This is Courage: Survivors ride for a cure
Riding a bicycle 150 miles over a weekend is easy compared to what a family faces when a loved one has cancer, said Amber Dunlap on Sunday when completed the 29th Courage Classic, her sixth tour.
The Courage Classic is an annual two-day bicycle tour at Copper Mountain in support of Children’s Hospital Colorado. Around 2,000 people participated this weekend. No times were kept, no trophies awarded and organizers were quick to correct anyone who called it a race because everyone got a medal at the finish line.
While the Courage Classic isn’t a race, the two-day tour stands as the hospital’s single-biggest fundraiser of the year, asking people to form teams and drum up money in support of the hospital and the people who seek care there.
Different courses are offered to create an assortment of routes appropriate for riders of varying abilities, including children who’ve been patients, or currently are patients, at the hospital.
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Leading into this weekend, the Courage tour had generated more than $42 million in support of the children’s hospital, said Erin Bodine, marketing communications manager for the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation. As the riders wrapped up Sunday, she added that they’d likely reach their goal this year of adding another $2.8 million to that total.
Considering everything that Dunlap’s brother, 35-year-old Brandon Nuechterlein, has been through, most people wouldn’t think him lucky. But after completing his eighth tour on Sunday — crossing the finish line with his younger sister — that’s exactly how the patient-turned-advocate feels nowadays, especially since he’s about to celebrate 20 years cancer free.
The team whose name he carried this weekend — The Wheels of Justice — is united by a common enemy: cancer.
With over 200 people on the team, it’s one of the biggest squads at the tour and money they raise is specifically earmarked for cancer research. For many of the riders, that is hugely important.
As one of the team captains, Dunlap said the group raises about $350,000 to $400,000 every year, and the tour has become a can’t-miss event for to her. “There’s nowhere else I’d be,” she said on Sunday. “This is everything.”
Nuechterlein was a 15-year-old living in Thailand when he first started showing symptoms of an aggressive form of leukemia. He remembers back pain and doctors initially thinking it could be a nagging injury from him playing rugby. Then he developed a rash of fevers and he went into a Thai hospital with an infection, which doctors thought could be malaria or Dengue fever.
“I used all the blood on the island,” Nuechterlein said of the transfusions he endured while doctors were trying to find out what was wrong. “We were flying blood in from the capital on a plane daily.”
He remembered that the same doctors wanted to perform an exploratory surgery, but his parents instead opted to call Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, not far from where he were born. On the other end of the phone was a physician who knew almost immediately they were dealing with something very serious.
“‘Oh, no, that sounds like leukemia,’” Nuechterlein recalled the doctor saying over the phone before recommending a marrow tap to confirm the suspicion. “So we flew to the capital (of Thailand), had the procedure done and, sure enough, it was leukemia.”
At that point, Nuechterline needed a bone marrow transplant and he needed it fast. Because his mother is Thai and his father is German, finding a match was nearly impossible. With few other options, Nuechterlein became a candidate for a new experimental treatment, which he now credits, along with the staff and doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado, for saving his life.
“They actually cloned the cord blood … and that was the fourth procedure like that that had ever been done in the world,” he said.
Nuechterlein was so impressed by the hospital and its staff — they “met him on the tarmac” 20 years ago, according to his sister — that he went to work for them after graduating from Colorado State University in 2009 and has been there ever since.
Now he rides every year at the Courage tour in honor of what he went through, for his fellow survivors and for those who weren’t as lucky. Plus, he said, the money raised for the hospital and cancer research through the Courage Classic has become more critical than ever to the mission. Since the recession, many funding sources for cancer research have dried up, and clinical trials deemed riskier than others often don’t get pursued.
“With safe trials, you get advances, but you don’t get breakthroughs,” he said. “We don’t need sequential improvement, we need breakthroughs.”
He’s not alone. One of Nuechterlein’s teammates, 18-year-old Daniel Hailpern, has also faced a leukemia diagnoses, but like Nuechterlein, Hailpern knocked out more than 60 miles at the Courage Classic this weekend, including 40 miles on Sunday, and finished with a smile.
“Exhaustion and happiness for it being over,” he said of what he was feeling in the moment before saying it was really just happiness. For Hailpern, riding in the Courage tour is his way of giving back to the hospital for all that they’ve done for him.
“I suggest everyone do the ride, as well,” he said. “Fundraising is really important … and your donations could be the one that helps fund the cure for cancer.”
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