"Al woke up at 4 AM, ran 10k and kept doing it until almost the day he died. And he'd wake up even earlier if you asked him for a favour. He taught me more than I could ever thank him for."
- Steve Nagy, RocketHouse CEO & MC of The Ride To Conquer Cancer
The Ride To Conquer Cancer
Master of Ceremony
I have Emceed the Ride To Conquer Cancer 20 times. I’ve seen over $200 million raised and welcomed 60 000 Riders across the finish lines all while trying to do justice to their stories. But my view from behind the microphone was nothing compared to my experience behind the handlebars. It took the death of a mentor to get me there, but, god, am I glad it is where my grieving took me. I couldn’t cry when he died and I’m still waiting for that dam to really break but when I was 90 kilometres in on Day 1 and was just scratching the surface of 900 metres of vert that still needed to be climbed, a 40kph headwind pounding in my face, that’s when I got it…because I wasn’t alone.
That hill slowed everyone down. New or seasoned, that hill was beating up all of us Riders. It became a congregation point. Pressing hard against the pedals we strained through puffing breath to encourage those alongside us. With each crest of a false summit, we’d lock weary eyes and sigh, “fuuuuuuck.” Hands pressed against backs. Riders dismounted to walk in solidarity. Ultimately, we all kept pressing forward.
Riding can be a solitary effort, especially when training, but not here, not on the Ride. Every moment was catharsis and symbol. And it was ultimately a safe place to share. We were all in a common boat: grieving. It was finally fine to talk about our pain, for Survivors to complain about their treatment without acting strong for their families, it was a time to pause at Pit Stops and admit that the cancer had returned and nobody had been told yet. People shared with me story after story of why they were there, what cancer had done to them and their families. It made me feel together, that, no matter the battle, we were going to fight it.
2017 Calgary Ride
The Finish Line
Before Ready. Set. RIDE!
We start the Ride with an early morning tribute to the people we’ve lost. Patient cyclists — every one of whom has either battled cancer themselves, is battling it right now, or, more often than not, has the photo of the loved one(s) they’re riding for pinned to their jersey — crowd by the thousands in the rain or the sun or the hail as they wait for me to say, “Ready. Set. RIDE!” But first we watch a riderless bike be walked through the start line. The person who once rode this bike has died in the past year. That means that twenty times I have asked a crowd for silence because somebody who was our partner and friend is gone. There aren’t many events where your year on year participation is partially based on whether or not they’ll still be alive. But that uncertainty also breeds hope.
We hear from Survivors all weekend. We hear about how research trials funded by the Ride brought them back from the brink of death or kept them away from chemo and we hear from family members who got a couple extra unexpected months with their teenage sister who sang the national anthem the year before. But I am lucky enough to hear a lot more.
Every Rider is responsible to raise a minimum of $2500. It is that type of boosted goal fundraising that gives the Ride its benchmark style (2017’s Toronto Ride became Canada’s single largest fundraising event putting $20.533 million into the Princess Margaret Cancer Fund). It is also what forces the participants to talk about it. Very few people raise $2500 without getting help. They ask people. They talk to family. They reach out to friends and colleagues. **Make no mistake, I am asking for your donations: http://bit.ly/2eW1FYv ** What that also means is that in order to get 2000 or 5000 Riders across that finish line tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of supporters needed to be involved. And that’s what becomes so overwhelming about the finish line.
My Job is to Tell Their Stories
On the Sunday, while the Riders are pushing the final 100 kilometres of pedal strokes to complete their 200+ kilometre journey, I am walking, hour on hour, up and down the finish chute talking with families and friends who are pressed up against the gates with handmade signs and noisemakers. In Niagara the finish line stretches nearly a kilometre, packed with people.
Before I put the microphone back to my lips I ask them why they are here. The two-year-olds tell me they are here for daddy. The four-year-olds show off the glitter on their signs. The six-year-olds tell me how they lost their grandma. Then the moms and dads tell me how their dad and their brother and their mom all died so their spouses and teenage kids and coworkers are riding. Then I meet the twenty-somethings who are holding a beer and having a great old time. They’ll whoop it up and take every offering of sunscreen that I make but when their team crests the horizon they become ashen-faced and silent. The rest of the crowd cheers for them. Ten, twenty, fifty Riders, all with matching jerseys, who drift slowly, side by side through the line. They were partying late the night before and probably had me poke fun at them while they rushed to chug coffee and get across the start line that morning. But now quiet. And I can’t talk. I get through half of the story that I heard from their fans. How they are all riding because Jimi’s son loved the number 33 before he died. Or because Max was supposed to be there but couldn’t.
And that’s the heart of it. We all know bike riding isn’t going to cure cancer. But it is one hell of an excuse to tire ourselves out, break the ice with our friends and talk about doing something to stop the disease that is killing the people we love.
“I am always impressed by the level of professionalism, attention to detail and dedication to perform the best show possible that Steve Nagy and RocketHouse Productions Inc. brings to our events. Our exciting Finish Line experience would not be the same with out them!”
- Lisa Then, Director of Event Production, The Ride to Conquer Cancer
Why I Ride
I knew Al Stickel for four short years. He was a blue eyed cowboy who spent a lifetime rustling cattle and saving people’s lives. After he retired from the fire department he became an actor. Both of those changes were accidents. The first started as a youth when he lost a love in his arms in a crash on a highway and the second when he went to pick up a friend from an audition and the casting agent heard his voice. His voice was molasses. They used him in local Dodge commercials as a discount Sam Elliott but we knew his talents were better used to record our voicemail greetings and read us bedtime stories in the barracks during military role-playing exercises. When my grandfather died and my partner’s grandmother passed away and we had a grant to create a play, Al was the only choice either of us wanted to fill the role that was a tribute to their memory. From the moment that I forced him to audition in a busy pasta shop to the closing night when his soliloquy of longing for his lost wife had us in tears, Al was the man. He always gave more than could be asked for. He was the exemplar of politeness and immovable in the face of rude or sexist jerks.
We were asked to bring the play to TEDxYYC in 2016. It was weeks into rehearsal before we knew that Al was getting treatments across the street at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. He was always ready to do a favour, but this time he didn’t eat when we did. He was thinner. Much thinner. Round after round of radiation and chemo. And they didn’t give him many months. He didn’t relent. He finished yet another round days before we took the stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
His surgery kept getting pushed off. The cancer was too wide spread. We kept thinking the next week would be the end. He used each moment to cram in rehearsals for another play, shooting for another pilot, beers with his friends — which meant he would buy the beers, sit their holding his and contemplate the taste that we got to enjoy but he couldn’t stomach.
Then they did the surgery. Just before Christmas. Al touted his admiration of his doctors. They were taking chances and using any new research to help him.
A week after his surgery, much of his intestine gone, my partner, Zoë, and I sat down with him for tea and hard candy. He was jovial. Excited about life. So pleased to be given a chance. It was one of the best conversations I ever had with him.
Two weeks later, Al died.
I didn’t expect it. I cried for Al before. Al helped me to cry for the loss of my grandfather, Grumps. He helped me heal after my grandmother, Gran, passed. He helped me break down for the first time since my Oma died of breast cancer when I was ten. She was the first person I ever lost and I didn’t know then how to explain it to myself. I didn’t know now how to explain Al’s passing either. I didn’t cry. I put it aside. I refused to watch his final goodbye to his friends. But now I have something to do. I have a place to exert my energy. I have a chance at catharsis. A catharsis that may help to give others that extra moment of tea and hard candy with their loved one. That extra moment with their own Al.
Please give and give so that we can crush cancer. Thank you.