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April 17, 2014

Team PHenomenal Hope plans coast-to-coast ride

map outlined blackA cross-country road trip can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But to accomplish the trip on a bicycle makes the experience that much more memorable. That is exactly what Patricia George, faculty member in the Department of Medicine and Team PHenomenal Hope captain, and her teammates and crew will do from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md., as part of the Race Across America (RAAM).

A grueling non-stop 3,000 mile race across 12 states, the 32nd annual RAAM team competition begins June 14 (individual racers start June 10), but for George and Team PHenomenal Hope, the race has been two years in the making. Sponsored by organizations such as UPMC and the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA), Team PH’s goals are not only to finish the race, but to raise awareness of the chronic disease known as pulmonary hypertension.

It is a disease of high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs and can make people short of breath, dizzy and fatigued. Pulmonary hypertension can cause swelling and, as it gets worse, patients can develop what is known as right heart failure. It affects people of all ages, races and genders and while there are many treatments, there is no cure. As a member in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine at UPMC, George has a passion for the cause..

“Finishing RAAM in and of itself is really exciting, something very few people do,” George said. “It’s one of the most challenging bike races in the world, but the idea and the actuality of doing this with the pulmonary hypertension community makes it so much more meaningful. At the end of the day, it won’t be just about completing this one race, it will be about everything that’s involved in it.”

George’s teammate Anne-Marie Alderson added: “It really just is a love of the sport and for us it’s the opportunity and ability to make a difference with pulmonary hypertension and raise some awareness and research funds.”

While Team PH consists of four riders — George; Alderson; Stacie Truszkowski, a member in the Department of Medicine, and Ryanne Palermo — the team can’t operate without the help of its 13 crew members working behind the scenes. Crew members Sara Harper and Greta Daniels will serve as alternate riders as well as crew members.

“We need the alternates in case, heaven forbid, one of us gets injured leading up to race day so that we can start with four on the starting line,” George said.

The crew will tail the riders in an RV and a car, providing the cyclists with any support they need.

Racers Ryanne Palermo, Patricia George, Stacie Truszkowski and Anne-Marie Alderson discuss plans for the June race.

Racers Ryanne Palermo, Patricia George, Stacie Truszkowski and Anne-Marie Alderson discuss plans for the June race.

Crew chief and Pitt alum Kate Bennett will handle all the logistical and planning aspects such as scheduling meals, knowing when to stop and refuel the RV, and providing turn-by-turn directions to the riders through their headsets. Cathy Kessinger, a faculty member in the Department of Medicine, along with Patty Carlson and Ryann Biedlingmaier, will provide medical assistance, should it be required. UPMC Manager of Media Relations Chuck Finder not only will drive the RV, but will promote the trip through social media and record the group’s experience for others to share. Carol Lynn Moore, a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry, also will assist as a member of the crew.

“We ride our bikes, we eat, we sleep, that’s what we do,” George said. “The crew are the people that are actually going to get us from coast to coast.”

“Riding the bike across the country is the easy part compared to logistics,” added Alderson, a quality engineer at Cook  MyoSite and a Pitt graduate.

Different from many other races, RAAM is a continuous event where a member of Team PH will be on the road at all times over the course of the nine days allotted to complete the course. The team will employ a strategy whereby two riders will alternate every 20-30 minutes for several hours, while the other two members will rest in the RV trailing closely behind.

“There’s no break,” George said. “This is like a continuous time trial so once the race starts, the clock doesn’t stop until you cross the finish line. So there will always be somebody on the bike riding.”

Starting on the shores of the Pacific Ocean before going through places such as Sedona, Ariz., the Colorado Rockies, the Midwest and Bloomington, Ind., the riders and crew alike will enjoy a unique experience along with racers from across the globe.

“I can’t wait. It’s going to be a really cool way to see the country,” George said. “We’ll start out on the coast in California and pretty early in the race drop down a stretch of road called the Glass Elevator which literally puts you down into the desert … and then over the Rockies, through the Midwest, then you get to the West Virginia and Maryland mountains.”

While George, a member of the Steel City Endurance Racing Team, and her teammates are experienced cyclists, she admits that she has never witnessed anything quite like the scenes that RAAM will provide.

“When you’re on the bike at night on a quiet road and you’re just in the headlights of your follow vehicle behind you and you just have your beams on, you look up at the sky … you see just all these stars, it’s beautiful,” she said. “There are these moments on the bike, and you’re out there … you can hear it, you feel it, you hear the crickets.

“It’s just real, you’re connected. I can only imagine what that’s going to be like in the desert, in the mountains, in the Midwest. It’s going to be neat.”

A member of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association herself, George spent part of the last two years raising awareness for the disease throughout the local community, highlighted by the PHenomenal Hope 5K on April 13 on the North Shore, the biggest PH event in Pittsburgh.

With RAAM now less than two months away, the race is starting to become an exhilarating reality for George.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “Overall, as it’s getting close I start to see how real it is. It’s been two years in the making … it’s our goal and remains our goal that by the end of RAAM, everybody in Pittsburgh and beyond will have heard of PH.”

—Alex Oltmanns

team with bikes

Some of the members of Team Phenomenal Hope are, from left: Kate Bennett, crew chief; racers Stacie Truszkowski, Anne-Marie Alderson, Patricia George and Ryanne Palermo; Greta Daniels, crew/alternate racer.