Riding to Overcome and Obliterate Cancer

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Photo by Rachel Coward

In 2008, Tacoma’s Lori Grassi was a juror on a child abuse case. Haunted by the details of the crime, she decided to buy a bike. She needed something to distract herself. She rode from Old Town Bicycle to Point Defiance, pedaling through the forest until the bike shop called and said she had to come back and pick up her purse. Ever since then, biking has become a way for Grassi to tackle trauma and loss. “That’s where I go,” she said.

Grassi is no stranger to tragedy. She’s lost more than 40 friends and family members to cancer, including her father in 2012. She’s also a cancer survivor. In 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; about five months later she was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer. Today, Grassi is cancer-free, but the disease still affects her life — taking away loved ones and clinging to old memories. That’s why for the past three years she’s participated in Obliteride, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center bike ride to raise money for cancer research. For more than 150 miles, she pedals in honor of those who have lost their lives and those hoping to be saved.

During her treatment, she worked as a lobbyist.
“I would fall asleep on the gallery of the Legislature. The security would come and tap me on the shoulder. I’d have lobbyists who would come and get me, ‘OK Lori, wake up!’ Off we’d go.”

The ride is 150 miles over two days with more than 10,000 feet of climbing.
“It’s the hardest ride I’ve ever done. I don’t know why I do it every year … I do know. Forty people that I’ve lost. I’ve lost 40 people to cancer, and I’m 54 years old.”

Every year, she writes the names of those lost on her handlebars.
“When I can’t make it up some of those hard hills, some of them are crazy. You’re like, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ And you look down at your bike handlebars and if you see those names and if they’re not here anymore, I can’t really complain about riding my bike.”

The ride has emotional peaks and valleys.
“Emotional in pain. Emotional in memories. Not always sad. Sometimes it’s funny as hell. When you’re going so slow up a hill that you think you’re going to tip over because you don’t have anything left in you. It’s kind of funny.”

To those who think it’s too hard. 
“It’s never too hard. One foot in front of the other. There’s a route for everyone, and they’ve really expanded their options.”

Each two-day rider raises at least $1,000.
“I have no problem at the end of this asking you for a donation. And you’ll say yes or no. It’s the $1, $5 from a little kid that kind of rips your heart out: ‘Thanks for riding for my Mommy.’”

She got Gov. Jay Inslee to ride.
“The first year he rode, he didn’t know his brake was rubbing the whole time. But he’s a strong rider. His legs are as long as I am tall.”

She rides around town in her Obliteride jersey.
“I’m always in my orange, because every time I wear it more people see it. Some people ask you about it. One guy even had a (Obliteride) jersey as I (passed) him on the Narrows Bridge, and I was like, ‘Obliteride! Way to go!’ And then he stopped, so I stopped, and we talked. Didn’t know each other, but, you know, it’s kind of a tribe that does this ride.”

Putting cancer in its place. 
“When you’ve lost 40 people to one disease, it prepares you for loss. It doesn’t make it any easier. It kind of makes you madder, but you have to apply it to something productive. You have to put it in its place. And for me the Obliteride puts it in a place; it gives me someplace to park that emotion on my bike.”

About Obliteride
The Fred Hutch Obliteride is a fundraiser for lifesaving cancer research. Aug. 12-14, bikers choose routes that range from 10 miles to 150 miles from around the Puget Sound area. Most routes end at Gas Works Park in Seattle. Since 2013, the ride has raised $6.8 million. Learn more.

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is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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