After the crash

By
From the September 2010 edition

On Oct. 18, 2008, Alex Pratt, a recent graduate of Penn State University, decided at the last moment to join some fellow bikers for a ride through nearby Bald Eagle State Forest before taking in a Nittany Lions football game. The devoted amateur cyclist put on his gear, grabbed his helmet and mounted his bike.

The plan was to pedal for four to five hours—about 80 miles—on the gravel roads winding through the forest. Thirty miles into the ride, Pratt was tracking around 40 mph down a hill, pulling ahead of the other 20 riders when he hit a patch of loose gravel. He was careful to keep his grip light and easy, as cyclists know that sudden movements or jerks on gravel can cause a crash. “Let your tires find the groove,” is their dictum.

Despite the precaution, he couldn’t avoid a large stone. The impact threw him off the bike, and he landed squarely on his left shoulder. Justin Brown, who had encouraged Pratt to join the amateur cycling team at Penn State two years earlier, saw the crash. “He went down really hard,” he says. “We checked him over and saw that his collarbone was sticking out of his shirt and there was a bit of blood.”

Calls to 9-1-1 failed because of the remote location. While a few riders stayed with Pratt, the rest rode off to find cell service. It took 15 minutes before anyone heard a voice on the other end of the phone.

In the hour it took for the ambulance to arrive, Pratt became acquainted with a pain more severe than any he had known. Later, he would learn the compound fracture in his clavicle shattered the bone and a nerve had been pierced. Doctors questioned whether he would ever have use of his left arm. It took 10 hours for surgeons to successfully repair the damage. (A typical surgery for a clavicle fracture lasts an hour or two.) Pratt says he “needed two to three Percocets just to feel normal.”

That day, Pratt made a decision to walk away from the sport. Still, he couldn’t shake the nightmares and flashbacks plaguing him weeks later. He also continually ran through “what-if” scenarios, wondering if a tighter grip would have kept him bolted to his seat when his tire hit the rock.

But over time, Pratt began to recover and shake his pain and his doubts. Today, he is not only back on the bike, but also a staff member of Central Ohio’s most significant biking event, Pelotonia.

Pratt credits his parents with giving him the reality check he needed to move past his fear of cycling. “People have overcome far worse things than this,” they reminded him. Brown, now a U.S. Navy pilot, knew that Pratt needed to simply face his fear. With Brown’s encouragement, Pratt finally went out for his first ride after the crash on March 31, 2009, the weekend before his 23rd birthday. “Mentally, that ride was exactly what I needed,” says Pratt. “As corny as it sounds, as soon as I got back on my bike, all of those flashbacks melted away—and they haven’t come back since.”

Pratt says that once he started pedaling, feeling the wind rushing past, “I realized how much I missed cycling and how much I needed to be back on the bike.” Recalling the joy he felt during that ride, he says, “Cycling is an amazing sport—it’s just so fun.”

Pratt learned from a Penn State buddy, Griffin Weiler, who was working as an intern at the time for NetJets, that cyclists were needed to appear in a video to promote the inaugural Pelotonia, a cancer fundraiser. (NetJets is a sponsor.) While serving as a “cycling model,” Pratt met Tom Lennox, Pelotonia’s executive director. Pratt was so impressed with the management of the event that he came back to Columbus that August to provide mechanical support for the riders. When he left to return to Pennsylvania, he decided, “I want to work for Pelotonia.”

A few months later, Lennox hired him for an open procurement position. He recalls that Pratt’s enthusiasm left a big impression on him. “He was eager, excited and willing to do whatever it took to support the riders and our staff,” says Lennox.

In this role, Pratt pulls together every last detail required to roll out Pelotonia without a hitch, from securing donations from companies to gathering enough food, drink, beer and ice cream to feed a couple thousand riders.

He also gives training tips to potential Pelotonians who wonder if they have what it takes to participate in the Aug. 20-22 event. Riders choose from varying routes—23, 43 or 102 miles, as well as the ultimate trip, a two-day 180-mile ride from Columbus to Athens and back. Pratt’s favorite piece of advice: “You don’t have to ride 100 miles before Pelotonia to ride 100 miles in Pelotonia.” He says the trick is to ride 20 to 30 miles three times a week, for a few months, to get your body into shape. “If you do that, you’ll be ready to ride,” says Pratt. “Remember, this isn’t a race. It’s a ride.”

For some riders, they put their apprehensions aside since the physical demands of cycling are nothing compared to the battle their loved ones have lost, or are fighting against. And that’s the real point of Pelotonia. One hundred percent of the money raised by riders goes to cancer research at Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center—with an aggressive goal to raise $40 million over five years. Last year, the event brought in $4.5 million via 2,265 riders. To reach that number, riders agreed to raise a specified amount, $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the length of the ride. If riders were unable to reach the minimum, their credit card (required for tour registration) was charged for the unmet portion of the commitment.

Some of the 2009 Pelotonia dollars will be put to work to fund 10 idea grants of $100,000 each. These ideas are what Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, describes as “a-ha moments.”

Funding for these ideas is difficult to get through traditional channels, such as the National Institutes of Health, which prefers to support hypothesis-driven research—proven studies that already have a high chance of success. Even so, Caligiuri says, “Quantum leaps in science are often made by thinking out of the box.” Money generated by Pelotonia’s riders will be used to attract some of the “world’s most talented investigators with their own off-the-wall ideas on how to prevent and treat cancer,” he says. “These ideas can potentially lead us to the breakthroughs we’re looking for to make headway toward cancer prevention and treatment.”

Pratt is no newcomer to fundraising. During his senior year at Penn State, he led the largest student fundraising event in the world, THON, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. That year, THON raised $6.8 million for pediatric cancer. After school, he worked for Progressive Future, a nonprofit supporting the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania in 2008.

That “face the fear” ride may have taken away Pratt’s flashbacks, yet there is numbness in Pratt’s left arm when he wakes up in the morning—a reminder of how the crash changed his life. With a new sense of caution, Pratt never takes long rides alone now—except for the one solo journey he took through Bald Eagle State Park to visit the scene of the crash. That day, Pratt took the same hill at a conservative, and appropriate, 20 mph.

Susan Owens a freelance writer.