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How a grassroots cycling event in Ohio has become a juggernaut for funding cancer research.
The first-ever Pelotonia — a cycling event spanning hundreds of miles throughout Ohio — quickly became more than just another fundraising event for the 2,265 riders and 1,500 volunteers who took part.
“The ride was very emotional, and I did a lot of crying,” said rider and cancer survivor Gretta Laskey, soon after the inaugural ride in 2009. “Being part of this group of people was so inspiring. The sheer number of cancer survivors who rode was amazing, and I talked to so many of them — everybody has a story. Pelotonia isn’t a ride. It’s a movement. And people will begin to recognize what it is and what it is doing for cancer research.”
Since that first year, more and more riders, volunteers and donors — thousands more — have become part of the Pelotonia community and the movement to create a cancer-free world. They have ridden millions of miles, passed out tens of thousands of PB&Js and orange slices at rest stops, and raised a staggering amount of money to support cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
Along the way, this growing community of cancer survivors, physicians, researchers, staff, community members and thousands more impacted by cancer have shed tears, cheered one another up steep hills, shared their cancer-journey stories and formed lasting bonds and friendships.
This was the goal of the forward-thinking Pelotonia founders, who, against great odds and during a devastating economic recession, created a fundraising event that has become the model for other cancer hospitals, having funded groundbreaking and lifesaving research and screening programs at the OSUCCC – James.
“I don’t know of a physician or a scientist here who hasn’t in some way benefited from Pelotonia funding,” says David Cohn, MD, MBA, interim chief executive officer and chief medical officer of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute and the Stuart M. Sloan – Larry J. Copeland MD Chair in Gynecologic Oncology in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
Dr. Cohn also says that Pelotonia funding has helped fund recruitment of world-class scientists; laboratory-based, translational and clinical research; drug development; four statewide cancer-screening programs; the purchase of high-tech equipment; and the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology (PIIO). It’s currently funding the next generation of scientists, he says.
“Through the ride and other Pelotonia-related events, people in the community get to know people at the cancer center on a very personal basis,” says Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD, director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Klotz Chair in Cancer Research at the Ohio State College of Medicine. “As Pelotonia thrives, so thrives the cancer center.”
Dr. Pollock, who was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2018, has a special connection to Pelotonia-funded research.
“The drug that is keeping me alive was developed here, in part with Pelotonia funding, so I have a very personal level of gratitude to the riders,” Dr. Pollock says.
Read why Dr. Pollock “owes his life to CLL treatment at Ohio State”
The Pelotonia story began soon after Michael Caligiuri, MD, was named CEO of The James (in addition to his existing position as director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center) in 2008.
“We needed money to continue to do the great things I saw already happening but were happening too slowly,” Dr. Caligiuri says. “I wanted to do something grassroots that would connect us with and bring in the whole central Ohio community and raise the awareness of the importance and need for cancer research.”
A former colleague told Dr. Caligiuri about the Pan-Mass Challenge, a fundraising cycling event that, at the time, had raised about $270 million for cancer research for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Hearing that $270 million total, he says, “stopped me in my tracks. I said, ‘If someone else can do it, why can’t we do it here?’”
Creating a similar event in Columbus began with funding to hold the event. It would cost at least $2 million to hire the initial Pelotonia staff, recruit riders and volunteers, and host the huge cycling event, which would include an opening ceremony and two days of cycling, with rider routes ranging from 25 to 180 miles.
NetJets, a private aviation corporation headquartered in Columbus, funded the first Pelotonia ride, which totaled 2,265 riders and 1,500 volunteers, and raised $4.5 million.
“Our absolute mission was to create something so extraordinary that people would feel left out if they weren’t part of it.”Tom Lennox, Pelotonia’s first CEO and a cancer survivor who was treated at the OSUCCC – James
Among Pelotonia’s inaugural riders was former Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel, who heard about the event from Dr. Caligiuri, in whose lab he had worked as an undergraduate. “I was riding with a few other people, and the best part was when we would meet up with other people and talk with them as we rode,” Krenzel says. “We’d meet people at the rest stops, and a group of us would take off together and ride for a while. It was incredible knowing that every person there was there for the same reason: to raise money to end cancer.”
