Pushing past the pain; Three friends take cross-country bike trip to raise money and awareness about arthritis

Thursday, July 12, 2012
Joey Michels (center) stands with his friends Nate Martin (left) and Matt Frintner (right) and their bikes outside of the Lyons Twin Mansions on Tuesday afternoon. In Fort Scott for a couple of days, the trio, from Fond du Lac, Wis., are peddling from Oceanside, Calif., to Portland, Maine, to raise awareness and funds for the Arthritis Foundation.(Angelique McNaughton/Tribune)

Eighteen years ago, Joey Michels was diagnosed with systemic idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis, ending any hopes for a pain-free future for the then 3-year-old Wisconsin native.

Michels, now 21, says it's time to "push past the pain and live with it."

He and two of his friends -- 22-year-old Matt Frintner and 23-year-old Nate Martin -- rode about 40 miles from Iola to Fort Scott on Monday evening as part of a 3,000-mile cross-country journey to raise awareness and donations for the Arthritis Foundation.

The trio left the Oceanside, Calif., on June 2 and plan to reach Portland, Maine, sometime around Sept. 1.

Michels initiated the mission because of his personal connection to the cause. Battling high fevers and experiencing multiple levels of joint pain and immobility as a child, doctors warned Michels against intense physical activity, especially his favorite sport -- soccer.

Eventually, the optimism in him took over and he decided to meet the disease head-on.

"If you look at it like every day my joints hurt, then all you think about is the pain," Michels said. "But if you realize that yeah, my ankles and my knees are going to hurt if I overdo something, I'm going to hurt, but I push past the pain and have fun, enjoy life and do things like biking across the country."

Before taking this trip, none of the young men had done much cycling, except around their hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis. Averaging about 50 miles a day with around 30 pounds of gear, the group has encountered such spots as the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Ariz., Durango, Colo., and various towns sprinkled throughout Kansas.

'Strangers to friends'

Up until they got to the Sunflower State, the group had only spent one cycling free day -- at the Grand Canyon.

"We thought, Kansas, (it's) going to be nothing," Martin said. "One day in, one day out."

"Thank God we didn't," he added.

Almost two weeks later and having taken multiple days off, the trio arrived in Fort Scott on Tuesday evening. They spent numerous nights in small western Kansas towns and four days in Wichita for the Fourth of July.

After iced tea at Life+Style on Monday, they stumbled upon the Lyons Twin Mansions where Pat Lyons offered the men complimentary boarding for two nights.

On the group's travel blog Michels wrote, "we would like to throw out a huge thanks to the city of Fort Scott, Kansas! We couldn't have asked for more when rolling into a city! We are blessed with the sense of community here and the good-hearted people we met everywhere. We will tell everyone we know that there is much more to Kansas than you think, and one of those much mores turns out to be Fort Scott!"

Traveling east en route to their final destination, the three friends say they've met "insanely kind people along the way," staying in free motel rooms or church basements, all the while receiving monetary donations from the strangers they've encountered.

One woman, whom they referred to as Pat and considered the "legend of the route" in Eureka, put the group up in her home, along with four other cyclists.

They ultimately hope to raise $20,000 from their trip and are soliciting donations through their blog site, raincyclists.blogspot.com. The site includes a link to their donations page through the Joints in Motion Training Team with the Arthritis Foundation.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the group had raised $2,907.58 toward their final goal.

'Going forward'

Donning matching neon green Arthritis Foundation shirts and black shorts, the men left Fort Scott early Wednesday morning and headed toward St. Louis for the Juvenile Arthritis Conference to volunteer while Michels plans to speak.

The trip has been riddled with ups and downs, the three admit. Breathtaking scenery and wildlife encounters with deer and bears couldn't overshadow Martin and Frintner's brush with death in a California river whirlpool or the three $52.50 "No Swimming" tickets the men were issued in Brighton, Colo.

"The worst experience of the trip," Martin said.

A stolen laptop, sore legs and heavy feet haven't stopped or dampened their spirits about helping others suffering from auto-immune diseases.

"You can't be afraid; just go for it," Martin said.

At least one in five adults nationwide suffers from arthritis. In 2009, almost 500,000 adults in Kansas were living with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. An estimated 1.7 million people had rheumatoid arthritis in 2007.

Because of his childhood experiences, Michels decided he "might as well help" so others can continue to benefit from the foundation.

"Kids get arthritis, too," he said.