Creeper Trail Ride in Virginia Supports Cancer Research, Honors Legacy

Posted 06/13/17 by Amy Kapp in Health and Wellness, Trail Use

The late Penny F. Garrett on the Virginia Creeper Trail in 2014 | Photo courtesy Penny F. Garrett Sarcoma Foundation

On July 28 and 29, 2017, the Penny F. Garrett Sarcoma Foundation will host the 8th Annual Creeper Trail Ride [and walk] to End Cancer (or C-TREC) in Damascus, Virginia—with a purpose of raising money for rare cancer research and giving hope to those who are afflicted by the disease.

It’s not without a personal connection that I write about this event, having countless members of my own family touched by cancer (I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer when I was 21, and both my mother and my sister-in-law continue to deal with breast cancer and the aftermath). But it’s also with a “trail advocacy” mindset that I think this story is important—as it reminds us how powerful trails can be as connectors and as catalysts. For community togetherness. Healing. For drawing attention to those causes that inspire us, and being able to be active—in our own ways—to those causes.

Inspired by Courage

In the case of the Creeper Ride, the initial inspiration for the ride comes from the foundation’s courageous namesake, Penny French Garrett, a devoted wife and mother of two who was diagnosed eight years ago with a rare form of cancer called Leiomyomasarcoma (a malignant smooth-muscle cancer). Penny endured surgery and chemotherapy—and eventually stage 4 cancer—before a specialist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center got her on a new type of chemotherapy and more surgery, resulting in her eventual remission for five years.

The annual "march through town" kicks off the "Creeper Trail Ride to End Cancer" each year. | Photo courtesy Penny f. Garrett Sarcoma Foundation

“We did research and found that 50 percent of all cancer diagnoses are rare,” said Patrick French, Penny’s brother. “There are so many small rare cancers—but because they are not prevalent individually, there is very little research on them done by pharmaceutical companies. We realized we wanted to give back to MD Anderson, [which was critical to her recovery], so we created the foundation and ride to benefit [rare cancer research].”

Penny and her sister Olivia—an experienced fundraiser—served as co-founders for the foundation, which was launched in January 2010. The first annual ride took place that July on the Virginia Creeper Trail, with people forming teams to raise money ($500 total for teams of five people; mega teams are also encouraged), and culminating their efforts with an 18-mile ride down the Creeper’s famous Whitetop Mountain (you can also opt for a 5-mile walk as well).

“We all asked, ‘What would be a special place for an event in Damascus, where Penny has lived all her life?' And we thought of the Creeper; it’s one of the most special places here. That’s why it was chosen.”

Since 2010, riders and walkers have raised more than $500,000 for rare cancer research as well as awareness of the disease, in Virginia and beyond, and have strengthened the local and national community that continues to fight for a cure.

And to Patrick’s point, the ride is a celebration that happens on the second day of the event (day one includes a silent auction and concert) to celebrate the teams’ efforts over the course of their fundraising period. “It’s not a race,” says Patrick. “People enjoy it. People get together, and they just ride.”

RELATED: Three Reasons 18-Year-Old Jan Gierlach Just Biked 3,300-Miles Across America

Penny's Legacy

Although Penny enjoyed five years with her family after beating cancer in 2009—she tragically succumbed to a virus two years ago at the age of 46 while battling a second cancer likely brought on from the Leiomyomasarcoma. But her legacy continues to live on through the race, which is “volunteer run” by her Husband Todd, sister Olivia, parents Dennis and Darlene, children Peyton and Madison, and brother Patrick.

A photo of Penny Garrett (second from left) with her husband, Todd, and children Madison and Peyton |Photo courtesy Penny F. Garrett Sarcoma Foundation

“When I look at what we’ve been able to do—we’re matching what other fundraisers in the area are doing who have full-time employees and huge support systems.”

And of course—to drive the point home—it’s our personal connections, to a place, a person or a cause, that can sometimes be such powerful drivers in our lives and in our communities.

I recently spoke with 18-year old Jan Gerlach, who just rode his bike across the United States to support cancer and ALS research and hospice care—three things that had affected loved ones in Jan’s own life.

I asked Jan why things like bike rides and trails could be such powerful tools for awareness. “[I] think it comes down to a question of what we as citizens can do when we feel compelled,” he replied. “What gifts and talents do we have? How can we leverage those in a way that will do the most good for others? I am a cyclist, and if a bike ride can raise awareness and funds for these people to do the lifesaving work that they are doing—then that’s the role I can play to make a difference.”

And indeed, that’s the role that trails can play too in allowing us all to connect—to the memories of loved ones, to those struggling with diseases that we ride or walk in solidarity with, and to our communities.

Learn how you can join the efforts this year for the 8th Annual Creeper Trail Ride to End Cancer (July 28–29) on the Penny F. Garrett Sarcoma Foundation’s 2017 event website.

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