Volume 16, Issue 21 - May 22-May 28, 2008

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Outracing Cancer

Four friends plan to pedal coast to coast in just one week

by Carrie Madren

Ken Shuart’s an adventure racer who’s persevered 48 straight hours, surmounting rough terrains on foot and bike to win. He’s competed in marathons and triathlons. He’s checked off both Mount Rainier and Mount Kilimanjaro from his climbing list.

For a high-level athlete, finding bigger challenges gets to be its own challenge.

There’s one challenge Shuart, of Galesville, has still to take on. In just under three weeks, Shuart — with three teammates — will attempt the longest bike ride of their lives. They’ll be one cycling team among some three-dozen competing in Race Across America, a 3,000-plus-mile non-stop trek from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis.

This athlete has another purpose in racing, besides the thrill of endurance: raising money to raise awareness of melanoma, a cancer he’s all too familiar with. The 48-year-old senior systems analyst has already had over two dozen bouts with basal cells, mole-like skin formations that run in his family.

To help make a difference in fighting skin cancer, Shuart and his teammates — team Ride4Melanoma — are using their race to raise $100,000 for donations to Children’s Melanoma Foundation as well as to fund their cross-country journey. Along the nationwide route, Shuart’s team will spread the word about the dangers of skin cancer and how to prevent it.

His long year of planning will end in three weeks, as team Ride4Melanoma crosses the country with a 10-person road crew — conveniently including one bike mechanic — two cars and an RV in a race for the finish. Bay Weekly caught up with Shuart in the last weeks of his ultra-distance training.

Leapfrogging 3,000 Miles

Come early June, the four riders and their 10-person road crew fly and drive to Oceanside, California, near San Diego. There they’ll rent one support vehicle and use one crewmember’s 35-foot RV, which will also tow out Shuart’s Jeep for their transcontinental race.

In the 27th annual Race Across America, riders pedal from coast to coast in a race 50 percent longer than the Tour de France, and with shorter rest periods between rides. Throughout the race, each team and solo rider climbs 100,000 feet riding over mountains and highlands.

Teams of two, four and eight cyclists start the ultra-endurance bicycle race on June 11. By then, 28 solo racers will already be three days into their long, lonely journeys — which they have 12 days to complete.

“There’s a planned route that starts in Oceanside and winds through 52 cities across the country,” says Shuart, who spent his early life in Severna Park. From Oceanside, racers stick to back roads — no interstates — on a route that grazes the Mexican border, then rises through Arizona to the Four Corners region before conquering the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado-New Mexico line. Racers sweep down again to touch Texas before straightening out their route across the plains of Kansas and rolling hills of Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, then pushing up and speeding down over the Appalachian Mountains into Maryland. Finally, they’ll reach the finish line: Annapolis.

For seven days, Shuart and his three teammates — friends Jody Bennett, Stuart Levy and Steve ‘Buster’ Laurenson — take turns riding hour-long sprints to the finish line.

The team of four breaks off into two pairs, each with a vehicle; pairs alternate six-hour shifts. The RV drives on ahead. The first pair and their car hit the road. Rider 1 rides for an hour as rider 2 rests in the car; they switch off every hour for six hours. As they leapfrog, riders 3 and 4 sleep and eat in the RV until their six-hour shift rolls around. Then the pairs switch as rider 1 and 2 rest in the RV. Nonstop, 24 hours a day, someone from the team rides as the other three rest.

“If we average 17 to 18 miles per hour, our goal, then can get back to Annapolis in seven days,” Shuart predicts. If they meet that goal, they’ll break the race’s standing record average speed: 15.4 miles per hour.

The team did a test run last month from Smithburg in mountainous West Virginia and followed the race course 400 miles to Annapolis. It took 24 hours, as team and crew worked out kinks for their June odyssey.

The Making of a Charity Racer

Shuart — a lean, six-foot cyclist with a focused manner and short, light-brown hair — says he only got serious about biking in the last nine months, though he’s always been an athlete. Pushing himself to the limits began in 1999, when he ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

“After doing a long run for the first time, I wanted to stay at that high level of fitness, so I got involved with some people who were adventure racers,” he says. That’s a multi-sport competition, which typically involves mountain biking, running, hiking and whitewater kayaking non-stop for 110 to 190 miles. Racers use a compass to get themselves by whatever means necessary to GPS-found coordinates. For an athlete, it’s a 24- or 48-hour-long race.

On Shuart’s athletic resume are triathlons and mountain climbs as well as sailing and playing football for University of Maryland. Last summer, Shuart added Mount Kilimanjaro to his list of conquered climbs, which already included Mount Rainier.

Racing across the country seemed a logical next challenge. This race coincided with a dramatic turn in his life.

Last summer, Shuart’s sister went in for a routine skin exam, where doctors found melanoma, a life-threatening cancer, on her back. A week later, Shuart himself underwent Mohs surgery behind his ear to remove non-life-threatening basal cells. Mohs surgery is a less destructive procedure where doctors remove a thin layer of skin — instead of taking a large chunk — and go into the next layer only if necessary.

“That was my third Mohs surgery, and that was probably the 25th basal cell [mass] that I had had in different places,” says Shuart, whose family has a long history of skin cancer. “It had always been basal-cell, so when my sister had melanoma, I thought, ok, now the stakes have been raised.”

