When Geetika Rao first decided she wanted to do the Texas 4000, a 6,400-kilometre bike ride from Texas to Alaska raising money for cancer research, she had no personal connection to the disease.
Then, the week she was considering applying, she got some news that hit close to home. A close family friend, someone she thinks of as a grandmother, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
"I ended up applying, did the interview and got in on Nov. 4, 2014, and that actually ended up being the same day she passed away. It was a very emotional thing," Rao recalled. "That's when it became personal."
Rao is one of 67 students from the University of Texas at Austin making the long ride to Anchorage, Alaska, with a stopover in Whistler planned for July 26, in the fight against cancer. Now in its 13th year, the non-profit has raised over $7 million for cancer research.
"It was started in 2004 by a childhood cancer survivor that went to the University of Texas at Austin, and he ran into a bike group called 4K for Cancer ... and he just wanted to do it bigger and better," said program coordinator Emmy Laursen. "Every year it's been growing and growing."
The Texas 4000 isn't only a gruelling 70-day ride. Students must undergo 18 months of leadership development training, volunteering and fundraising on top of their full-time academic load. It's during that period that the real bonds are forged that will carry the cyclists through the hardest parts of the ride.
"Everyone is so open. It gives us this forum to talk about everything. There are so many people on our route that come forward everyday with new stories maybe they haven't revealed to anyone else," Rao said. "(It helps) especially over the summer when we're struggling up those hills and battling the headwinds, because you know you're all doing it together."
That sense of vulnerability has also spread to the cancer survivors the group comes across on their cross-country trek.
"The people we've met along the way, people share their stories so openly with you when they see those bright orange jerseys and realize what you're doing and why you're doing it," said Rao. "That has really been a humbling experience, seeing how kind and generous people we meet along the way are."
The riders have taken one of three routes this year before reuniting in Canada for the final 10-day leg to Alaska. The group stopping in Whistler has travelled through the American Southwest to California and north along the West Coast before crossing the border.
Texas 4000 has so far raised $556,000 of this year's $825,000 funding goal. To donate, visit www.texas4000.org.