For seven days, eight hours, and 12 minutes, Tom and Elisabeth Guevara were part of a team that pedaled across the United States as part of Team Donate Life, "Crystel's Gift." The team was participating in Race Across America -- a 3,000 mile race that attracts cyclists from around the world and takes them from Oceanside to Annapolis, Md.
Tom and Elisabeth are part of an 18 member team -- eight cyclists and 10 crew members -- that raises awareness and funds for organ donation. This year they had a goal of $100,000 and so far have raised $73,000. They dedicated this year's race in memory of Crystel Stanford, a cyclist who lost her life while participating in the California Classic last year. However, Crystel was a registered organ donor and her tissues and organs were able to save eight lives.
When Tom participated in Race Across America last year, Crystel's accident had occurred just a month before he left and he rode all the way across the United States with her picture on his back.
"We knew we wanted to honor her this year because it really affected the cycling community," Elisabeth said.
They met Crystel's family at a memorial service and at fundraising events and her family was there to start them off on the race, riding their Harley's alongside the cyclists at the beginning of the race in Oceanside.
Crystel's sister, Callie Stanford, even participated in the race as a crew member and helped with navigation, finding food for the team, doing laundry, pulling bikes, and driving. Callie said she couldn't even think of a word to describe her feelings about racing in her sister's honor.
"This was not only a physical roller coaster, but a mental one as well," Callie said. "Of course we all wanted to win the race, (but) that wasn't our goal. We were going to 'embrace the journey.' Not only did we see 12 different states and things that we would probably never see otherwise, but we got to share the (Crystel's) story. I wanted to educate people about the importance of registering to be an organ donor. The best way for me to do that was to share Crystel's story. Because of my sister's choice to register to be an organ donor, she saved eight lives and helped many others live a more fulfilling life."
While trying to cross the Mississippi River, the team got lost but the results of their wrong turn made a lasting impression on the team, especially Callie and Elisabeth. They were using their route maps and Google maps trying to find their way back on track and just happened to pass a place called "Crystal Point."
"We all asked Crystel to please get us back on track and keep us safe," Callie said. "We were instantly pointed in the right direction and never got turned around again. After we crossed the Mississippi, I cried and cried. I felt like I had just climbed Mount Everest -- or raced across the country. That was a huge moment in not only the race, but in my life. I notice from time to time I ask Crystel to keep our family safe, and she always does. I hope Crystel's story helps to inspire many. She gave a gift of life to many, and is continuing to be an inspiration."
Elisabeth said that during the race Callie would share stories about Crystel and it was a great motivator. It was Elisaebth's first year participating as a cyclist. She participated last year as a crew member but decided to participate as a cyclist this year. After nine months of serious training, Elisabeth said she was well prepared for the race and loved it.
"I have to thank Tom for that," Elisabeth said. "I was surprised at my abilities and I'm ready to do it again."
Elisabeth said most racers come back to compete again because it's "addicting."
"It's kind of a sick addiction," Elisabeth said, laughing. "It's a great feeling."
Tom said the hardest thing about the race isn't the race itself, it's the mental aspect of it.
"You keep asking yourself why you're out there torturing yourself and it's for a cause," Tom said. "The little suffering we do is nothing compared to those needing a transplant."
The team of eight would split in half for 10 hour shifts. Four cyclists would take turns cycling five miles at a time on flat roads and 1/4 to 1/2 mile pulls on hills, covering 175-200 miles in their 10 hour shift. Then the other four team members would begin taking turns on their 10 hour shift. In Kansas they were met with 35-50 m.p.h. head and side winds, causing the bicycles to lean as the cyclists carried on. Elisabeth said her first leg cycling in the wind was scary and she thought she was going to fall over. However for Tom, even though he said the winds were "terrible," he said it was a challenge "enjoyed."
Some of the obstacles -- deer, dogs, cows, and night critters. Some of the highlights of the trip -- seeing the sunrise over Monument Valley, cycling through Gettysburg, and seeing fireflies at night. Another highlight was meeting three Wounded Warrior teams.
"One had recovered from a heart transplant and to meet those people from around the world was moving and motivating," Elisabeth said.
Finally crossing the finish line at 11:30 p.m. June 23 was an overwhelming mixture of emotions and the end of a life changing event, according to Elisabeth, and something the Guevaras hope to do again. And to finish off the race with a splash, Tom and Elisabeth jumped into the bay at Annapolis at 3 a.m. -- completing their coast to coast race.
Details: www.crystelsgift.com/crystelsgift/Default.aspx or find Team Donate Life on Facebook. The team is still accepting donations for organ donation.