Disney Cast Member Completes 500-Mile Ride
Friday, September 26, 2003
by Sue Holland, staff writer
Photo by Mary Hunt.
Recently, 61 people rode their bicycles over 500 miles in six days,
beginning at Niagara Falls and ending in Battery Park in New York City,
New York. They were participating in the first ever Empire State AIDS
Ride, and together raised more than $250,000 toward AIDS/HIV treatment
and prevention programs.
Each rider was required to pay a $300 registration fee to cover the cost
of meals and support services, and had to raise at least $3,200 in donations
to be eligible to ride. Most of the riders were from the New York area,
with some coming from as far away as California and Oregon. There was
also one rider from Florida, and she happens to be a cast member at Walt
Mary Thompson Hunt at Niagara Falls. Photo by Jason Hunt.
At night, Mary Thompson Hunt can be seen working as one of the very talented
improvisational performers at Disney's Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island.
She spent the last several months logging thousands of miles on her bicycle,
in addition to training with weights and on other fitness equipment. It
was not unusual for her to spend up to eight hours a day riding her bike
and then report to work for a full night of improv comedy shows, before
turning around to do it all again the next day. For most of us, hearing
about the hours and miles of training Mary and the other riders put themselves
through, a reasonable question would be, Why?"
The Empire State AIDS Ride is unique in that all of the funds raised
goes to the four beneficiaries: Doctors Without Borders, Health GAP, African
Services Committee and AIDS Rochester. The bank fee for processing credit
card payments slightly reduces donations made in that manner, but otherwise
all expenses associated with the ride were paid by the riders and through
other corporate contributions. All the riders have their own personal reasons
for riding, whether it be to honor friends lost to AIDS, those living
with HIV or simply a desire to help other people and make a difference.
The ride began in Niagara Falls on August 18. Riders and crew (volunteers
to help with the ride) arrived to register the day before, many having
shipped their bicycles ahead of time. They had a short time to play touristseeing
the falls, riding the Maid of the Mist, and so onand to meet fellow
riders before an early start the next day.
Mary served as emcee at opening ceremony. Photo by Jason Hunt.
Mary was honored to be asked to emcee both the opening and closing ceremonies.
At approximately 6:30 a.m., which is very early for someone who normally
works until 1 a.m., everyone associated with the ride gathered next to
the falls. As the sun rose, a beautiful double rainbow could be seen.
Ride Director Marty Rosen addressed the crowd, and representatives from
a couple of the beneficiaries also spoke. Mary welcomed everyone and read
the following poem a friend she lost to AIDS used to recite whenever a
group had gathered.
Touch hands. Touch hands
Young to old, friends to strangers
Strong to weak, family to friends
Because friends forgive and foe forget
Because this minute with these people
At this instant will never happen again
Because too easy it is in life to forget a moment such as this when
friends are made and hearts are touched
Touch hands. Touch hearts. Touch hands
After a moment of silence for people affected by HIV/AIDS, the riders
set out for the first of six grueling days on a bicycle. Day one was 135
miles, but was considered an easy day compared to the days
Mary pauses for a quick photo. Photo by Jason Hunt.
Starting on the afternoon of day two, the hills were continuous for three
and a half days. They were also long and steepone hill was one mile
with a 14 percent grade, and then there were the two back-to-back four-mile
Although Mary had trained on hills in Clermont, Florida, they were no
match for the mountains she encountered in New York. She admits that if
she had realized how long and steep they would be, she might have backed
out of the ride fearing she would be unable to make it to the top. However,
she was determined to ride every single mile no matter how long it took
or how difficult it would be. Since the ride is not a race, each rider
just needs to get to camp at the end of each day.
Getting a push on one tough hill. Photo by Marty Rosen.
At one point, on a very long hill, Mary paused to take a drink, but by
stopping she was unable to get started again. The hill was so steep, she
literally could not begin pedaling to get the bicycle moving. Fortunately,
a fellow rider named Mark happened by and gave her a gentle push to let
her get some momentum, which enabled her to continue riding under her
own power. The riders have many similar stories of situations where one
or more of them pulled together to help someone else. Having a relatively
small number of riders seemed to allow them get to know everyone else
and to bond together as a group more quickly.
