Weehawkenite Cassie Tarakajian was on the 3,840th mile of her 4,000 mile cross-country bike trip to raise money for cancer. In just six days, she and her fellow 4K For Cancer Cyclists were set to cycle triumphantly across the Golden Gate Bridge and conclude their impressive fundraising journey.
Tarakajian was riding on a road without a shoulder somewhere near Davis, Calif. when a pickup truck with a horse trailer hitched to the back tried to pass a car and veered toward her. She was sandwiched between the trailer and the roadside ditch, and she was seconds away from hitting an upcoming guardrail.
“I decided that getting sideswiped by a trailer was not the best choice,” Tarakajian joked from her uncle’s home in Mill Valley where she is currently recovering. “So I jumped into the ditch and hoped for the best.”
When she got up, Tarakajian was in shock. When she reached around with her right hand to the pocket in the back of her cycling shirt to grab her cell phone and call the support van, she realized she was unable. She was astounded at just how much her wrist hurt.
“I decided that getting sideswiped by a trailer was not the best choice.” – Cassie Tarakajian
Crossing the bridge
She returned to her uncle’s home to recover, but she knew her team was set to finish in three days.
“I was very disappointed I couldn’t bike,” Tarakajian explained. “I knew I had to get across that bridge with my bike somehow. It made sense to me to do something to conclude this experience right.”
So on Aug. 4, with three of her cycling companions graciously pedaling “at a snail’s pace” beside her, Tarakajian walked her bike, bandages and broken wrist and all, across the bridge and over to the beach at Crissy Fields.
Her teammates jumped into the bay and sprayed each other with champagne.
“I couldn’t jump in the water obviously, and my pain meds prevented me from drinking any champagne,” she laughed. “But I was so glad I went.”
Cycling for life
A year before Tarakajian began to bike for the Ulman Cancer Fund – a nonprofit organization specifically for young adults – her Phi Mu sorority sister at Johns Hopkins Universy, Katie Oppo, died at the age of 19 from small-cell ovarian cancer. Greatly moved by the tragedy, Tarakajian decided to spend the summer after her senior year of college biking from Baltimore, M.D. to San Francisco.
Her group of 30 bikers traveled 65 miles per day and stopped along the way, both to rest and to partake in cancer awareness-related community service activities.
Tarakajian’s most memorable experience was when she spent time with a woman in Salina, Kan. while she was undergoing a chemotherapy treatment.
“It was incredible hearing about her fight against the disease,” Tarakajian recalled. “I learned so much from her.”
She said the woman’s husband was a trucker by trade who elected to take time off to care for his wife, which made paying for her treatments difficult. So the husband makes up the extra cash by digging through the local dump for computer parts to sell.
“[The patient’s] life goal was to enjoy everything she could,” Tarakajian said. “She told a story about how she went to a thrift store and saw a family who could not afford to buy their son a Halloween costume. The son was crying, so she bought if for him because she couldn’t stand to see another family going through that, and her cancer made her realize how important it is to help other people out.”
Not just cycling
As if 65 daily miles of cycling weren’t enough, Tarakajian and her co-cyclers spent their “rest” days taking strenuous but beautiful hikes through the different states they stopped in along the way.
One of her favorites was her hike through Devil’s Garden in Moab, Utah.
“It was an incredibly difficult hike, but it was almost like disappearing and landing on the surface of Mars for five hours,” she recalled. “It was such a unique and breathtaking landscape with these gigantic arches you could sit under and in and enjoy the view from.”
In addition to the hike, simply biking through Utah was spectacular, she said, as was her trip through Black Canyon in Colorado.
“It was beautiful every day riding there,” she said. “It was a pretty high elevation the whole time, so we would literally ride a half a mile, stop and take pictures, ride another half a mile, and stop and take pictures again.”
Inspiration for the future
Tarakajian managed to raise $5,135 for the Ulman Cancer Fund with her trip. She will remain in San Francisco to recover, but she was going to stay until Aug. 15 anyway since she doesn’t begin her new job with Bloomberg L.P. in New York City until September.
She hopes to get out of the house before she has to leave and enjoy San Francisco a bit, and she is extremely grateful to her family for helping her through her ordeal. It’s more difficult than it may seem to be unable to use your right hand, she said.
“It’s sort of crazy to think I spent two months sleeping on floors and biking all day,” Tarakajian added, “But it was a truly life changing experience.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com