When the alarm sounds off at 4:30 a.m. to start training, 19-year-old Kyle Claffey hates it just as much as any teenager.
He hates that alarm for waking him up that early, but he doesn’t hate the training. Riding his bicycle is his escape. It’s what he loves.
But it’s not easy.
He has a tumor the size of a golf ball in his head.
“It’s been a little hard,” he said. “I’m on chemo.”
Claffey, who lives in Phoenix, woke up at 4:30 a.m. for months to train for Race Across America (RAAM), a 3,000-mile bike race that starts in Oceanside, Calif., and finishes in Annapolis, Md.
He rides for Team Barrow, a team started by IU graduate Jory Greenfield. As of Wednesday evening the team expected to pass through Bloomington, including by Bill Armstrong Stadium, between 5 and 8 a.m. today.
Each week, Claffey, Greenfield and six other team members rode 250-400 miles to train for the race.
Claffey and Team Barrow are fighting an opponent much larger than a cross-country bike race. They’re all working to try to beat brain cancer.
Team Barrow, named after the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix where Claffey receives his brain cancer treatment, has raised $100,000 for brain cancer research since its efforts began.
“I want to raise as much money as I can because I have this tumor in the back of my head still and I want to make sure it’s gone,” Claffey said. “I want to get the money to do more research for it. It hits home a little more.”
It’s a journey Greenfield never expected when he conceived the idea to start a team in August 2011, but it’s a journey he’d do all over again.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Greenfield said. “But I have to tell you, it’s probably been, so far, one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done in my life.”
In October 2010, doctors told Claffey he had a tumor in his head.
After surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, as well as a year of “maintenance,” as he calls it, Claffey thought he was cancer-free.
In August 2012, doctors told Claffey it came back. And it was a more aggressive tumor.
But he hasn’t let cancer take away his love for cycling.
Before his diagnosis, Claffey rode BMX bikes and said he was near the top of some of the categories he competed in. Since his diagnosis, Claffey has competed in “a couple dozen” bike races.
“Just because you’re diagnosed, it isn’t a death sentence,” he said.
After his second diagnosis, Claffey underwent surgery to resect the tumor once again. Neither of his surgeries have damaged his vision or motor skills, and both have been successful.
He also underwent radiation and Gamma Knife treatments which attempted to kill of any remaining cancer cells.
Now, he does infusions every other week and pill chemotherapy once a month trying to slowly decrease the size of the golf ball in his head.
Each month, he takes a pill before bed for five consecutive nights.
During those five days, all Claffey can do is go to work. The pill takes all of the energy out of him. He can’t do anything else.
“It’s like when you’re running and all of a sudden you hit a wall,” he said. “You’re feeling really low and all of a sudden you have to jump over this 25-foot wall and it takes forever to get over it again. And I have to do it again every single month.
“It tears you down. You almost feel like you want to quit every single month. There is days that month where I’m feeling like I just want to quit it.”
In 2011, Greenfield was kicking around ideas with his good friend Tracey Kramer.
Tracey’s dad Jim lost his battle with brain cancer 14 years ago. Since then, the family put together the Kramer Family Foundation which gives money to the Barrow Neurological Institute where Jim received treatment.
Jim was also an avid cyclist.
Greenfield and Kramer wanted to think of a way to honor him — something special that would mean something and bring awareness to the issue of brain cancer.
Greenfield, who grew up in Carmel, Ind., before graduating from IU in 1996, has competed in five Ironman competitions and two marathons, all since he has graduated and moved west, first to Dallas, then Phoenix.
But he never thought he would literally go across the country on his bicycle.
He had heard about RAAM through a friend who had done it. It would have been something Jim Kramer would have wanted to do.
But RAAM isn’t something people can just jump into. Greenfield said it takes approximately $60,000 to fund a team.
That’s where the Kramer Family Foundation comes into the picture. The foundation has funded Team Barrow’s entire Race Across America.
In exchange, Greenfield pledged to raise $100,000 to help fight cancer.
The next step was to put a team together. That’s when Greenfield met Claffey.
Greenfield was on a ride with his friend Jeanine Cordova, who's husband works at the Trailhead Bike Cafe, where Claffey works. When Greenfield told Cordova about his intention to field a team for RAAM, she immediately thought of Claffey.
“He was on board from day one,” Greenfield said. “He’s been an inspiration for our entire team. He’s a pretty amazing kid.”
Suddenly, Greenfield and Kramer’s idea of honoring one man who lost his life to brain cancer turned into a mission to also help those currently fighting the disease.
What started as a memorial turned into a $100,000 fundraising campaign and one special ride for a 19-year-old brain cancer patient.
The mission of Team Barrow dwarfed the difficulty of the race.
The team rolls 18 people, 14 bikes, four vans and one RV deep en route to Annapolis. Greenfield said everyone has one common goal.
“It now became more about raising money to give to Barrow than it did about doing this race,” Greenfield said. “Now that we have a cancer patient who is on our team, our whole team is supporting Kyle.
“It’s very clear if you come to the meetings or anything, our whole strategy is to make sure Kyle gets from Oceanside to Annapolis.”
RAAM has been dubbed as the most difficult endurance race in America.
Each team rides for 24 hours a day. The plan for Team Barrow is to ride the 3,000-plus miles in either six-and-a-half or seven days.
The team is split into two four-man crews, each with a day crew and night crew, to preserve sleep schedules.
Greenfield said Tuesday that the night crew was averaging 28 mph. Each rider is expected to race 60-85 miles per day, or about six hours.
A tandem will alternate riding every 15 minutes for a three-hour shift before passing off to the next tandem for three hours. Then that pair rests while the other tandem in the four-man group rides for three hours before switching again.
After completing two three-hour sets, that group rests in the RV while the other four-man group handles the riding.
The team has a support staff of 10 people that helps with cooking, laundry, driving and navigating.
Every Monday, the team met for a couple of hours, Skyping people in from across the country who are part of the team to go though the 75 pages of rules and make sure they had all their affairs in order.
“The more that I cycled, the more I fell in love with biking,” Greenfield said. “I thought, ‘Man, if I had the opportunity to do this, what a great accomplishment.’”
Claffey had never competed in a race longer than 140 miles before riding in RAAM He knew it would be difficult, but he had the full support of his doctors and family.
He also knew his teammates would be there to pick him up if he had any
“If I call them up and say, ‘Hey, I’m hurting right now. I need you guys to come over,’ they’re always there,” Claffey said. “They’re always sending me messages saying, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you.’”
Greenfield said the team’s goal has been to make sure Claffey enjoys the ride.
“At 19 years old, you’re not thinking about having to be in chemo or having to go into surgery or not feeling well on a daily basis because your body is battling a cancer,” Greenfield said. “It’s difficult to see him struggle with battling this disease. We encourage him every time we see him.”
Claffey said there are days when he finishes chemo on Friday and gets back on the bike on Saturday.
“They’re all like, ‘Oh wow, I can’t believe you’re actually going out and riding right now. You should be resting right now.’” Claffey said. “I’m just like, ‘Well, I’ve got to train up.’”
That enthusiasm is what Greenfield has enjoyed the most during his time with Claffey.
“I have so much respect and admiration for him,” Greenfield said. “To be able to do what he’s doing is truly amazing. It’s hard to see someone who’s 19 years old go through this. It just doesn’t seem fair.”