By the final day, the steep hills were presumably in the past, but after
turning a corner Mary was facing yet another difficult climb. She did
not get off her bike, but straddled it and duck walked a few
feet before trying unsuccessfully to pedal. After about six tries she
was able to gain enough momentum to begin riding again.
To use her words, It was a steep little hill out of nowhere.
Rider Gordon Miller from Maryland, who had gotten to know Mary earlier
in the ride, and had this to say:
On day six, the last day of the ride, we had just come across
a bridge over a stream, took an immediate right turn only to be faced
with a hill. I told Mary I would wait for her at the top of the hill.
She got on her bike, but as hard as she tried she was unable to start
pedaling. I just watched her determination and frustration but calm
manner as she straddled her bike and walked up the hill until she reached
the top. Simply put she is awesome. Her resolve never changed during
the ride. Slow and steady, and always with a smile.
This was the 10th AIDS Ride for Gordon, who has raised more than $112,000
for AIDS/HIV through his cycling, and has ridden with thousands of other
riders over the years.
Beautiful scenery was abundant during the ride. Photo by Mary Hunt.
The $300 registration fee paid by each rider covered meals and lodging.
However, the lodging consisted of two-person tents pitched in a field!
The tents and all gear were transported to camp each night, and the riders
were expected to set up their own tents. Rest stops were set up every
10 to 28 miles, with plenty of water, Gatorade and nutritious snacks.
Other supplies (such as sunblock and first aid items) were available as
well. Meals were catered, and were delicious. Mary and another rider commented
on the great (and plentiful) catered food.
Riders slept in tents under the stars each night. Photo by Carol Stein.
Evening was also a time for riders to socialize, share stories and form
friendships that last a lifetime. There was even entertainment some nights.
On Thursday night Mary's friend, Vicki Genfan, sang songs around the campfire
for everyone long after it got dark. Without lights at the camp, the riders
sat there shining their flashlights on Vicki as she performed.
On Friday night, more of Mary's friends performed an improv comedy show.
Comedy Warehouse fans would have recognized Steve, Greg, Krista, Layden
and Jenn, who traveled at their own expense from California, New York
and Orlando to perform for the riders. Robby Stamper came along to play
the piano for the show, but there ended up not being a piano at the site!
Nevertheless, the riders enjoyed a wonderful show and many long periods
No ride of this magnitude can be successful without a number of people
working to support the riders. In this case, 22 volunteers came along
to serve as the crew."
Crewmember Jason Hunt directs riders. Photo by Mary Hunt.
The crew took care of such things as driving gear to camp each night,
providing traffic safety at busy intersections, making bike repairs, passing
out food and drink to riders and providing medical care as needed. Mary's
husband, Jason Hunt, crewed as one of the rest stop team, cheering the
riders to each rest stop and taking care of their immediate needs before
driving to get to the next rest stop before the riders started arriving
Although everyone on the crew did a great job, two in particular will
be remembered fondly. Best friends Matt Birdle and Pearl Mercado didn't
know anybody associated with the ride, but decided to use their vacation
time and fly out from Los Angeles to serve on the crew. They spread sunshine
and good cheer everywhere they went, and left Mary this note:
Photo by Mary Hunt.
Despite the physically demanding nature of this ride, the generous spirit
of the other riders and the crew members made for a wonderful experience.
Along the ride route, local groups of citizens organized and brought baked
goods and other refreshments or simply cheered the riders on as they rode
Saturn of Orlando donated this shirt to Mary. Photo by Carol Stein.
Saturn of Orlando has been very supportive of Mary's rides, even holding
fundraisers to help with previous rides. They gave her a Saturn bike shirt
for this ride, and she was pleased to discover a bright yellow Saturn
car accompanying the riders. Evidently there are only five or six of these
cars in existence, so it was a nice surprise to see one.
