Sheehan

Cyclist will take his courage coast-to-coast

Staff WriterJune 29, 2010 

Martin Smith is going for a bike ride this morning.

Never mind that he has leukemia and his white blood cell count is 21,000 (normal is less than 10).

Never mind that Smith will also be grappling with the effects of multiple sclerosis and asthma along the way.

Oh, and did I mention that Smith's little ride begins in Durham, stops in Greensboro, and ultimately ends in Los Angeles?

Smith dubbed it Martin's Ride, a six-week quest to raise money for Duke's new cancer center.

For the first leg, between Durham and Greensboro, he'll be joined by two cancer big shots from Duke: Dr. Kim Lyerly, head of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Lee Jones, a leading researcher of the effects of exercise on cancer, treatment and recovery.

But for most of this journey, Smith will be on his own, followed in an RV by two hired interns, chewing up the asphalt with purpose: To raise money. To raise awareness (he'll be blogging and Tweeting along the way.) And to prove to himself that he will survive. That cancer is not the end.

Smith has already learned that this journey is far more mental than physical.

That's good. Smith, 52, is not exactly of the Lance Armstrong tight-shirt-over-sinew cyclist mold.

Smith said he's lost 30 pounds since quitting his job in March to train and plan for the ride. He expects to lose 30 more on the nation's sweltering highways between now and mid-August.

He tries not to think about the trip as one interminable stretch of 3,000 miles. "That would make me collapse," he said. He prefers to think about it as 60 individual 50-mile rides.

Taking his journey day by day is a strategy that's worked well for Smith for decades.

Smith was diagnosed with MS when he was 30, after he experienced a strange electrical shock down his spine. Sometime later, he lost sight in one eye.

The realization

Still, the MS, like his childhood asthma, has been mostly manageable.

Being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia at age 48 was a sucker punch. It was a moment of realization that life is not an infinite journey.

"Hearing your name and the word 'cancer' in the same sentence is terrifying," he said. "The MS is a pain, but it's under control. It's not going to kill me. Cancer can kill me."

Smith said he'd had a dream since he was 20 of cycling across the country someday. But work and life had knocked that dream off its course.

When he got the cancer diagnosis, he said, his first thought was, "I'm never going to be able to take my ride across the country."

Thanks to carefully calibrated care at Duke, however, walking a fine line between the MS and the leukemia, Smith learned he would have a window between his chemo treatments in which he was well enough and strong enough to give his dream a shot.

He took it eagerly, quitting his 80- to 100-hour week job in e-commerce to devote himself to the ride and its preparations.

"You need to do things now," Smith said. "You need to tell people how you feel about them. You need to live ."

This morning he is scheduled to start from the Duke Hospital complex with his interns, Lyerly and Jones in tow.

Lyerly said the hospital's leadership hears from lots of patients with big ideas about raising money. But they were quickly impressed with Smith's seriousness and commitment. So although Lyerly is no cyclist and recently pulled a hamstring during the Race for the Cure, "I really wanted to cheer Marty on and support him," he said.

Jones got involved because his research focuses on exercise in cancer prevention and treatment.

He said there has been a dramatic shift from the days when doctors told cancer patients just to take it easy.

Jones said he wouldn't recommend every cancer patient, much less one with MS and asthma, too, set out on a bike trip across the country. "But every one should be doing some exercise," he said.

Riding at a cost

Smith plans to ride six days most weeks and hopes to wrap up his ride by the middle or third week of August, when his interns head back to school.

He figures the trip will cost him $40,000 out of pocket, not including the income he isn't earning.

"But that means 100 percent of the donations to Martin's Ride will go directly to the cancer center," he said. "Look, my purposes are also selfish. If we push this thing over the edge, we may find a cure."

To follow Smith or make a donation, you can visit martinsride.com .

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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