The 4K for Cancer is as intense as it sounds: 4,000 miles, coast to coast, to raise money for a cure.

Riley (from theBikeDyke) and I met our first year at Mount Holyoke College through Project: Theatre, a student-run organization. We were in multiple plays together during our time there, but my favorite memory of her is from our rehearsals for 12 Angry Men. We were supposed to be building character rapport by looking into each other’s eyes without talking — but we couldn’t do it without laughing. I think we derailed the whole rehearsal.

Mount Holyoke College Class of 2015 4k for cancer

Riley also has the travel bug and has biked across America twice on a 4K for Cancer with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

I’ve always been so impressed by this (repeat!) feat, so I had to talk to her about it.

Here’s the deets on the 4K for Cancer:

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What made you decide to ride your bike from coast to coast?

There were a number of reasons I wanted to bicycle across the country with the 4k for cancer The first was just plain old desire for an adventure, which bicycling from Baltimore to Seattle (and then Baltimore to San Francisco) inevitably would be. I spent the summer before my ride living in a cabin in beautiful Acadia National Park, teaching outdoor education to children, and I wanted to spend another summer primarily outdoors.

4k for Cancer Mount Rushmore

The previous year, my childhood best friend’s father had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, and I was looking for the most fitting way to honor his life. He loved being out in nature, and I think he would have loved the idea of bicycling 4,500 miles in one summer so I did the 4K for Cancer. The second bike trip was because I had caught the travel by bike bug and needed to do another trip or risk someday selling all my possessions and bicycling from city to city. I’m not sure it was the perfect remedy, as I wish I was on a bicycling trip right now.

How do you train for a cross-country bike ride like the 4K for Cancer?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Ideally, you’d train with bike shoes and clip-in pedals so you can get accustomed to clipping in and out (and clipping out BEFORE you hit the brakes). You’d do a few 50-60 mile rides to prepare you for the days on the 4k for cancer that we bicycle up to 115+ miles. You’d get used to drinking water while on the bicycle, become comfortable cruising 40+ miles an hour downhill, and try your hand at not fishtailing on messy gravel roads. I didn’t do any of that. I rode ~8 miles on two flat tires and bought my clips the day before I took off.

How many hours / miles did you cover on a typical day?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

It definitely varied day to day. On average, we would cover around 60-70 miles, but could go as high as 120. Somedays, we’d get lucky and only have to cover 30-40 miles. The amount of time really depended on weather, terrain, and luck. One of those 35 miles day was up the steepest mountain I’ve ever bicycled up. That took a lot longer than going 80 miles through flat Nebraska with no headwind. Typically, we’d wake up at 5 or 6 and try to be on the road by 8 to maximize on daylight. We’d bike until it started to get dark, but we never bicycled when it was actually dark out.

How many states did you get to explore on the 4K for Cancer?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

On my last trip, I believe I went through around 13 states. Some states, you just pass through and others, it feels like you spend lifetimes in. There was a day where we bicycled through four states in total!

On my previous trip, I believe I hit 15 states. It’s a great way to really get to know a place.

What was your favorite state to ride through? Why?

There were so many states on the 4k for cancer that I fell in love with!

On my first trip, I was obsessed with Minnesota and Montana. Minnesota has such a friendly atmosphere, it’s just like how people describe, and lots of great coffee. Montana is the most beautiful state I’ve biked through. Bicycling to the top of the Sun Road in Glacier National Park is still one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

On my last trip, I loved bicycling through Colorado, even though the terrain wasn’t the easiest and the weather wasn’t the nicest. There are so many bicyclists in Colorado, it felt like we were at home. One of my teammates from my first bicycling trip lived in Boulder at the time, so seeing him during my second trip was a really comforting and encouraging thing.

Was there a particular state or area that was difficult to bike through?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

I think all states have pluses and negatives, but hands down, Tennessee and Missouri were the hardest states to bicycle through. I’ve never had someone point a shotgun at my head while I was bicycling, and now I’ve had it happen twice! Let’s just say that a lot of people in those states are not fan of bicyclists, even though we were literally biking in a straight line on public roads. They seemed to really value their solitude in those places.

