BERLIN - Two local University of Connecticut grad students have active lifestyles. They go to the gym or take hikes. But they have never taken on a big athletic challenge - until now.
Zach Giaccone, of Berlin, and Taylor LaRese, of Southington, are midway through a 3,500-mile, two-month bike ride from Seattle to Connecticut.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” said Giaccone, 25, who recalled riding his bike as kid to the local pools. He also has done a little bike commuting in addition to regularly going to the gym.
“The furthest I’ve been is Florida,” said LaRese, 29, who said she did CrossFit throughout college
The two are graduate students in the UConn medical school program and are expected to graduate in 2021.
They are among eight dental and medical school students participating in the cross-country trek looking to raise $20,000. Giaccone is in the dental program. LaRese is in the med school program and is leaning toward a career in emergency services.
It’s the 13th year of a UConn tradition of biking coast to coast for a cause, with this year’s recipients being Mental Health Connecticut, they said.
“These students are amazing. They are committed to making mental health a priority in their profession because they see stress, anxiety, and depression common among their fellow students,” said Suzi Craig, senior director of strategic partnerships and policy at Mental Health Connecticut. “They also understand that it doesn’t matter what medical specialty they practice - being a health care provider means being alert to a person’s whole health and wellbeing.”
The funds the students raise will go toward peer support, Mental Health First Aid, gardening, art, writing and more prevention and wellness programs, Craig said.
“It really, really spoke to me,” said LaRese, of choosing MHC.
The group of riders considered supporting an education non-profit and something for the opioid epidemic, but one of the other riders had a connection to MHC and knew of its mission, she added.
Although not explicitly stated by anyone in the group, an undertone of mental health being a big issue in the country these days may have added to MHC’s selection, LaRese added.
“It hits close to home” Giaccone said.
The group has raised almost $14,000 so far, mostly coming from an auction fundraiser in which students bid on professors for activities like fishing or dinner at a restaurant.
MHC is having their own fundraiser, called the #Be1of110 fundraiser for MHC’s 110th anniversary by seeking 110 groups and individuals to raise $1,000 or more by sharing their answer to the question #WhatMovesYou?
With the task at hand, and their route lined up, the cycling group went to Seattle in three different groupings, with Giaccone going on June 5 in the first pack and LeRese going on June 12 in the last group.
The groups plan to ride about 70 miles a day, progressing from town to town along the Northern Tier bike route, going through North Dakota, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls before returning to the Nutmeg State.
They “may take a day off” here and there, Giaccone said.
Some parts they travel through will be big cities, while other may be small towns with only 80 people in them, added Giaccone. One of the biggest challenges will be making repairs to their bike, since they could be miles away from civilization at certain points.
The group is bringing everything they need to support themselves, Giaccone said, as he planned to bring two saddlebags worth of gear on his bike. That included multiple water bottles, clothes and more.
While also using the website warmshowers.com - a hospitality exchange site, to help find locals willing to provide sleeping accommodations, the group is bringing their tents, sleeping bags and personal Bunsen burners should they need to camp along the way.
“Everyone seems very excited,” said Giaccone of the group that includes an IronMan participants and regular exercisers. “Everyone brings a little different experience.”
“People have been so generous,” said LaRese of their fundraising efforts so far.
The groups’ efforts can be followed via the website uconnc2c.blogspot.com and on Instagram at instagram.com/coasttocoast2018/.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.