They pedaled under 3,624 miles of America’s spacious skies, across its ocean of amber grain, over the nation’s majestic purple mountains, and across its fruited planes.
And they did it to help a loved one.
Joey Colon and Nick Thomas, roommates at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, rode for two two months straight on a journey from Boston, Mass., to Florence, Ore. — quite literally from sea to shining sea — arriving home in Ohio again on July 1.
Colon, a 2014 graduate of Amherst Steele High School, said the bike trip has raised $2,000 already for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, with more still coming in.
The duo rode in honor of Thomas’ sister, Val, who at age seven was diagnosed with mitochondrial pyruvate carrier deficiency.
It’s a rare disease and often misdiagnosed. It attacks the body’s metabolism, causing cells to produce poison instead of energy, which stops healthy growth.
Most people with MPYCD don’t live past their teenage years.
At 25, Val is an exception, though her life has been far from easy. Colon said her development is severely delayed — she has the intelligence of a six-year-old, limited motor coordination, and suffers from grand mal seizures.
That means many trips to the Cleveland Clinic for treatments and new diagnoses as the disease progresses and doctors’ understanding of mitochondrial diseases deepens.
Val was excited to tail her brother and Colon via car for a stretch of their amazing cross-country journey, spending time with them from the Dakotas to Idaho.
But for the majority of the trip, the two college students were on their own, seeing the sweeping landscape of America.
Colon said they hopped on bikes with zero training. But after a week they were chugging along at 75 or more miles each day.
By the time they hit Iowa, they were consistently eating up 90 miles of road every day, seven hours at a time.
The route was planned for sight-seeing, not efficiency. Colon and Thomas made sure to pedal past Mt. Rushmore, spending a great deal of time in the Badlands.
There were 15 flats and a broken spoke along the way. One blow-out in the Dakotas forced the cyclists to stop and wait for repair parts, so they decided to hike and camp in the Badlands for a couple of days.
Colon said the most awe-inspiring sight of the trip came in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, where he and Thomas pedaled close to an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level.
At one point, they scrambled to the top of a peak to look out over the land. “You could see for hundreds of miles in each direction,” and clear across the valley to Yellowstone Park, he said. “It was just gorgeous.”
An unexpected realization along the way was just how much of the United States is desert. Colon said he was amazed to find, especially in Oregon, how much is the country is scrub and sand.
Not trees, not minerals, and not water but people proved to be the nation’s greatest resource, the cyclists discovered.
“Some of the most surprising things we found were people we met who just wanted to talk, or bought us dinner, or give us $20 in donations,” Colon said. That struck a chord because at the start of the trek so many well-wishers worried the boys would be mugged or mistreated by strangers — “But to the contrary, people were great to us pretty much everywhere we were,” he said.
There is still time to give to their fundraising effort. To donate, visit www.therunawayinterns.com. For more about mitochondrial diseases, which result in between 1,000 and 4,000 new diagnoses among children each year, visit www.umdf.org.
This fall, Colon and Thomas will return as juniors to Mount Union, where they run cross country and track for the Raiders.
Colon is studying national security and foreign intelligence and said he would like to someday become a CIA analyst. Thomas is studying neuroscience and physics, an interest stoked by his sister’s condition.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Courtesy photos A Mount Union Raiders banner is flown under the Stars and Stripes by Joey Colon and Nick Thomas during the cross-country bike trip to raise cash for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.