“Life is like a 10-speed bike. Most of us have gears we never use.”
That quote from “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz doesn’t apply to the life of 22-year-old Emmy Laursen. The University of Texas senior used every gear she had — literally and figuratively — while cycling more than 4,000 miles from Austin, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska, this past summer. (That’s roughly the equivalent of biking from Houston to Miami, north to New York City and then across the U.S. to Los Angeles.)
Laursen and 28 fellow UT students rode an average of 70 miles each day for 70 days along the Ozarks Route of the Texas 4000, the world’s longest annual charity bike ride. Founded 11 years ago by a UT undergrad who survived childhood cancer, the ride shares hope for patients, knowledge of the disease and funds raised for research.
Assigned to one of three routes, which also include one along the West Coast and another through the Rockies, all 80 or so riders share a passion to battle cancer.
“I didn’t really know what the ride was going to do for me, but I knew I needed to do it,” Laursen recalls.
While not all have a personal story about the disease, many, such as Laursen, do. In the fall of 2008, when she was a sophomore at Keller High School in North Texas, her father, Michael, told her and her younger brother that he was sick. Persistent pain in his right shoulder prompted the then-52-year-old to see a doctor; however, tests turned up nothing. Eventually a colonoscopy was recommended, and the results revealed cancer that had spread to his liver.
A tumor was pressing on a nerve and causing the shoulder pain.
It was later determined that the cancer in her father’s body had been growing for 12 years.
“My dad’s fear was he wouldn’t live to see my younger brother and me graduate from high school,” says Laursen.
After being treated by an oncologist in Grapevine, a city just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Michael Laursen was sent to MD Anderson in 2010, where he saw Christopher Garrett, M.D., professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology. In early 2011, he underwent selective internal radiation therapy, which can be very effective in patients with colorectal liver metastases. Tiny microspheres of radioactive material were injected into the arteries that supplied blood to the tumor. Unfortunately, in the months following the treatment, CT scans showed the tumor growth on his liver wasn’t slowed. He returned to North Texas and continued chemo treatments there.
Meanwhile, Laursen had graduated from high school and entered college in Austin, where she was studying art, a passion she shared with her father. She returned home to visit him often, but without a car, she couldn’t visit as much as she would’ve liked. That changed when he bought her a Honda Fit in August 2012. She went home every weekend to see him.
But Laursen also felt like she was living two separate lives, jumping back and forth between being a caring daughter and being a normal 19-year-old.
“Going to college during the week and then on the weekends having this completely different life, it was really hard to put on a smile all the time,” she says. “No one ever knew what was going on in my life. And I wasn’t very honest with people about how bad my dad was doing.”
Laursen was so busy providing support for her father, brother and family back home in Keller that she wasn’t getting the help she needed for herself in Austin. Then she found the Texas 4000.
“Looking back now, I couldn’t have predicted what kind of healing it would bring,” she says. “But at that time I realized I needed the support of people who knew what it was like to have family fighting cancer.”
Laursen would need that support more than she would know. On Oct. 30, 2012, five months after her father watched her brother receive his high school diploma, her aunt called with the news that he had died. Laursen returned home for the memorial service on Nov. 4. The following day, she learned she’d been selected for the Texas 4000.
So began 18 months of preparation for the ride that took her and her teammates through eight states and six Canadian provinces. In addition to training on the bike, each rider is required to do 50 hours of volunteer work and raise a minimum of $4,500 (a dollar for every mile of the ride). In the end, most surpass that goal.
“People raise whatever they can,” Laursen says.
“Most people set their goal at $4,500, and once they reach that, they’re like, ‘well, dang, let’s just try to double that.’”
Laursen’s journey didn’t end on Day 70 in Anchorage. What she set out to do in honor of her father and others facing life with cancer became an experience that opened her own eyes and revealed an adventurous side she says she won’t be able to get away from.
“The cyclical, routine, busy life is not all there is.
There are more inspirational things out there happening than this `busyness’ that we’re in every day.
I’m hungry for it. I’m hungry for more. I’m anxious to see what’s next.”
“They always say, `Don’t let the Texas 4000 be the best thing you ever do.’ And I definitely know what they mean now,” she says. “You come off of this high and you’re like, `I gotta keep going, this is not the end.’”