The recent (and sadly unsuccessful) attempts by athletes Penny Palfrey and Diana Nyad to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys remind me of another marathon journey — a triumphantly successful one — that ended in Key West.
This trek took place in 2005 and, admittedly, was attempted on land instead of water. The athlete who accomplished it was a 55-year-old Alaskan middle school teacher.
Actually, when Bob Voris pedaled his bicycle up to Key West’s Southernmost Point marker on Aug. 20, 2005, he looked like any other visitor eager to have his photo snapped at the southernmost spot in the continental United States.
But for Bob, a resident of Eagle River, Alaska, the arrival meant much more than a photo opportunity — it meant he had completed an approximately 6,300-mile ride that began in Homer, Alaska, to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.
A long-distance cycling enthusiast whose previous accomplishments included participating in a Race Across America event, Bob began his “End of the Road for Cancer” cross-continental ride June 10. His trip was inspired in part by the loss of his younger brother to leukemia and other family members’ struggles against cancer.
He chose Key West as his destination both because he enjoyed visiting the island in the 1970s and because it’s about as far as he could ride from Homer.
“I started at one end (of the continent) and will finish at the other,” he said after crossing the Florida state line. “And hopefully cancer will see its end of the road before too long.”
Unlike long-distance walkers or bikers who travel with friends or support vehicles, Bob decided to make his trek alone — because, he said, battling cancer is essentially a solo journey.
His arrival in Key West, however, was anything but solo. He was greeted at the Southernmost Point by local American Cancer Society representatives and cancer survivors — as well as Aaron Coenen, who completed an Alaska-to-Key-West fundraising bike trek just a day before Bob’s finish.
Aaron, at that time a 22-year-old engineering student who lived in Milwaukee, dedicated his bike marathon to raising money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and education. An admirer of the multi-year Tour de France winner, he was motivated in part by his grandmother’s fight against cancer and Armstrong’s own battle.
Unlikely as it sounds, Bob and Aaron completed their separate Alaska-to-Key-West fundraising rides, and arrived just over 24 hours apart, without once encountering each other on the road.
“We were really surprised that we didn’t cross paths,” Aaron admitted. “We definitely wouldn’t have missed each other if we’d been on the same stretch of road at any point.”
Bob visited family members and friends along his route, some of them cancer survivors or fighting the disease, as well as meeting cancer patients at hospitals.
In addition to raising money, he collected more than 80 signatures of cancer survivors on a rain jacket he carried.
Bob began his ride by dipping the rear wheel of his bicycle into the waters of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay.
His journey officially ended when, beside Key West’s Southernmost Point, he dipped his wheels into the warm subtropical Atlantic.
Then (like any ordinary out-of-towner visiting the island city), he headed for the landmark watering hole known as Sloppy Joe’s Bar to celebrate his arrival.