Conrey says. “When we were learning how to ride the bikes, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, OK, we know how to ride a bike.’ And here I am, falling all over everybody who was trying to teach me.”
Conrey witnessed the effects of cancer firsthand while completing what she calls an “accidental internship” with a neurosurgeon at MD Anderson. Looking to gain experience in lab research, she instead unexpectedly observed a brain surgery on her first day. Fascinated, Conrey continued to shadow the neurosurgeon during the following months.
“I would sit in these really intimate moments between doctor and patient, and I really got kind of a look at what cancer is like from the outside,” she says. “In the room, you just feel this incredible sadness from these people who are going through something I can’t even begin to imagine.”
From Austin to Caliente, Nev., Conrey has gotten to see how her ride connects her with her teammates, the people who host them and even people they meet at gas stations who ask about their jerseys.
“When you’re wearing a jersey that says ‘Fighting Cancer Every Mile’ and opening a conversation with, ‘Yes, I’m biking to Alaska. Can I ride for anyone you know?’ it really opens you to some really intimate bond-creating conversations that are meaningful,” Conrey says. “And even understanding that yes, I may never see this person again, they have given me something and I have given them hope for a better world, for people who care, that they’re not alone. It’s really fulfilling.”