Athlete from Stark County dairy bikes cross-country to help sister

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Nick Thomas and his bike
Nick Thomas and his sister, Val, stand behind the bike he rode across the nation to raise funds for her.

LOUISVILLE, Ohio — As he nears his junior year in college, Nick Thomas probably should be doing an internship. Or at least working a summer job in his intended field.

Instead, the 20-year-old just got done bicycling across the nation with his friend, Joey Colon. It was a 56-day trek from Boston, to Florence, Oregon — all to raise research dollars for his sister, Valerie, who suffers from a rare cell disorder known as Mitochondrial Disease.

Mitochondria are found naturally in body cells, and are responsible for creating the majority of the energy the body needs to function and grow. The disorder can lead to physical and developmental impairments — and there is no cure.

“Basically, your body doesn’t convert energy the right way,” said Nick, who is double majoring in neuroscience and physics.

With that in mind, Nick and his friend, Joey, poured their own energy into a cross-country project they hope will benefit all people who have the disorder.

Making a difference

Both young men run cross country for the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, and called the project “The Runaway Interns,” a lighthearted joke about not doing an internship.

It all started with Nick and his cross country friends talking about running across the country, and trying to set a new record. But when they considered the challenges, they decided biking would be more practical.

And, because so few people know about mitochondrial disorders, Nick decided to make the trip for his sister, who turns 26 this week.

“I couldn’t think of a better thing to do it for. … I grew up at the Cleveland Clinic seeing people like Val, and realizing there’s not a lot known about her diagnosis, there’s not a lot known about any of the diagnoses that fall under mitochondrial diseases. It’s a pretty underfunded, not well-known thing.”

Careful planning

Nick started planning the project several months before the start of his trip, in early May. He did so with the support of his parents, Mark and Chris Thomas, who operate a 400-cow family dairy farm on the east side of Louisville.

Nick Thomas, with his sister, Valerie.
Nick Thomas, with his sister, Valerie.

Nick and Joey worked through the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, and set up their own website that documents the whole story and their trip, at www.therunawayinterns.com.

To be fair, Nick has held a summer job for many years — working on the family farm — and conditioning for cross country. Mark Thomas said he was a little concerned at first about the safety of his son, and giving up the farm help for five-plus weeks.

But with Nick’s good grades at Mount Union, and his desire to help his sister — it looked like a win.

“You’ve got a really good son who’s never given you any grief in life, and if the only grief he gives you is that he wants to bike across the country, then that’s a pretty good thing,” Mark Thomas said.

Making arrangements

Even with all of the good intentions, the trip took careful planning, including soliciting and reviewing people whom they would stay with at night. Every night was different, and some nights they stayed with farm families, or family friends.

Other nights, they camped outside — with bear spray, just in case.

Mark and his wife dropped Nick off for the start of the trip, May 7, in Boston. He started with two additional friends, who had to quit the trip early — but Nick and Joey were determined to finish.

Bicycle friends
Nick Thomas, with his friend, Joey Colon. Both completed the trip.

And being determined is what it took. Nick had never ridden bicycle more than five days in a row, and their bikes were loaded with food and camping supplies — weighing more than 70 pounds each.

Along the route

They followed a section of U.S. Route 20, U.S. Route 6, and various bike trails and rural roads. They rode through cities and saw hundreds of miles of corn and wheat, before reaching the Badlands and the Rocky Mountains. They saw rattlesnakes sunning on the road, and were surrounded by wildlife of all kinds.

“The one night in the Badlands we couldn’t fall asleep because there were so many coyotes running around our tent, just howling,” Nick said. “And you’re out there 15 miles from the nearest house or anything, there’s just nothing — it’s you.”

For more information about the trip, including how you can donate, visit The Runaway Interns.

Meals depended on the day. Some of the families cooked for them, and other times, they relied on what they could buy and pack into their bike bags. They didn’t pack bread, Nick said, because it would squish, so instead, they packed tortillas with peanut butter and jelly.

In the morning, just for breakfast, it was not uncommon for the two to eat 15 eggs between themselves. They had to stop various times during the day, to eat more calories, and of course, refill their water bottles.

Enduring the trip

There were days when they rode up mountains all day — but relief came the following day — when everything was downhill. The heat and sun were an issue, and Nick still has tan lines to prove it.

The bikes held up, but Nick said they went through three different chains, because the high-mileage trip caused them to wear and stretch. He compared an old chain against a new one, and it was a full link-and-a-half longer.

After dropping Nick off in Boston, Mark and Chris went home, to run the dairy. But as he was going through Wyoming, and nearing the Pacific coast — they decided to go see him finish.

“Dairy farmers don’t ever leave for three weeks and four days, but we did,” Mark Thomas said, noting his hired hands, and second daughter, Andrea, took care of the farm.

Part of the reason Nick’s parents went was because he was nearing bear country, and there had already been several attacks on humans. They took their camper along to provide safe housing at night, and decided they would wait for him to arrive at the coast in Oregon.

Reaching the coast

Arriving, Nick said, brought tremendous “relief.”

“It was a lot of fun, but 56 days is a long time to be riding a bike,” he said. “Out there baking in the sun all day — no shelter from it.”

Valerie doesn’t say much about the trip. When she speaks, her sentences are short, and she moves from one topic to another pretty quickly.

She works at place in Hartville, called GentleBrook, that helps people with similar conditions, and she gets paid to help make crafts. She helps feed and water cattle on the farm, and according to Mark Thomas, she’s “our big cheerleader.”

On the day Farm and Dairy visited, she hugged and patted her brother’s back several times — pointing out that he was her brother, and she was his big sister.

When he graduates, Nick hopes to go to medical school and maybe become a surgeon — an idea inspired by all the medical encounters he’s had through his sister.

Making memories

He might have missed his spring internship, but Nick said the experience was like an internship of its own — and something he’ll remember for a lifetime. And, he was able to raise about $3,000 in his sister’s name.

Chris Thomas said when she thinks about what her son did, and what he overcame to do it, she gets emotional.

“It’s so hard to believe, and then when we got out there and actually saw them riding, then it was more incredible,” she said, “because you would see these mountains and know they were going up and over these mountains and through — and that he cared enough to do this in honor of Valerie.”

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