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Sue Holland

Niagara Falls to Manhattan by Bicycle

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 Disney World.

PHOTO: Mary Thompson Hunt at Niagara Falls.
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 tourist—seeing the falls, riding the Maid of the Mist, and so on—and to meet fellow riders before an early start the next day.

PHOTO: Mary at the opening ceremony.
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. Touch hands
Young to old, friends to strangers
Strong to weak, family to friends
Touch hands
Because friends forgive and foe forget
Touch hands
Because this minute with these people
At this instant will never happen again
Touch hands
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 to come.

PHOTO: Mary pauses for a quick photo.
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 steep—one hill was one mile with a 14 percent grade, and then there were the two back-to-back four-mile hills!

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.

PHOTO: Getting a push on one tough hill.
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.

PHOTO: Beautiful scenery.
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.

PHOTO: Riders slept under in tents.
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 of laughter.

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."

PHOTO: Jason Hunt.
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 again.

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: 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 past.

PHOTO: Saturn of Orlando donates shirt to Mary.
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.

PHOTO: Friends encourage Mary.
Friends encourage Mary to finish the ride. Photo by Carol Stein.

PHOTO: Off the bike at last.
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 made—and then Mary closed the ceremony by reading the “Touch Hands” poem again. Another moment of silence was observed as well.

PHOTO: Mary conducts the closing ceremony.
Mary conducts the closing ceremony. Photo by Patty Thompson.

PHOTO: Family and friends.
Family and friends greet Mary after the ride. Photo by Patty Thompson.

This was clearly Mary's most difficult ride to date—a 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 Mary's participation.

PHOTO: Ride participants.
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 hills—no, mountains—went 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 Manhattan—a 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 for me… 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


Sue has been hooked on Walt Disney World since her first visit in 1972 with her parents and younger brother. She kept returning more frequently until she moved to Florida in 1986.

After joining the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) in 1997, she now visits almost monthly. She also spends time at the DVC's non-WDW locations, and is experienced with the Disney cruise ships.

She takes many of these trips on her own, but she's also toured WDW with large groups of people, including families, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

She works as the Administrative Services Division Head for a large residential facility administered by the Florida Department of Children and Families. She currently resides in Southwest Florida with her teenage son.

Sue is one of our most prolific trip report writers. Read her trip report archive here.

You can contact Sue here.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”


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