When Minnesota physician Arden Virnig hopped on his bike nearly every day in the summer of 2015, his thoughts went to the empty saddle behind him. That June, he rode hundreds of miles on a tandem bike with one empty saddle, a symbol of his daughter, Mary Catherine. The rhythm of his pedaling reminds him of how Mary Catherine’s braid would whip back and forth as she ran for her high school’s track and cross country teams.
When Mary Catherine was in treatment for neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nerve cells, she came across a news story about two dads who were riding their bikes across the country raising money for childhood cancer research.
“She got very excited and said, ‘Dad, you could do this, and I could be your support team.’” Arden remembers. “She had this idea of me riding across the country and back. I didn’t get around to it because she was right in the middle of treatment at the time, but that thought was always in the back of my mind.”
Three years later, Mary Catherine passed away. The five years after her death slipped by, and before he knew it, Arden had gone five years without accomplishing his goal to represent Mary Catherine’s fight while also carrying on the fight against childhood cancer. But one day, the time was right – Arden opened CCRF’s quarterly Butterfly magazine and a flyer fluttered to the floor with the headline, “Challenge Yourself.” The flyer advertised Great Cycle Challenge (GCC), a month-long fundraising bike riding challenge to raise funds for childhood cancer research.
An Ambitious Goal
Five years later, Arden is one of GCC’s most dedicated participants – he’s ridden a total of 5,000 miles in 5 years and raised over $65,000, overcoming weather, fatigue and even a knee replacement to complete this goal.
“It was so important to me to get to that 5,000 miles number, because that’s the distance of riding across the United States and back, which is what Mary Catherine wanted me to do,” Arden said.
Each year he’s participated in GCC, Arden has had a different theme. The first year was the empty tandem bike. Another year, he put Mary Catherine’s “warrior stick’, which was given to her by family members while she was in treatment, in his backpack. During year three, Arden rode with a teddy bear made out of Mary Catherine’s most meaningful t-shirts and sports jerseys.
Arden says he rides with symbols of Mary Catherine’s to remember her, but also to raise awareness for the urgent need for more funding for childhood cancer research. When Mary Catherine was diagnosed with cancer, Arden and his wife Patti, who are both physicians, were horrified to find that the kinds of medicines and treatments for childhood cancer hadn’t changed since they were starting off their medical careers, two decades earlier.
“We were in shock when they told us the drugs they were going to use – nothing had changed in 20 years. That was shocking, and very sobering,” Arden said. “Not long after Mary was diagnosed I just couldn’t stand not knowing, so I took her oncologist aside and said, ‘I need to know what we’re dealing with, just tell me up front,’ and she said, ‘Well… she has a 25 percent chance of being alive in two years.’ All I can say is, we got 4 years.”
Pedaling Toward Progress
Arden has seen over and over again how inadequate childhood cancer treatments are, but he’s also starting to see progress. Since Great Cycle Challenge began, we’ve seen promising research in finding less toxic treatment for leukemia, making cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy, understanding what protects brain tumors from the medicines designed to kill them and even hope for a cure for osteosarcoma. Arden says his hope is for every GCC participant to keep coming back to the event and keep fundraising so kids can keep seeing the improvements that increased funding can make possible. He’s seen what awareness and fundraising can do, and he wants to be an example of an enthusiastic rider who returns year after year.
Arden says he keeps riding for Mary Catherine, but also for the kids who serve as GCC ambassadors and for the many other kids he knows are fighting their own cancer fights. Earlier this year, one of Arden’s patients told him her 9-year-old daughter Addy had neuroblastoma, and Arden shared that his daughter had as well. The rest of their conversation was illuminating and heartbreaking.
“The mother asked if Mary was able to do her Make-A-Wish,” Arden says. “Mary’s wish was to graduate from college and she got to do that, but it’s so striking that that’s the kind of question that we ask one another. It’s not ‘did she get better’ or ‘where is she at now,’ it’s ‘did she live long enough to fulfill her wish.’”
These are the kinds of conversations that keep Arden pedaling, in the hopes that his efforts, and the efforts of every other GCC rider, continue making positive change.
“I was glad to be able to tell that mom that there are better options today for Addy,” Arden said. “I want to offer a thank-you to all of those riders who joined me this year, and I want to ask you to ride again next year and the next year. Make a challenge to yourself to keep riding until kids like Addy don’t have to look forward to their Make-A-Wish trip and instead can look forward to their life without cancer.”