Coast to Coast: Alumna Cycles Across Country for MS

For almost two months, Melissa Rutkowski ’12 will cover 3,070 miles through eight states from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.

About two weeks and more than 800 miles into her cross country journey, Rutkowski stops for a break in Las Cruces, N.M. She still has a long way to go, but the Ursinus College alumna doesn’t sound the least bit road weary.

“Those last 20 miles every single day are tough,” Rutkowski says. “It takes a toll on the body. But everyone is in it together and we all encourage each other, so I haven’t had any issues so far.”

Rutkowski is taking on this challenge for Bike the U.S. for MS, an organization that raises funds for multiple sclerosis research and treatment through cross country cycling trips. Her ride began on Sept. 7 in San Diego and will conclude in St. Augustine, Fla., on Oct. 29. The “southern tier” route is one of eight sponsored by the organization, and she is riding with 14 other cyclists, four route leaders, and other segment cyclists who join them for portions of the route.

“I wanted to go on an adventure, as opposed to a typical vacation,” Rutkowski says. “At Ursinus, I was involved in the Bonner program and many other volunteer programs, so I wanted to combine two things I love to do: outdoor adventures and helping nonprofits.”

“We have an eclectic group of all different ages and backgrounds, but we’ve come together for a common goal. A lot of them have family members with MS and that’s what led them here. Once I started putting out the word that I was doing this, I learned of friends with family members who have MS. Usually, people don’t want to share that kind of information, but it became a gateway to talk to them about their personal experiences with MS,” she says.

Along the way, Rutkowski’s team will make stops in towns across the country to volunteer for MS patients. Projects include home accessibility improvements, yard makeovers, cleaning, painting, and other efforts that assist those living with MS.

“Participating in the Bonner program at Ursinus helped prepare me for this and I was part of the Meals on Wheels program where we would package food from Wismer and bring it to food pantries,” she says. “It put me in the mentality of giving back.”

The group travels an average of 70 miles per day. There are water stops throughout the day every 20 miles, and they stay in RV parks or national parks, where they camp for the night. On “zero days,” or no mileage days, the cyclists participate in the service projects. 

“I think that’s what makes this whole experience even better,” Rutkowski says. “Meeting people and forming these relationships is a key part of this kind of adventure. I came into this and didn’t know anybody, but everyone is really nice and to volunteer with them and meet the people we are helping to raise funds for takes it to another level.”

Originally from Lancaster, Pa., Rutkowski is an internal auditor at J.P. Morgan who lives and works in New York City. She says she is an avid runner and wants to run a marathon in every state, but has never taken on a challenge quite like the cross-country cycling trip. She bought a bicycle specifically for this journey.

She says it’s recommended that participants have 500 miles on their bike and train at least two 60-mile days in a row. To train for the journey, Rutkowski cycled the East River path in New York City and over the George Washington Bridge.

“I’m going to be very excited to accomplish such a goal, but it will be bittersweet,” she says. “I’ve already enjoyed my experience so much that I can see doing it again. I don’t want it to end.” –by Ed Moorhouse