The second Pelotonia ride raised $7.8 million, a number that continued to grow over the years as riders and volunteers solicited donations from family, friends and co-workers, and hosted an endless string of fundraising events. Pelotons (teams) were formed by companies, organizations, families and neighbors.
Riders came from all over Ohio and beyond. They rode route options of 25 to 100 miles on Day One of Pelotonia weekend, with many riders staying overnight in dorm rooms to tackle another 80 or 100 miles on Day Two. The routes headed south to Ohio University until 2012, when the ride was rerouted toward Kenyon College.
Both routes offered literal and metaphorical hills to climb.
“So many people talked about the challenge of it and how they were riding for someone going through so much more with their cancer treatment,” Lennox says of these challenging climbs.
The Pelotonia fundraising total climbed to $16.8 million in 2011, and $27.4 million in 2018, Pelotonia’s 10th annual event.
Every dollar raised by Pelotonia directly funds cancer research at the OSUCCC – James. A specific plan was developed to best utilize Pelotonia funds in several major areas: Fellowships, Idea Grants, statewide screening programs, essential research equipment and recruiting and retaining world-class talent.
“We would not be where we are today without Pelotonia,” Dr. Cohn says of the OSUCCC – James’ emergence as one of the nation’s top-ranked comprehensive cancer centers. “Pelotonia is the kick-start that allows people to come here to gain access to the resources they need to do the preliminary research that can lead to the next level of funding from the National Institutes of Health or the National Cancer Institute.”
It’s key for recruitment, too, says Dr. Pollock, who’s served as director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center since 2017. “Pelotonia funds are critical for recruitment and retention of faculty,” he says, adding that Pelotonia is well-known in the cancer world as a fundraising juggernaut and has become a selling point for the OSUCCC – James for recruitment. “For example, when we’re recruiting a great researcher, we point out to them the Pelotonia Fellowship Program they can utilize.”
As of spring 2022, a total of 644 Pelotonia Fellowships have been awarded to deserving undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctorate researchers and medical school students. The fellowships fund two years of research in one of the cancer center’s labs, with the goal of creating the next generation of cancer scientists.
“I would not be here without Pelotonia,” says Gina Sizemore, PhD. “Without that time and independence [in my Pelotonia Fellowship research], I wouldn’t have been able to secure additional funding to start my own research program.”
In her fellowship, Dr. Sizemore worked in the lab of Mike Ostrowski, PhD, whose work focuses on molecular biology and cancer genetics. After her fellowship ended, she became an assistant professor in the OSUCCC – James Department of Radiation Oncology and is also a member of the Cancer Biology program. Dr. Sizemore has received two Pelotonia Idea Grants and has mentored two Pelotonia Fellows in her lab.
One of the first Pelotonia Idea Grants was awarded to John Byrd, MD, who sought funding for a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of a drug, ibrutinib, that showed promise in treating chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). “I went to Mike Caligiuri and the committee and said we had the possibility of making this drug [ibrutinib] accessible to 150 patients [with CLL], most of whom would die soon without it,” Dr. Byrd said. “Mike and the Pelotonia people said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what Pelotonia funds are for.’”
The cancer of 80-90% of the people in that clinical trial went into a durable remission. Ibrutinib was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014, quickly becoming the standard of care. The second generation of the drug, acalabrutinib (also developed by Dr. Byrd and his lab), was approved by the FDA in 2017.
Ibrutinib and acalabrutinib are now the drugs (in pill form) Dr. Pollock takes every day.
“I will take this for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s not only saving my life, but it enables me to continue my work here [at the cancer center]. My family and I are very grateful to Pelotonia for making this possible.”
The first of four statewide screening programs funded by Pelotonia was the Ohio Colorectal Cancer Prevention Initiative (OCCPI). Research had shown Heather Hampel, MS, LGC, that Lynch syndrome (a hereditary genetic mutation) greatly increased a person’s risk of colorectal cancer as well as uterine, ovarian and gastric cancers. And yet, there was no systematic program to test newly diagnosed colorectal patients to see if they had the mutation. This was important, as the children of anyone who tests positive for Lynch syndrome have a 50% chance of acquiring the mutation.
This is a ticking time bomb, Hampel says.
