Chris Henry and seven friends hopped on their bicycles at Virginia Tech on Saturday morning to go for a spin. Twenty-three and a half hours and 291 miles later, they climbed off.
The cyclists rode from Blacksburg, Va., to Laytonsville, near Gaithersburg, without sleep in a grueling trip to raise money for Camp Friendship, a nonprofit summer camp for children with cancer that is struggling financially.
Henry hatched the plan after getting to know one of the campers during the past year, a Centreville resident whose rare form of cancer was diagnosed when he was 3. Doctors gave him two years to live, but today he is 18. "He has to spend 90 percent of his life in a hospital," Henry said. "But he's upbeat about life. Since he looks forward to going to Camp Friendship every year, I thought I'd come up with a way to raise the money to send him."
Henry and his friends, many of whom race on Virginia Tech's cycling team, found sponsors for the ride and raised enough money -- more than $8,600 -- to send 16 children to camp this summer.
The camp, which is tucked between farms in Laytonsville and draws children from Maryland, Virginia and the District, does not charge tuition and instead relies on donations. The camp serves about 400 children each summer.
None of the cyclists who set out at 9:20 a.m. Saturday had ridden 291 miles straight without rest. The closest anyone had come was Barrett Airaghi, a Chantilly resident and recent Tech graduate, who rode for 24 hours in October to mark his 24th birthday. That translated into 233 miles, he said.
The cyclists said the toughest part of the trip was the heat Saturday as they pedaled north. At one point, a digital sign outside a bank read 92 degrees. But water and Gatorade were never far from reach -- Henry's parents escorted the cyclists in a van packed with drinks, beef jerky, bananas, five-pound jars of peanut butter, apples, first-aid equipment and pillows.
"I've never made so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my life," said Michelle Henry, his mother. Chris Henry's girlfriend, Debbie Bruen, drove a pickup truck also packed with provisions but with a flatbed to carry bikes, if needed.
The cyclists paused long enough to eat and go to the bathroom, said Henry, a landscape architecture student who planned the ride for six months.
Just after temperatures started to drop and night fell about Mile 130, two cyclists got their wheels stuck on railroad tracks and crashed into the pavement and into each other. Andy Wolff, 25, and Susan Althouse, 19, landed on their right sides and suffered bruised muscles and scrapes on arms, legs, elbows and hands. The frame of Wolff's bike broke. He borrowed Althouse's bicycle and rode 15 more miles before the bruising made pedal strokes too painful to ride further. Wolff and Althouse rode the rest of the way in the van.
The most challenging terrain came about 2 a.m. yesterday, Henry said, as the group approached the Shenandoah Mountains and found itself climbing a steep hill for three miles. "You could see the car lights ahead of you going up and up," he said. Normally, it wouldn't have been a difficult task for Henry, but it came after he had ridden 220 miles.
Another rider, Dan Villarreal, opted to get off his bike after 210 miles. "I didn't eat right -- I bonked," he said, using the athlete's term for the condition of energy depletion. He rode in the van for 60 miles and then climbed back on his bike for the last 27 miles.
By the time they rolled into the grounds of Camp Friendship, the bleary-eyed cyclists had counted four flat tires, two broken derailleurs, one snapped spoke, an assortment of bruises and scrapes and some very sore rear ends.
"I was standing the last four miles," Airaghi said. "At that point, you just don't want to sit down."
Beverly Gough, who founded the camp in 1991, was waiting with cereal, pasta salad, cake, balloons and a grateful heart.
"This is a remarkable story," said Gough, who created the camp in memory of her sister, Carol Jean Eiserer, a Montgomery County teacher who died of a brain tumor in 1986 at age 43. "They don't know the kids; they just wanted to make a difference."