The ride of her life

Lauren Leffler boarded a plane March 27 and headed for San Francisco. But that would not be her final destination.

As soon as she received a package that held the pieces of her bicycle, the fourth year medical student at USF put it together and set off on a journey across America.

Leffler said her story isn’t the one worth hearing, however. It’s her message – the awareness for the financial struggles at Shriners Hospitals for Children – that she wants to bring to the public.

Shriners, which has 22 hospitals across the country, functions solely on donations – taking no money from the government, insurance companies or patients. This guarantees that all children, regardless of their economic status, receive care, Leffler said.

However, Leffler said the recent economic downturn has trimmed Shriners’ budget from $850 million in 2008 to $650 million in 2009. It has resulted in a 20 percent reduction in staff, she said.

Leffler, who has worked at the Tampa and Salt Lake City branches, said Shriners was the one place that was always “near and dear to my heart.”

So she’s decided to cycle 4,020 miles for the hospital in hopes of raising $40,200 – $10 for each mile. Currently, Leffler has received 63 donations totaling $2,864.60. Donations can be made through her blog on the Shriners’ Web site.

As for the journey, Leffler was in Surprise, Ariz., on Wednesday.

Her day begins at sunrise, weather permitting. Leffler bikes up to 120 miles per day. Sometimes there are 50 mph wind gusts, and some of the towns she passes through are just “hiccups,” with populations as small as 11 people. The biggest struggle, Leffler said, is biking up mountains.

“I should have done a lot more hill training,” she said. “I ran the Gasparilla Marathon, but ideally, I would have trained a lot more.”

Leffler said her family is supportive but concerned about her safety. Although a friend had cycled across America before, Leffler embarked on the journey alone.

“I have my biking clothes, clothes to sleep in at night, cliff bars, a camelback, my cell phone, maps, toiletries, a camera, my iPod, three spare tubes, a mini pump and my SPOT,” she said. She also carries pepper spray.

SPOT, a satellite GPS messenger, is Leffler’s connection to safety or assistance, something she said comes in handy while traveling through remote areas like Highway 50, which has gained the title of the “loneliest road in America.”

“Every morning, I turn it on and it sends an update to Google Maps,” she said. “It has a help button in case I don’t get to the next place by sundown.”

Leffler said she has made many friends on her journey, some who let her hitch a ride when the wind became too strong. Churches that she has encountered along her trail provide host families to give her food and shelter.

Leffler plans to end her trip in Ormond Beach on April 26, just in time for her graduation. After that, she’ll begin working at Shriners, specializing in pediatric orthopedics.

She said when thinking about her future, she cites a fortune cookie she opened along the trip: “The sky is the limit.”