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Across the country in 20 days: Princeton student bikes cross-country for St Jude’s

<h6>Courtesy of Matthew Marquardt ’21</h6>
Courtesy of Matthew Marquardt ’21

In the last 25 miles of 141 that day, Matthew Marquardt ’21 looked up from pedaling to find himself completely alone on the open road ahead. With golden hour fast approaching, the January sun was beginning to set near Animas, New Mexico, signaling the end of his fifth biking day.

Hearing only the sound of the wheels spinning below him, he admired the mountains lining each side of the open landscape, while attempting to maintain his average speed of 20.2 miles per hour. After all, thousands of miles remained if he was to meet his goal of biking across the US in 23 days.

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While most Princeton students spent this winter break recovering from the taxing fall semester, Marquardt planned and executed a bike ride to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Little did he know, he would exceed even his own wildest expectations, biking 2,479 miles in 20 days with only one full rest day. Despite just three weeks of preparation, he completed more mileage in less time than the 2020 Tour de France. This serene moment in Animas was among his favorite memories from the three-week excursion.

“In all honesty, I wasn’t sure I would finish when I started. I wouldn’t say I trained specifically for this,” admitted Marquardt, a swimmer on the men’s varsity team. “I didn’t even plan my route more than a day in advance.” Despite the spontaneity, Marquardt finished three days ahead of schedule.

Marquardt began his ride from Torrey Pines State Beach, Calif., on Dec. 30. Hugging the U.S. border, he rode to Texas and then straight across the state, followed by a ride along the coastline and through the middle of Florida’s panhandle to Jacksonville Beach.

His ambitious idea to bike cross-country first began when the University announced that no students would be invited back to campus for the fall semester.

“It became clear we would not have a swim team because a third to half of our team was taking a gap year, and you need year-round training for swimming,” he said. In November, the Ivy League announced they would not conduct intercollegiate athletics competition in winter sports during the 2020-21 season, formally canceling the season.

For a graduating student-athlete, these announcements could have been devastating. Instead, Marquardt was inspired to take advantage of a winter break suddenly free of athletic responsibilities.

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“I viewed it as an opportunity to do something I’ve never done in my life,” he said. “COVID has created a new world — you can sit on your butt and think about all the things it’s preventing you from doing, or you can think about what doors have been opened.”

Those who know Marquardt weren’t surprised by his optimism and ambitious plans.

“When it was clear we weren’t going to have a season this year, no one expected Matthew to get lazy and out of shape,” said Matt Crispino, Marquardt’s coach. “We knew he immediately would turn his attention to what’s next.”

Though he had biked a lot in high school, often racing in triathlons, Marquardt set the hobby aside to focus on swimming during college. The COVID-19 pandemic allowed him to re-discover his old pastime.

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One day, after completing 100 miles in five hours on a stationary bike, he realized he could push his body to greater limits, possibly on a trip across the country. With the support of his father, Marquardt began to realize the logistical feasibility of the trip and committed to completing it.

While moments like those on the open roads of New Mexico still stick with Marquardt, the trip wasn’t always smooth sailing. It began with seven flat tires in the first six days.

“Once Google Maps took me down an unpaved gravel road for 10 miles,” he said. “A road bike is not designed to go on that.”

Most of the route also took Marquardt through desert areas, where he was plagued by sudden and massive temperature fluctuations. One snowstorm in Texas encouraged Marquardt to finally take his rest day. The next day, with four inches of snow on the ground, he faced “some of the most miserable and hardest miles of the entire trip.”

“My feet were completely soaking wet and it was 34 degrees outside. I had a headwind and there was no sun,” he said. “It was a very gloomy and difficult day to keep my spirits up.”

Despite the low points, Marquardt never gave up — a perseverance that inspired those following his journey from afar.

“[The flat tires] alone would have made me and a lot of people quit in the first few days, or think this isn’t going to work, but to stick through that especially early on and see it through was really impressive,” said Marquardt’s teammate, senior swimmer Arthur Markley.

Crispino added that watching Marquardt’s journey “gave [his teammates] perspective about their life.”

“His teammates can see ‘If he can do that, I can go to practice without complaining. I can swim the longer events in our sport’,” he said.

Pushing through strong headwinds and poor road conditions, Marquardt realized it’s important to “appreciate what you have rather than thinking about what you don’t, as things will improve eventually.”

Despite the athletic and mental rigor of Marquardt’s journey, his actual motivation for the trip was something else entirely: raising $23,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. The sum represented $1,000 for each day he anticipated spending on the bike.

“I chose St. Jude's because they treat some of the toughest pediatric cancers and diseases at zero cost to families, and because I have friends and family members currently battling cancer,” Marquardt said. The cause is also related to his post-graduation plans and career interests.

“As a future doctor who wants to minimize health care disparities due to household income, it's important to me that nobody — especially no child — is denied cancer treatment based on their ability to pay,” he added.

With the help of family and friends, Marquardt’s fundraising outreach flourished on social media. Markley took on the responsibility of running the fundraiser’s Facebook page, while another teammate, senior swimmer Sam Tarter, ran the Instagram page, posting daily statistics and updates for those following Marquardt’s journey.

Together, their efforts have raised $13,485 so far for St. Jude’s. The fundraiser remains open indefinitely as Marquardt continues to strive toward his goal of $23,000.

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