“But if you find people with Lynch syndrome before they develop cancer, you can take the proper precautions (such as regular colonoscopies, starting at an early age) and prevent colorectal cancer,” she says. “For women with Lynch, once they are done having children, a complete hysterectomy will eliminate the possibility of uterine and ovarian cancer.”
Hampel had worked tirelessly, yet unsuccessfully, to find a funding partner for a statewide Lynch testing program. And then Pelotonia funded the OCCPI program with an initial $3.5 million that grew to $4.3 million. The study enrolled more than 3,300 newly diagnosed colorectal patients from all over Ohio. Hampel reported that 147 tested positive for Lynch syndrome, and the tests of these people’s relatives found another 223 with Lynch syndrome, with another 101 colorectal cancer patients found to have a hereditary cancer syndrome other than Lynch, Hampel says.
These Pelotonia-funded genetic tests saved lives. Three other statewide screening programs funded by Pelotonia now use a similar approach for endometrial cancer, lung cancer and breast cancer.
Hampel has ridden several times in Pelotonia. “Seeing some of my former patients become riders has been very inspiring to me, and when I think it’s tough riding my 50 or 75 miles, I think of my patients who ride during or right after their treatment,” she says.
Use our Family Health Risk Calculator to learn your hereditary risk for cancer and heart disease.Calculate your risk
Immunotherapy drugs enable the body’s immune system to better detect cancer cells that have figured out ways to hide from detection. The immune system can now attack and kill these dangerous cancer cells spreading throughout the body, more efficiently and with fewer side effects than chemotherapy.
“Immunotherapy holds the key for curing cancer,” says Zihai Li, MD, PhD, founding director of the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology (PIIO) and the Klotz Chair for Cancer Research at the Ohio State College of Medicine. “We’re not completely there yet for every cancer and every patient, which is why we still have a lot of work to do.”
Shortly before the 2019 ride, Pelotonia and the OSUCCC – James announced the creation of the PIIO. It would be funded, in part, with $102,265,000 from Pelotonia over five years. The “extra” $265,000 was a tribute to the 2,265 riders who participated in the inaugural Pelotonia.
Today, Dr. Li and his growing team at the PIIO have already made progress. The PIIO has launched about 100 new clinical trials, received $32 million in additional grant funding and assisted in immunotherapeutic studies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the institute have published more than 500 peer-reviewed articles.
“We are an army of people, and you need that to advance this work,” says Dr. Li, also a Pelotonia rider. “Pelotonia is not just a cycling event. It is an amazing, confidence-building, spiritual journey to be able to ride with so many passionate people whose lives have been touched by cancer.”
Doug Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, was named CEO of Pelotonia in 2014, by then already well-known and respected within the cancer community for his work at Livestrong and the Ulman Foundation.
Pelotonia has continued to grow under the leadership of Ulman and Joe Apgar, a fellow cancer survivor who was named president in 2021. As part of a new, five-year strategic plan, Ulman and Apgar say their goal is to double the annual fundraising total to $50 million by 2026.
Prior to his first Pelotonia ride in 2015, Ulman says, he attended the opening ceremonies, thinking he was emotionally prepared for the ride the next morning. “I had talked to the team and to so many Pelotonia riders and to a lot of [team] captains, but it wasn’t until I got on my bike and was surrounded by thousands of people that I truly understood what it was all about. There were tears streaming down my face.”
Day One of Pelotonia 2021 was extra special for Ulman. It was the 25th anniversary of his first cancer diagnosis and “the fact that the calendar aligned so perfectly made it a pretty emotional day for me,” he says. “I think I cried twice during the ride.”
Tears are common in the Pelotonia community, notes Shirley Jordan, a cancer survivor and lead Pelotonia volunteer for bikes and luggage. “I’m a crier, and when I see all the riders and the people who have names written on their jerseys and on their arms and legs, I get emotional and I cry,” she says. “That makes it so personal; everyone is here for a reason.”
At Pelotonia a few years ago, a rider dropped off his luggage, spoke with Jordan for a few minutes and turned to walk away. “He turned around and came back and asked me if I was a survivor,” she says. “I said yes … and then he said he was going to ride for me today.”
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See where the money goes.Pelotonia-funded research