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Patchogue man spins gratitude into cancer fundraising

Glenn Olszewski takes daily rides on the Sout

Regardless of the weather, Glenn Olszewski keeps fit on his bike, pedaling 30 to 50 miles a day.

Preparing himself for his outdoor journeys, which start and end at his Patchogue home and don’t deviate from the South Shore, Olszewski, 69, begins the day with coffee and a yogurt and occasionally takes a brief biking break with an energy bar.

"Normally, I’m out by sunrise, and I try to get a steady ride in," said Olszewski, who retired from the Social Security Administration about a decade ago.

During inclement weather, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound fitness buff rides in his basement — using a bike on an indoor trainer connected to Zwift, a computer program that simulates natural terrain.

Since 2011, he has volunteered as the president of the Suffolk County Track Officials Association, an organization of people who officiate at high school and college meets. For 26 years, Olszewski, a former competitive runner and mountain hiker and climber, has also officiated at track events.

This summer, grateful for his fitness and because four peers, including a family member, had recently died of cancer, he decided to apply his cycling skills and stamina to advance the fight against cancer.

In the Empire State Ride, a 538-mile biking event that started in Staten Island on July 24 and culminated at Niagara Falls on July 3l, Olszewski and 227 other cyclists, ranging from 22 to 81 years old, raised funds for the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Center Institute, which supports cancer research, including clinical drug trials.

Long Islanders made up 22 in-person and six remote riders. Among the 19 Long Island participants who were 50 and older, 18, including Olszewski, cycled on the road and one biked remotely.

Event raised $1.6M

During the event, Olszewski logged an average of 80 miles a day. His wife, Darlene, and sister-in-law, Janet Hart, met him at various points along the way, including taking photos as he crossed the finish line.

"By the last day, I was physically tired but had no problems completing the rides," Olszewski said. "I was one of the oldest, since most people were between 40 and 50 years old."

Overall, participants’ cycling raised $1.6 million, with Olszewski’s efforts attracting $6,100 in donations from 73 people, including relatives, track officials and fellow 1970 graduates of his alma mater, St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington.

"The hardest thing for me was asking people for money," he said. For his participation in next year’s Empire ride, Olszewski is seeking a corporate sponsor or just a few contributors.

As part of the event, participants needed to raise a minimum of $3,500 to cover their personal expenses — like meals, bike repairs and campground tents. But Olszewski, seeking a better night’s sleep than a tent could provide, paid out-of-pocket for motel lodgings.

Courtney Helinski, senior fundraising coordinator for the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation, the cancer center’s philanthropic arm, praised the amount Olszewski raised, describing it as "a big deal for a first-time rider." She also appreciated that he joined the fundraiser "with a reason to ride and was successful."

According to Peer to Peer Professional Forum, fundraisers such as bike rides, walks and video challenges, "took a major hit" last year because of the pandemic.

The top 30 U.S. peer-to-peer charity events, including the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk and Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Cycle for Survival, experienced a collective revenue decline of 33.9% — from $1.36 billion in 2019 to $900.1 million last year.

Although participation in the top programs dropped from nearly 6 million in 2019 to 2.2 million last year, the average amount raised from each participant increased 83% — from $227 per participant in 2019 to $416 per participant last year.

As Olszewski tells it, he has biked in charitable cycling events in the past, but was especially motivated to join the Empire ride after his relative died of cancer in 2019. Although he had intended to participate in the ride two years ago and dedicate his involvement to his family member, registration closed before Olszewski was able to sign up. And last year, because of COVID-19, the event was canceled.

But with three other friends dying of cancer between 2020 and early this year and the saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I," resonating within him, Olszewski said he was driven not only to participate in the ride this summer but pay tribute to all four individuals.

"I thought about the four people my age who weren’t around anymore, and that I’m fortunate to still be able to bike and have my health," Olszewski said. "I was doing this for my gratitude and the cause." During his cycling, he donned a T-shirt with their names.

'Just so touched'

Sue Michta’s husband, Richard, who died of cancer at age 67 in January, was among the four Olszewski memorialized in his philanthropic ride.

"Glenn knew my husband the shortest amount of time compared to family and friends who had passed away, so I was just so touched," said Michta, a Nesconset resident and track official.

Olszewski and Richard Michta, who had been a research engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, had met just a few times, having had their "most substantive conversation" — about 15 to 20 minutes long — "while setting up tables" for a track-and-field brunch in February 2020, Michta recalled.

"Glenn looks beyond himself," she said. "He’s an incredible being with a huge heart and gives 100%." Inspired by Olszewski’s thoughtfulness and the cause his cycling supported, Michta and members of her family contributed to the fundraiser.

