LUMBERTON — Maria Parker has combined two loves — that of her older sister and traveling long distances on a bicycle — into an effort to raise$1 million for brain cancer research.
The 50-year-old Lumberton resident, having learned in October that her sister, Jenny Mulligan, has terminal cancer, decided not to sit idly, but to mobilize, establishing a charity called 3,000 Miles to a Cure, an effort that will include a cross-country trip next month on a recumbent bicycle.
When Parker first learned of her sister’s illness, she was preparing for a 24-hour bike ride in Robeson County.
“I told [my husband] Jim, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” Parker said.
After spending several days with Mulligan in Charlotte, Parker determined that she had “to do something” instead of worrying, and went through with the 24-hour ride.
“The whole time, I was thinking about Jenny,” Parker said. “I thought about grinding up the cancer cells.”
Parker covered 469 miles in 24 hours, breaking the previous Ultra Marathon Cycling Association world record of 442 miles. Afterward, she took aim at brain cancer, establishing 3,000 Miles to a Cure and a goal to raise $1 million, and becoming active with Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, a nonprofit.
“I really think that God has put me here to do something about brain cancer,” Parker said. “It steals your brain. It steals who you are.”
Parker has raised $40,000 — and hopes to reach her $1 million goal when she rides in Race Across America, which starts June 10 in Oceanside, Calif., and ends in Annapolis, Md. Parker expects to make the trip in 10 days, fueled by an average of three hours of sleep per day and a desire to help her big sister.
Parker originally believed the cost associated with the race — an estimated $25,000 — and the physical demands were too much, but decided “it’s the best chance to raise $1 million.”
Parker said she will have a crew who will provide daily updates of her progress at www.3000milestoacure.com and in The Robesonian, and that every update will include a call for donations, which can be made by visiting the website or its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/3ktoacure?fref=ts. A $10 donation can be made by texting “race” to 20222.
Mulligan is proud of her younger sister.
“She’s so generous in her love and care for others,” Mulligan said during a phone interview, adding that the biggest challenge cancer gives her is dealing with fatigue, but that she finds comfort in her faith.
“I honor God and how great he is,” she said.
Parker said her sister’s illness has given them an opportunity, and she has advice for others affected by the disease.
“Embrace the gifts of cancer,” she said. “Reach out to your loved ones and tell them that you love them.”
Parker said she was a “couch potato” as a child, remembering that an elementary school teacher once called her a “jelly bean.” She started running as a stay-at-home mom so she could have “something that was mine.” Soon, she started participating in triathalons.
When she and her husband moved their family to Lumberton in the mid-1990s, she established what is now the Rumba on the Lumber, a spring festival that includes a competitive 5K race.
Parker was introduced to the recumbent bike by her husband, a Lumbertion radiologist.
“My husband thought regular bikes were uncomfortable, so he did a lot of research and bought one,” Parker said.
She was unimpressed with her husband’s choice until she started noticing annoyances with regular biking.
“I started experiencing discomfort,” she said. “My hands went numb, my shoulders hurt, my butt went numb.”
A recumbent bike allows the rider to peddle from a reclined position.
Parker rode her husband’s bike, and compares it to “riding a magic carpet.”
“The wind’s in your hair … and it’s transporting you away,” she said. “You get to see parts of the world you don’t see in a car.”
In 2007, Parker and her husband partnered with John Tolhurst, a recumbent bike maker in Perth, Australia, and started selling recumbent bikes at www.cruzbike.com. Tolhurst designs the bikes and oversees their production in Taiwan, while the Parkers oversee customer service and shipping, she said.
Parker said she started setting records as a marketing tool, to demonstrate how fast recumbent bikes are. In addition to the 24-hour women’s distance record, Parker holds five course records and eight Ultra Marathon Cycling Association world records, including the 12-hour women’s distance and 200-mile records.
The Parkers’ children have also gotten involved in recumbent biking. Parker said one of her daughters helps market the Cruzbikes, while her son Will, 18, set a junior record in 2011 for the fastest 100-mile ride by a person under age 17, clocking in at 4 hours, 54 minutes.
Despite all the records, Parker still calls herself a recreational athlete.
“I do it for fun,” she said. “It’s an incredible joy to ride a bike.”