111 miles for D.J.

  • Published
  • By Sarah Olaciregui
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
Army Maj. Dennis Ratliff, a father of five, was never a serious cyclist. He rode a mountain bike from time to time just for fun, but the thought of riding 111 miles never crossed his mind. That was until his family's life took a sudden turn.

Major Ratliff', who works as an active guard/Reserve operations officer in the 399th Combat Support Hospital at Devens Reserve Force Training Area, Mass., and lives here at Hanscom, learned in February of 2006 that his son, D.J., was sick. He had Neuroblastoma, a common cancer for infants and children that forms in the nerve tissue.

While at the hospital one cold January day, the major's niece stopped by for a visit. D.J. had recently been named as a Pedal Partner of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) where he would motivate and inspire more than 5,000 cyclists to ride up to 190 miles across Massachusetts to raise money for adult and pediatric cancer care and research. Pedal Partner is a special designation that helps a young patient and his family connect to a group of people committed to raising money and supporting the child through the cancer fight.

"My niece is an avid cyclist," Major Ratliff said. "I told her if she signed up, I would too. D.J. was all for it. He thought it was cool."

His niece was not able to participate in the challenge, but Major Ratliff decided to ride anyway. He began training with Jon Kelley, the father of another cancer patient, who decided to join him after Major Ratliff told him about the PMC. During the winter months they trained on a stationary bike and started cycling outside in April. They trained for two to three days a week, two to three hours at a time.

In May, D.J. lost his battle with cancer at the age of 10; however, Major Ratliff decided he would ride in his son's memory.

"D.J. wasn't cheering us on like we thought he would," said Major Ratliff, "but I think he heard us and hopefully knows we're riding for him."

On Aug. 7, Major Ratliff chose to ride the route from Sturbridge to Bourne, Mass., for a total of 111 miles. Spectators of the PMC were able to pick out Major Ratliff and his riding partner by their unique helmets.

"We were the ones with Legos on our helmets," he said. "D.J. loved Legos so Jon thought it would be a good way to remember him during the ride."

Despite all his hard work and training, Major Ratliff faced many obstacles during the race. At mile seven he blew a tire. While jumping off the bike at mile 18 he dislocated a finger. He got lost at mile 21 and had to circle back around, adding on a couple of additional miles. At mile 43, he began cramping and had to be transported by bus to the next water station. In all, the major rode 84 miles, far more than he had ever dreamed he would just several months ago.

Throughout the weekend more than 5,000 cyclists from 36 states and eight countries rode across the state in the 31st annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge. Their goal was to raise $31 million for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund. Cyclists chose among 10 routes that ranged from 47 to 190 miles.

"Jon vowed to ride 50 feet further than I did" said Major Ratliff. "He actually ended up riding 27 miles more than me."

Each of the cyclists committed to raise between $500 and $4,200 to be a member of the PMC team. Ninety percent of all participants, however, exceeded the minimum contribution and one-third raise more than twice the amount required, according to a PMC news release.

"Our ride was a tribute to D.J.," said Major Ratliff. "I've been blessed. I'm really happy to be doing this so maybe one day another family won't have to experience the same ordeal we did."

For further information about the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, visit www.pmc.org.