Texas 4000: Cycling Away Cancer
Chris Condit Started a Nonprofit That Cultivates Other Student Leaders and Raises Money for Cancer Research
Written by Liz Harroun
Interviewed by Dan Dillard
Headshot by Leslie Hodge
Photography by Texas 4000
The Texas 4000 has an ambitious mission: "to cultivate student leaders and engage communities in the fight against cancer." How does the organization approach such a bold and important initiative? Through bike riding—and a lot of it.
Texas 4000’s cornerstone event is a bike ride from Austin to Anchorage—covering more than 4,000 miles—in what is the longest annual charity ride in the world. Most of the participants are students from the University of Texas at Austin. Each participant signs up for the ride 18 months ahead of time, agreeing to raise at least $1 per mile, though many riders raise as much as $10,000. While the students raise money, volunteer in the community and train for the long ride ahead, they must also maintain their studies.
For Chris Condit, the founder of Texas 4000, the ride is personal. He was diagnosed with cancer at age 11. To treat his rare form of Hodgkin Lymphoma, he went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation over the span of a year. Though his condition improved and he was released from treatment, it was a frightening experience that left him thinking about what happened to other children who were not improving.
Condit disliked being labeled as a cancer patient at such a young age and avoided talking about it. Instead, he found solace in the outdoors, becoming a Boy Scout and embracing canoeing and backpacking. Cycling, especially long-distance cycling, was not on Condit’s radar until he went to college.
Near the end of his studies at UT, Condit learned of a group of students from John Hopkins University that had organized a coast-to-coast charity bike ride to raise money for cancer, and the seed for Texas 4000 was planted. Condit realized he hadn’t done anything to support other cancer survivors, and so he decided to find a way to make a difference.
Inspired by the Hopkins group’s long-distance ride, Condit wanted to plan an equally as epic ride beginning in Austin. When he pulled out a Road Atlas to find the most outrageous destination that could logistically be ridden to from Austin, Alaska immediately caught his eye. Though the ride he envisioned wasn’t going to be the first long ride to raise money for cancer, it was going to be the longest and the most ambitious. That the ride would connect the two largest states in the United States was no coincidence.
Without hesitation, Condit started Texas 4000 and recruited fellow UT students to join in the first ride. Over the past 15 years, 700 riders have completed the fundraising and ride from Austin to Anchorage. Not only do these riders push themselves physically, they learn valuable nonprofit leadership skills that prepare them to fight for whatever they believe in. They have to secure donations, sponsorship, logistical help, places to stay, speaking venues, and ways to impact the communities they ride through.
To date, the nonprofit has raised $8 million for recipients including the American Cancer Society, MD Anderson, UT Biomedical Engineering, and Dell Medical. Funding for programs range from seed funding for professors doing early stage research to donations over $1 million to fund large-scale projects. "The riders are really the lifeblood, heart, and soul of the organization," Condit says. "We have a wonderful staff of full-time folks including several alumni past riders, but we intentionally leave a lot of the planning, preparation, and logistics to the riders who are students."
Through the roadblocks and rejection, the students who participate come out as leaders in thought and action—ready to fight for what they believe in. Riders get to meet and hear the stories of patients and doctors, and they are often inspired to do more long after the ride is completed. Many go on to start their own nonprofit endeavors or work in healthcare.
"Having that extremely emotional real connection," Condit says, "makes these people better doctors, better nurses, better business people."
When asked how he succeeded in a city already full of many successful organizations and initiatives, Condit emphasizes the importance of partnerships with grassroots organizations. Along with Mandy, the woman who would later become his wife, Condit began to spread flyers around the UT campus to get out the word of a long distance ride from Austin to Alaska to raise funds for cancer. As the applications came in, the couple realized that some of the applicants had more academic and overall life experience than they had anticipated. Those applicants—mostly engineering graduate students—became the core leadership team for Texas 4000. That core group of student participants helped plan and organize the inaugural ride from Austin to Anchorage.
Setting up the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was relatively straightforward, thanks to the support of a family friend, but fundraising and preparing for the first ride on a compressed timeline proved a bigger challenge.
"The fundraising aspect was very stressful, and I definitely had a lot of sleepless nights," says Condit. "We had this discussion amongst ourselves that if we don't get to XYZ dollars raised it would be unethical for us to continue this ride. That pressure gave me unbelievable heartburn."
In hindsight, Condit believes that the stress, which seemed overwhelming at the time, was what ultimately pushed the group to raise over $100,000 in the first year. In hindsight, he admits that he placed too much pressure on himself. The first ride was just a starting point—something to build on in years to come. Ultimately, by the end of the ride, he realized that the planning and stress that went into the fundraising, community building, and ride itself were not something he could continue to handle in his spare time.
Understanding his limitations, Condit started looking for someone who had the business skills he lacked. He recruited Jimmy Schatte, who became the first chairman of the board of directors. Schatte, in turn, recruited an advisory board and helped to secure sponsored seed funding, enabling Condit and Texas 4000 to get the first board of directors in place and allowing Condit to leave his job at a medical device startup to serve as executive director.
Condit acknowledges the importance of realizing the need for more support, especially in the areas of institutional knowledge and organizational structure. Fifteen years later, as he continues to serve as founder and former executive director, Condit reminds himself to surrender the responsibilities for the overall organization and execution of Texas 4000 to his experienced and capable, professional staff members.
Another challenge Condit and the organization faced was avoiding donor and volunteer fatigue. Donors continued to show support, perhaps because cancer research is such a clear and worthwhile cause, but Condit had to find ways to keep them fully engaged and involved. The organization implemented a structure that allows the board members to serve for a three-year term, enabling them to have time to contribute and really get involved without staying on forever.
Each year brings a new crop of student participants, and each of these riders brings on their individual crew of donors and supporters. As the rides are led by and organized by the student riders, the participants can choose which communities they stop at along the way. Using data that points to areas where cancer is most prevalent, they often choose stops where their visit will have the most relevance and impact.
Not only does having completely new riders each year bring in additional support and help to alleviate donor fatigue, it also ensures that the riders are enthusiastic about the entire experience. The organization caps the peer-led ride at 25 riders to ensure quality and safety. The restrictions to size are also aimed at avoiding overwhelming some of the small communities that riders visit along the journey.
An additional challenge is that a restricted maximum number of riders imposes an upper limit to the amount of money that can be raised. To break this ceiling, Texas 4000 brings in outside revenue from community fundraising events including an annual gala.
Clearly, Texas 4000 is a lot more than students just logging miles on their bikes. Through leadership training and fundraising, the organization has changed the lives of many students and has provided much-needed funds to aid people affected by cancer. For Condit, an idea that began with being the change he wanted to see in the world led to organizing the longest bike-ride fundraiser in the world and to helping inspire hundreds of young leaders to also become the change they wanted to see—and that is where real and lasting change begins.