Quite the ride

There are two things that John Clark, a 72-year-old in Gales Ferry, hates most in life.

"One is to be away from home, and the other is to fly," declared Clark last week.

But since 1999, Clark has been doing both activities in a big way. He has overlooked his discomfort and pushed himself to take on ambitious cross-country bicycle trips to raise money for the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Clark and his wife, Donna, watched his mother, Ruth Vivian Clark, as she began to struggle with the early signs of the disease. The symptoms built up so gradually that John and Donna didn't notice at first: Ruth, who lived in Groton, began having difficulty driving, buying and preparing healthy food, and paying bills even though she had sufficient funds.

So the Clarks routinely started cooking Ruth dinner and helping with her finances and not thinking much about it, until John's sister came to visit and almost immediately remarked that something was very wrong with their mother.

It's "very difficult to identify what's going on and happening" in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, said Clark.

Ruth Vivian Clark was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1993 and began living with Clark's sister in Maine. While his sister took on the challenging task of caring for Ruth, Clark realized he wanted to do something to help.

Already a cyclist, Clark was inspired by hearing others' stories of cross-country trips. His mother's disease gave him a reason to push through his discomfort and take on the challenge himself.

"I accepted it. And I dealt with it," said Clark of all the flying and time away from family that inevitably accompanies a long-distance bicycle ride.

His first trip was a 620-mile ride from Erie, Pa., to Portsmouth, N.H., a journey that raised $6,600 for the Alzheimer's Association.

The trip was so successful Clark decided he just couldn't quit.

"And I've been doing it ever since," he said.

Subsequent rides took Clark down the west coast, down the east coast, across the country twice, along the Mississippi river, and on a loop in Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. The trips morphed into what he calls the annual "Ride for Alzheimer's," a massive fundraiser. His wife began managing the administrative end of the effort, and the Clarks built a website, rideforalzheimers.com, to spread their message.

Then another disease came into the picture: cancer.

In 2011, Clark wasn't able to make his annual bike tour because he was recovering from prostate cancer surgery; the side effects made riding too difficult. The surgery - and his desire to take it easy in subsequent years - meant that he never got to take the ride around the Great Lakes that he'd been looking forward to.

But he returned to his bicycle in 2012, 2013 and 2014, taking shorter rides in southeastern Connecticut and inviting local cyclists to join him.

Now cancer-free, Clark has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for the Alzheimer's Association through "Ride For Alzheimer's" over the past 15 years. He has received donations from at least 18 states; meticulously recorded his training ride in red ink on his calendar; and collected enough handwritten notes from donors to fill a scrapbook with stationary and Post-It notes of every conceivable color and pattern.

This month, Clark made six local 67-kilometer rides in recognition of the fact that someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease every 67 seconds. He concluded his last ride - a morning trip through Norwich - on Saturday.

It was his last as the leader of "Ride for Alzheimer's."

"My body is slowing down," said Clark. "My heart wants to continue. My body is in disagreement with my heart."

He hopes someone will take over and continue the RFA legacy, even if they decide to make changes or make the effort larger or smaller. And Clark wants to remain involved in a mentoring role to help the new cyclists through the challenges he faced when he first started.

After Clark's ride on Saturday, the Alzheimer's Association held a "celebration of John and Donna's commitment to those who are facing the challenge of Alzheimer's Disease" and took applications from people interested in taking on a leadership role.

K.CATALFAMO@THEDAY.COM

TWITTER: @KCCATALFAMO

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