For Olszewski, the event, which drew people from all walks of life, from physicians to retired cops, demonstrated that "when people get together for a common cause, you can really work together and be successful."

To prime for the extreme ride, Olszewski upped his weekly biking from 200 miles to 300 miles, and he not only journeyed to the North Shore but added hills to his daily regimen.

A bike-tracking app generally provides Darlene with information about his whereabouts on Long Island, and the Empire ride gave participants a similar app for organizers, as well as riders’ family and friends, to keep abreast of cyclists’ locations.

"Bike riding on Long Island is inherently dangerous because the bike paths aren’t the greatest and you have to watch out for cars and try to stay off main roads," he said. For the Empire ride, Olszewski promised his wife — and kept his pledge — that he wouldn’t crash, a not-uncommon occurrence in biking events, he said.

To a large degree, Olszewski believes he stayed the course in the Empire ride because of the more than 100 races he ran in the 1980s, including the 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., that he finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes — his fastest ever — and placed 75th in the 10,000-person contest.

"I know a lot about endurance training from running and what I needed to do for the ride," he said.

About a decade ago and as a retirement gift to himself, Olszewski commissioned a video recounting his uber-rugged adventures that encompassed running competitively and mountain climbing during his late 30s to early 40s. His exploits included ascending the 14,410-foot Mount Rainier in Washington State.

"I was running at the time," he recalled, "and this was another test of my endurance."

But along with the triumphant feelings he enjoyed in reaching summits and finish lines, Olszewski has experienced the perils of his vigorous exploits.

In 1983, leading the way — with just 15 more miles to go — but not pacing himself, Olszewski was so exhausted that he dropped out of the 100-mile, three-day New York City Memorial Trek, which he had completed two years earlier.

Yet, also in the early 1980s, breaking an arm during the 18.6-mile Escarpment Trail Race, which starts in upstate Windham and ends in North Lake, in the Catskill Mountains, didn’t stop Olszewski from finishing. And even though he experienced altitude sickness and a park ranger tried to stop him from continuing, Olszewski completed a round-trip, 26-mile climb to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.

Five years ago, after eight surgeries, including to repair his knees, an Achilles tendon and back, Olszewski embraced cycling as a way to replace running while maintaining his fitness level.

"It’s less hard on the body than running," said Olszewski, who alternates daily rides among four bicycles. During the 1990s and 2000s, with his body paying the price of his competitive spirit, Olszewski generally limited his exercise to jogging, swimming, and biking to work and on a trainer.

Looking ahead, he envisions marking his 70th birthday in a way that would make Forrest Gump, one of his favorite film characters, proud: "riding across the U.S."

Long-distance cycling do’s and don’ts

Whether pedaling long distances for charity or as part of a domestic or international bike tour, cyclists, especially older adults who are newcomers to such activities, can fall prey to dehydration and injuries. But, according to Mike Gonzalez, supervisor of Health, Wellness & Fitness for Northwell Health Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation Services, riders can minimize the risks by taking preventive measures, including:

Before signing up for a ride

  • Visit your regular physicians to make sure you’re physically capable of long-duration exercise.
  • Ask doctors whether underlying issues, such as cardiovascular disease, a spinal-cord injury or carpal tunnel syndrome, will impact your ability to bike long distances.

During training

  • Begin training a minimum of six weeks before a 50-mile ride and at least two months ahead of a 100-mile ride.
  • Prepare for the cycling event slowly, starting, for example, with a 15-minute daily ride for a week before progressing to a 20-minute daily ride for two weeks, a 30-minute daily ride for three weeks and so forth, and gradually advance to 10 to 20 miles per day.

For practice and event rides

  • Bring a fully charged cellphone.
  • Wear a helmet.
  • Map out the daily route at a rate you can handle.
  • Never ride alone outdoors — and don’t bike solo in desolate areas.
  • Slow down or stop cycling if you start to experience pain or discomfort. Pushing yourself can lead to an accident.
  • Properly hydrate anywhere from 80 to 120 ounces of water daily, depending on your body size; as biking distances increase, drink more water and increase nutrition.
  • Pack water, sunscreen and nutrition bars with a high carbohydrate content.
  • If you’re diabetic, pack a portable blood-sugar monitor to stay abreast of your nutritional needs to prevent lightheadedness and dizziness.
  • Consume a diet of complex carbohydrates and proteins, including such healthy fats as avocados, nuts, olive oil and fish, and avoid trans fats and excessive dairy products.

Before and after every ride

  • Stretch biking muscles, such as the quadriceps, hip flexors and abdominals.
  • Avoid alcohol 24 hours before and after cycling.

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