Can you tell us about a time when you felt overwhelmed or exhausted? What made you keep going?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Sure! I would say that every single day I was exhausted and at one point or another (even though overall it was a blast!), but one day where I was really having a difficult time was bicycling up Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest paved road in the U.S. We had “climbing buddies” because the ride was so steep, which just means a teammate who sticks with you and makes sure you’re doing ok.

My climbing buddy had broken her thumb really badly the night before and was in a crazy amount of pain going up the mountain. We started to get really dizzy because of the giant altitude shift. I’m severely asthmatic, so I had to keep meeting up with the van and plugging in my nebulizer so I didn’t have a giant asthma attack. Then, a huge thunderstorm hit and we had no shelter to hide from it.

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4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

My number one fear is lightning, so I was petrified, but also really frustrated that we couldn’t finish the climb, because it was such a notoriously difficult ride and I really wanted to finish it. In that moment, my teammates and the people we met along the way battling cancer or who had lost loved ones to cancer kept me going on this 4k for Cancer. My team immediately sprang into action and began loading bicycles on top of the van and cramming 20+ people and all of our gear into a 15 passenger van. Some of my other teammates had hitched a ride with a park ranger, and I was impressed that they had beaten us up the mountain.

The view from the top of Trail Ridge Road was incredible- it looked like we were in a fairytale of some sort. It just didn’t seem real. It was a nice reminder that I was safe, I was surrounded by my teammates who were family. Everything was going to be ok.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Was there ever a moment on the 4k for Cancer course when you felt totally at peace?

There were so many moments that felt like I was totally at peace.

One day, it was down-pouring and freezing and my climbing buddy Krista and I were for some reason totally in sync. The ride was really hard and a lot of my other teammates were having a difficult time, but for some reason, Krista and I were almost in a meditative state! The road we were on was super dangerous, and Krista’s back tire kept flinging mud up in my face. I ended up looking like I was covered in a million freckles, but they were all made from mud.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Near the end of the day, we reached the peak of the mountain and just coasted crazy fast down. It was one of those really rewarding days where you have steadily climbed for hours and you get to reap the full benefit by having this amazing downhill. At the bottom, we were absolutely freezing, but so happy. We took these photos on my phone of us just being so happy with how the ride went. We must have looked absolutely bonkers.

What kinds of places do you sleep on these rides?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

We would sleep on the floors of churches, schools, YMCA’s, etc. I was one of the people on my team who coordinated housing ahead of time, which meant contacting previous hosts and asking if they’d be willing to let us crash again or cold-calling all of the potential hosts in a random town in the middle of America. Sometimes, we’d get really lucky and a church or organization would coordinate homestays for us! That was like Disneyland, because we’d get a hot meal and a hot shower and maybe even a bed and a chance to do laundry. The strangest places I slept on the 4k for Cancer were a firehouse (in the garage, next to the firetruck!), the Utah Jazz basketball stadium, and the barn of a rodeo.

How does a “bike road trip” differ from that in car?

It’s so different! When you’re in a vehicle, you don’t have to constantly be looking out for every piece of glass or vent in the road, you don’t have to expend an incredible amount of energy on big mountains, and you aren’t completely exposed to the elements. But, you have a much easier time stopping and talking to locals, going into shops and businesses, meeting other folks on the road, and you have a deeper understanding of the places you bicycled through, because you saw them at 15 miles per hour from sunup to sundown.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Even though it can be exhausting, you might be battling heat stroke or freezing because your clothing is soaked, or you might be caught in a headwind that makes you feel like you’re moving through molasses, I strongly prefer the latter. After bicycling 9,000+ miles, my executive opinion is that it makes for better adventures.

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What advice would you give someone going on a 4k for Cancer or similar trip?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Do it! Seriously, do it. Even if you think that you can’t physically do it, even if you are scared or anxious, do it. Your body will adjust to the miles, and you will become so accustomed to life on the road that you’ll be comfortable sleeping just about anywhere and wonder why you ever had more than three outfits to begin with. Even better, you’ll make true lifelong friends, because they will literally have been in the trenches with you. You’ll have a deeper understanding of who you are as a person and just how dang resilient you are. And you’ll have memories that will make you so glad to be alive.

You can find Riley on Instagram and Youtube. 

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The National Civil Rights Museum is a must visit when in Memphis, Tennessee. I would even suggest making a special trip to the city to check it out.

My mom lived in Memphis when MLK was murdered.

