Before coming to college, Marie and Christina never dreamed they’d spend a summer biking 4000 miles from coast to coast. Four years later, with 8000+ miles between the two of them, they now help other students complete the same journey with one goal in mind: finding a cure for cancer.
What is Illini 4000?
Marie: Illini 4000 is a student-run nonprofit. Our mission is broken into three big things. The thing we’re known for is sending a group of students biking across the country every summer to raise awareness for cancer research and patient support services. The second part is raising money for these services throughout the year. Thirdly, while we bike across the country, we document the American cancer experience through the Portraits Project. We interview people across the country about their experience with cancer and how they’ve dealt with it. And then we’ll transcribe those stories or have video interviews, and we’ll put them on our website so that other people dealing with cancer can see them.
What are the organizations you raise money for?
Marie: We split our money about 60/40 now between research and support services. We support two research organizations, one of them being the Cancer Center at Illinois. The other one is Damon Runyon, which is a foundation that funds under-known researchers—so people who have very innovative ideas who wouldn’t necessarily have the means to get a federal grant. We actually have an Illini 4000 fellow who is a researcher on campus. So you could go and see his lab, which is really cool.
Christina: The team got to go in to meet Dr. Martin Burke and Daniel Blair, our current Illini 4000 fellow, last year and tour their lab. The building we have our weekly meetings in is just across the Quad from where all of their innovative work that we fund is happening, which is cool. My year [the fellows] were out in New York, so we met them there.
We also [give to] what we call patient support services. One is Camp Kesem, and we actually donate to the UIUC branch specifically, which we’re really proud of. They put on a week-long camp for kids whose parents have cancer. We sponsor kids to go to this camp … and be a part of a community where they can share [their] experiences with other kids. Another one we donate to is also local, called the Prairie Dragon Paddlers. They’re a group [of] breast cancer survivors that do dragon boat racing. And then the other one we do is a national organization called B+. They’re based out on the East Coast, but they help families all over the country who have kids with cancer. They help pay for electricity bills, transportation, housing, things like that.
How do you raise money?
Marie: The riders have a goal of raising $4,000 before the ride. The main way that they fundraise is by reaching out to friends, family, and colleagues for donations. They will send out fundraising letters or post on social media and reach out to local news stations to get the word out. Our biggest team fundraiser is a 5K in the spring, but throughout the year the riders will sell Krispy Kreme on the Quad or have restaurant fundraisers. Riders also reach out to big corporations and local businesses for sponsorships.
Do people typically have any type of biking experience before they join?
Christina: It ranges. There are people who are super into biking. We’ve also actually had people on our ride who’ve never ridden a bike before they join. We teach them how to ride a bike, and they do a cross-country trip. I’d say the farthest I biked prior to my trip was probably to class.
Marie: I’d say the majority don’t have any experience with long-distance cycling before doing the trip.
What’s the training regimen look like?
Marie: We have them training all year even though they don’t get on the bikes until March. Right now they’re just doing a lot of cardio and core work. We have two workouts a week. One of them will be during the week, like an hour, and then one of them will be on the weekends. That’s two hours long, and it’s a whole team thing. …
Christina: Starting in March, all of our trainings are outside. We’ll have the weekly training, which is flexible, and that’s usually about 20 miles. And then on the weekends, they do rides that are increasing in distance. So they’ll do 30 miles and 50 miles, 70 miles, and then two 90-mile rides before they leave in May for the ride, and then they’re biking pretty much every day.
Can you take us through a typical day on the ride?
Marie: Breakfast usually starts at like 5:35, 5:40, and we all eat breakfast together as a team. After that, people will clean up. We’ll police the stayover to make sure we didn’t leave any of our stuff or anything. And then we circle up at 6:00 and roll out by like 6:15ish. Every morning we do a fun team activity, and we also dedicate that day to someone—whether that be a family member or someone we met along the way. And the next seven hours, you’re on the bike.
Every 20 miles or so, you’ll stop for water, fill up, and grab a quick snack. Depending on how long your day is, you’ll get in at about 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. Once you get to the stayover, you’re free to do whatever you want. If [the stayover] is a church or some sort of community-based thing, there will be people there that we can talk to and that will want to talk to us and eat dinner with us and stuff like that. After dinner, we can just take care of our own things. Some people like to journal or …
Christina: If there are showers …
Marie: Yeah, if there are showers, then we’re gonna shower. If there’s laundry, some people do laundry. Other than that, we would have lights out [at] 9:00 or 10:00.
Christina: Then do it all again.
What was the most memorable or favorite part of your ride?
Christina: I have a favorite day, if that’s okay. It was in our first week of the ride. The first part of the ride was a bit tiring. Your body’s trying to get used to everything. You’re getting used to waking up and doing this every day. It’s pretty hard, it’s pretty draining. We got to Rochester, New York, and we actually got police-escorted to the town hall, where we met the mayor. It was on May 26, and they declared it ‘Illini 4000 Day’ in Rochester, New York. So that was really cool.
From there, we went to a Hope Lodge, which is part of the American Cancer Society. These are essentially lodges where individuals who are getting treated for cancer can stay for free. Transportation and things like that are covered for them. Treatment can be really, really expensive, and some people have to travel really far to get their treatment. I remember they showed us this room that they called the beauty room, and they had all these wigs and everything for the women there to try on. They [could] get it styled and then take it home for free. That was really cool because some of my teammates and I actually donate hair to that organization as well. It’s really cool to just see tangibly what is happening. So that was one of my favorite days.
Marie: Yeah, there are so many, but one of my favorites was a really good day into Drummond, Montana, which is a town of 300, 320, something like that. We did a little presentation at their library to some people in their town. The librarian invited us over to her house afterward for a bonfire. She cooked out for us, and it was really nice. And we just got to talk with her for hours, and I was playing beanbags with her sons. It was just really nice to be welcomed into someone’s house like that. Especially on the ride, you’re staying in places that don’t feel like a home, really. So just seeing the generosity of people, that was a common theme the entire time.
Christina: I think definitely the people on the ride … if it’s not a day that I chose, the people on the ride were just incredible. There are sometimes complete strangers that we’ll meet and they’ll just do the nicest things. People will host an entire dinner for 20 super stinky college students riding through. It’s really, really uplifting, because sometimes there are some bad things that are happening in the world, but meeting people all across the country who are so kind and generous and willing to do that is super encouraging.
What has Illini 4000 taught you?
Christina: You learn how little you really need to be happy. You live out of a backpack. You have like three shirts that you’re wearing every day, but you have the best two and a half months ever. As long as you have food, water, and clothes. …
Marie: Yeah, I think I came out of it a lot more of a positive person than I was before. Just because the people you talk to along the way. … You just realize that you do not have it hard at all. We say we don’t do this ride because it’s hard, we do it because it’s easy compared to what these other people are going through.
With 1,000 registered student organizations (RSOs) at Illinois, the possibilities are endless. To learn more about Illini 4000 and how you can get involved, check out their website and socials below.