Shuart knew he had to do something.

Fighting Cancer with Bikes

For seven days, Shuart, top left, and his three teammates — friends Jody Bennett, Stuart Levy and Steve ‘Buster’ Laurenson — will trade off hour-long sprints in this 3,000-plus-mile trek.

“I realized that besides having a history with skin cancer, I also have a future with skin cancer,” says Shuart, who has been an outdoor athlete, a sailor, out on the ball fields and in Ocean City in the summer.

“As a child, I was unprotected in the sun, and now I’m paying the consequences,” he says.

Shuart started looking for races that would allow him to raise money for his cause, and saw that many of the Race Across America teams used it as charity fundraising rides.

“I thought, this fits — I can use my athletic skills to raise money,” he says. He joined forces with the Dermatology Nurses Association and Children’s Melanoma Prevention Foundation.

His message for this race is Protect your children now and they will benefit later.

“A sunburn at an early age will multiply effects much later on,” he says. “It’s fine to be active and outdoors, but do it safely.” That means wearing sun protection and staying out of the sun between the hours of 10am and 2pm, when the UV index is highest during the day.

To keep himself safe during his hours riding out in the sun, Shuart plans to slather on Neutrogena Suncare with Helioplex, a sunscreen with new UVA- and UVB-blocking technology equivalent to SPF 70. He and his team will also be donning sun-blocking jerseys and clothes from their sponsor Coolibar.

Part of the money the team raises will go to buy materials and lessons to teach sun smarts to kids. The short storybooks, placed in dermatology offices around the country, will teach students wise sun choices. One of the three books, Shuart says, is about a girl going to prom and deciding whether to get tanning sessions or put the money toward her prom dress.

To spread sun safety along the way, the Nurses’ Association will set up tables at a handful of checkpoints along the route to help teach communities and families. Shuart plans to reach out to Americans along the route, too, if he can.

“That’s what I can do,” he says. “I’m not a professional fundraiser; I’m a computer programmer and an athlete.”

Shuart’s team is pedaling to break the race’s standing average speed: record of 15.4 miles per hour.

Revving Up

This is Shuart’s, Bennett’s and Laurenson’s first cross-country trip; Levy’s fourth. All have competed in marathons, triathlons or adventure races. The foursome took on an experienced coach in December to help them prepare.

“Even then, we were starting from a high level of fitness,” Shuart says. “Our workouts were five days a week, and the sixth day was strength training; then one rest day.” Over time, riders increased their miles per week. A month before the race, Shuart averaged over 250 to 300 miles a week. By Memorial Day weekend, Shuart and teammates will start to taper down — easing up on their high-endurance training and resting up for the race. The week before, Shuart says he’ll be eating as much as he can as he rests, so he can start the race feeling 100 percent.

Training for ultra-distance riding is hard, but the biggest challenge, Shuart says, has been logistics.

“There’s so much to get ready to get this caravan across the country,” he says. “They say the hardest part of this race is getting to the starting line.” It seems true. Convincing 10 people to join the journey, securing all the equipment, securing vehicles and flying everyone out to California takes precise planning. Such careful coordinating has been the work of the last year, and he’s banking that it will pay off.

“Once I get on my bike, hopefully, my job is done,” he says.

Getting on the Road

Capital Bicycles, among the team’s sponsors, is lending Shuart a $6,000, carbon-fiber Specialized Roubaix bicycle, a much lighter, stronger bike than Shuart owns.

Will he get to hold onto it after the race is over?

“I think they do want it back for their fleet of demo bikes,” Shuart laments. Another sponsor, Coolibar UPF 50+ Sun Protective Clothing, will outfit Ride4Melanoma with sun protective jerseys on their journey. Other sponsors funding the race include Annapolis Dermatology Associates, Brainware Inc. and Caris Cohen DX.

With the race just weeks away, Ride4Melanoma is only halfway to its $100,000 fundraising goal. The figure will both pay for the sun awareness books and help get the team and their caravan across the country, not a cheap feat. Airfare, RV, cars, gas, food, pre race hotel, special light systems for the cars, and lots more adds up to $27,000, mostly paid by the four racers. Gas alone will cost them $1,000, Shuart figures. The race’s entry fee was $5,695 for a four-person team.

So far, $30,000 has come from both private donations and corporate sponsorships, plus an April fundraising ride that brought in some 70 riders and more than $3,000. Only a small portion of that $30,000 will go toward the team’s expenses.

There’s still time for the team to meet its fundraising goal, but if they don’t, Shuart says he will make up the difference from his own pocket.

He and team Ride4Melanoma already have a lot invested in the race, and he has asked friends and family to invest time, energy and money. That includes a year of planning and a long buildup.

As in planning a wedding or other huge event, the anticipation has been building with each detail Shuart coordinates.

He’s raring to go, he says,

“Mentally I’m ready … I’m like let’s just get going.”

Find out more about the Shuart’s team and how you can help at www.ride4melanoma.com. During the event, watch for racers on national television networks and for daily updates posted on www.raceacrossamerica.org. After the competition, stay tuned next month when Bay Weekly catches up with Shuart and his team for post-race reflections.

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