Nearing the end of the ride, Mary and the other riders faced major New
York City traffic and some poor quality roads. With no established bike
paths, cycling in the city can be nerve-wracking, to say the least. Once
again, fellow riders saw she was distressed and jumped in to help her
through a difficult period, as she will mention in her letter at the end
of this article.
Rob Saken reported Mary was just a couple of blocks from a point where
there was a person to guide her in, but he recognized that those couple
of blocks were a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He and the other riders
had been so impressed with Mary's hard work and her positive influence
at the camps, they had agreed among themselves that they would do whatever
it might take to ensure she successfully completed the ride. As had happened
all week, when Mary most needed a little help or encouragement, someone
appeared by her side to get her through the current challenge. The riders
congregated at a nearby church prior to making the final ride into Battery
Park as a group, where people awaiting their arrival greeted them.
Friends encourage Mary to finish the ride. Photo by Carol Stein.
After 500 miles, off the bike at last! Photo by Carol Stein.
The closing ceremony was held in Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty
in the background. A beautiful sunny afternoon provided a pleasant end
to an incredible six days. The executive director from each of the four
beneficiaries spoke briefly, the announcement of the amount of money raised
was madeand then Mary closed the ceremony by reading the Touch
Hands poem again. Another moment of silence was observed as well.
Mary conducts the closing ceremony. Photo by Patty Thompson.
Family and friends greet Mary after the ride. Photo by Patty Thompson.
This was clearly Mary's most difficult ride to datea sentiment
shared by other riders as well. Despite the difficulty she never gave
up and managed to ride each and every mile. She also raised $4,990 in
modest increments, with many relatively small checks and credit card pledges
that added up to a sizable figure! Some of those donations came from MousePlanet
readers, and for that I extend my sincere appreciation of your support
for Mary's involvement in this ride. She and the other riders can be extremely
proud of what they've accomplished for the HIV/AIDS cause, and speaking
for myself, I am grateful to have been able to help support the ride through
The first ever Empire State AIDS Ride participants. Photo by Marty Rosen.
Following is an excerpt from a letter written by Mary after the ride.
The complete letter, along with several photos can be found at Mary's
travel Web page.
Thank you for all you did to help this ride happen! Your contribution
not only helped me, but all the other riders. You also helped many others
whom none of us will ever meet. We were 61 riders and 22 crewmembers
who raised over $250,000 dollars! All pledges are going straight to
the four agencies that sponsored the ride.
We traveled 520 miles over six days. Our first day started with 135
miles. Believe it or not
that was the easiest day. The days just
kept getting more and more challenging. Those hillsno, mountainswent
on for miles and miles which meant for me, hours and hours.
Even during the toughest times I was grateful that I had it in me to
keep going. If I had known how high and steep these climbs were before
signing up, I probably would have deemed this ride too advanced for
me. I'm glad I didn't know because I surprised myself. I didn't give
up. A lot of times I didn't give up simply because you all sent me so
much money. I kept thinking you didn't give me money for it to be easy.
The final day found us riding through Yonkers, the Bronx and Manhattana
day that added some gray hairs to my head. I started to think I was
in a video game as I dodged busses that cut in front of me, braked for
cars that would stop on a dime to back up, swerved around double-parked
cars that made me have to ride in the oncoming lane, parked cars with
doors that flew open, pot holes, people yelling at me, cab drivers aiming
or so it would seem.
Three riders who eventually came my way told me they would see me to
the church, our final pit stop in New York, safely. Dr. Rob rode behind
me shouting out directions that got me through the hardest parts. It
wasn't until we stopped some miles later that he mentioned he had been
hit by a car before riding up to where I met them. It was then that
I noticed his arm and the back of his shirt, which looked like a bear
had swiped him. There he was helping me and he had just been hit. I
mention this because it's a perfect example of how 80- some strangers
came together as a force of goodwill to be there for others. The same
way you were there for us. And so it goes
This ride was a much-needed boost to my faith in humanity. Goodness
is still in us, still out there, and I hope always will be. I am grateful
for times when good is so clearly and undeniably evident.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Mary Thompson Hunt