An alumnus treks the three-day journey on Relay For Life in remembrance of friends with cancer.
Eric Stephenson, a Temple alumnus and Gamma Phi Sigma “Hermana Unidos,” Fraternity, Inc. member, walked 141 miles from Norwalk, Conn., to Philadelphia to honor the loss of his fraternity brother, Ramon Baez and the many others affected by cancer.
“I’m leaving from my job to honor someone I work with that has cancer,” Stephenson said. “[I’m] walking in honor of Ramon, who died of cancer, and ending at Relay for Life to meet up with my friend [who] survived cancer.”
In Summer 2010, Stephenson was at the bedside of Baez, who died from brain cancer at the age of 23. Israel Colon, another fraternity brother, was also present for Baez’s last days, and just a few days after the word spread about Stephenson’s plans, Colon joined Stephenson’s plan. Unsure of his personal convictions for participating at that time, he said simply, “You never let a brother walk alone.”
To prepare for this endeavor, Stephenson added more walking to his everyday schedule, maintained his trips to the gym and went to find the perfect shoes at Eastern Mountain Sports in Stamford, Conn., to support himself on the trip. There, he met Jon Ritze, an assistant manager of EMS, who was amazed by Stephenson’s initiative.
“It sounded like a really great cause and a really ambitious kind of trip,” Ritze said. “I wanted him to feel comfortable asking me questions.”
Ritze, 26, has been doing long-distance excursions since 2006 and has completed the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crust Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. He said he considers himself an expert in expedition planning and gave Stephenson some crucial advice.
“With this type of mileage, burning tons of calories, you need to intake as much calories as you are exerting,” Ritze said.
Protein and B vitamins, which help with muscle-recovery, can be essential when performing this type of walk. Between the two brothers, they packed bananas, power bars, Elixir tablets to regulate electrolytes, ibuprofen, soap and a change of clothes.
Stephenson said he considers himself in fit condition but did not anticipate the pain that his body would endure during this trip. The duo began to walk on March 23 at 3 a.m., leaving from Stephenson’s home in Stamford, Conn. By the morning, weather conditions had varied from rain to snow, and Stephenson said his knees began to feel like two softballs.
Dressed in Nylon and monitoring their time via Google Maps, the two arrived in Bronx, N.Y., at 10:30 a.m. They traveled into Manhattan and took the ferry to Belford, N.J.
Stephenson, who tweeted about his journey, said, “2 p.m. phone is almost dead. [Colon] is leading the pack strong. I definitely would not have been able to do this without him. Next stop: Trenton.”
From there, the two continued through New Jersey to Trenton, N.J., where they arrived on March 24 and rested for the night. In the early morning, with Colon at his side, Stephenson persevered for an estimated 40 miles on crutches with swollen knees. They entered Pennsylvania at 7:05 a.m. on March 25. There, they were soon joined by other fraternity brothers Steve Hernandez and Rick Moreno, and friend, Sarah Salem, who will be celebrating her birthday cancer-free for the first time in two years.
For the last 40 miles, Stephenson walked on crutches and all together, they arrived at the pavilion for the Relay for Life event at 7:30 p.m.
“It was a feeling of great pride in my frat and in people in general,” Hernandez said. “[Relay For Life] happens every year, but they are a real inspiration whether they know it or not.”
“I couldn’t have done it with this guy right here,” Stephenson said as he pointed to Colon.
He stated that when their physical pain became so intense, it was their mental strength that brought them through.
Both walkers were acknowledged during the opening ceremony of Relay for Life and each was rewarded with a medal, gift-passes to a spa and a signed banner. Colon also shared a poem that he wrote on Thursday night entitled “Walking.”
“I found myself asking, ‘Why I am doing this?’” Colon said. “I just kind of expressed that thought in a poem, and while I was writing, I was figuring why I was doing the walk at the same time.”
In addition to Baez, both of his grandmothers had cancer, and by keeping those that he lost to cancer in mind, Colon described his motivation by “having them live vicariously through his actions and actually raising money that will go toward cancer.”
The Relay For Life event had more than 1,000 registered attendees. It exceeded its goal in raising $60,000 – Stephenson raising $5,327. The money will go toward funding cancer research and aiding patients who cannot financially afford treatment.
With more than 72,000 adolescents and young adults ages 15-39 who learn they have cancer each year in the United States, Salem said she hopes that by initiatives like Stephenson’s and Colon’s, more people will be prompted to educate themselves about the disease.
“We have to choose to be aware,” Salem said. “We have to stop talking about cancer like it only happens to older people.”
Keisha Frazier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.