She was in Jr. High and still tears up when she talks about the palpable loss that permeated the city. The curfews. The division in the aftermath of such hatred. The tanks trailing the sanitation workers. The fear.

She tells me stories of being harassed for playing with black children and what it was like to live in such a divided world. Of course, spending large chunks of her childhood in the segregated south was different for my mother — a white woman. But if it was bad enough for cry when she talks about it 50 years later, what was it like for the black people on the receiving end of such hatred?

The National Civil Rights Museum has the answer.

the national civil rights museum loraine motel mlk

My Airbnb was literally around the corner from my mother’s childhood home. The journey to the site of the Lorraine Motel took less than 10 minutes.

The facade of the Lorraine has been wonderfully preserved and carefully resembles its appearance on April 4, 1968. Only Dr. King’s and one neighboring room remain, while the rest of the building has been expanded and transformed to guide visitors through the entire struggle for civil rights, from the transatlantic slave trade to Black Lives Matter.

I visited roughly a week after the 2016 presidential election. A campaign filled with divisive and hateful rhetoric that has left many Americans fearful for their rights and safety. I believe that the timing of my visit heavily influenced the somber mood and tangible sadness throughout the museum.

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At the beginning of the exhibits, there is an informative gallery that lays the groundwork for the politics of the slave trade. It ends with the sobering words, “Due to slavery, America became one of the richest countries in the world.” From there, I followed a black elementary school class into a room depicting the inhumane treatment that Africans were forced to endure on their “passage” to America.

Those children asked the questions that only children can:

“What if he has to go to the bathroom?” wondered one, pointing towards the line of statues crammed into the ship’s underbelly.

“Where does he eat?”

“Why are there marks on him?”

Where’s his mom?

the national civil rights museum loraine motel mlk

The museum also doesn’t shy away from the fact that nearly every early president and other “great” Americans owned slaves and relied on the exploitation of black labor for their own wealth. Viewing the founding fathers as imperfect people who contributed to the freedom of some while remaining complacent in or actively contributing to atrocity might be difficult, but it’s necessary.

The National Civil Rights Museum forces white visitors to do this work.

Thank God.

The museum offers such an intricate look at the federal government’s broken promises during Reconstruction, the legalized horror of Jim Crow, and the continuing frustration of voter suppression, that I found myself taking pictures of display cards and wall mounts to save the information for later. I was also particularly horrified to see in unflinching detail the terror of the KKK’s reign over the south, a horror many black Americans are still living with today.

As I soaked in the Freedom Riders, Bloody Sunday, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Memphis Sanitation Strike, the tension in my stomach grew. Suddenly, I rounded a corner and there I was — in Dr. King’s room. The place he spent his last night on earth.

the national civil rights museum loraine motel mlk I’ve been to the Grassy Knoll and the Ford’s Theater, but this was different. There were two middle-aged black women in front of me. They were crying. Not the kind where a small tear rolls down your cheek and you subtly brush it away, but the kind where your throat closes and your shoulders shake and your feel like your heart might crush itself.

They looked to be my mother’s age. They lived through what she did, but on the other side.

For white Americans my age, people who have never experienced structural racial discrimination, it can be so easy to write off the horrors showcased in the National Civil Rights Museum as an unfortunate chunk of our history, rather than something that is very much still happening today.

The KKK, those who upheld Jim Crow, the students who protested integration in public schools — these people were the peers of our grandparents, our parents. Whether or not our families actively participated, we are not removed from this legacy. I was very much aware of this while touring the museum. Never before had I been so aware of my whiteness. And I’m so glad I got called out on it.

I spent nearly four hours at the National Civil Rights Museum and it gave me a deeper understanding of all the factors that play into institutionalized racism in 2016: the police brutality, housing discrimination, educational inequality, and a white America that can’t seem to let go of its perceived superiority.

the national civil rights museum loraine motel mlk A small expert from this passage of Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham jail was on display in the museum. It has always, and will always, convict me. I invite you, my fellow “white moderates” to look around at 2016 America and take his words to heart:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

As a white woman, a believer in Jesus Christ, and the descendent of a Confederate general, I have a moral responsibility to create an America different than the one that man fought to protect. I need to listen when it’s time to listen. March when it’s time to march. Vote when it’s time to vote. And pray without ceasing.

To plan your own visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, please click here.

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