On June 21, the Sunday of what would have been the 2020 Tri-State Trek weekend, things were very different on John Street.

For one thing, it was a lot quieter. Any other year, on that particular day, the air would have been filled with ringing cowbells and shouts of encouragement. “Let’s go” and “You got this.” The street would have been filled with cyclists, most of them wiped out from 270 miles of hard riding over the past three days, grinding out the last bits of distance and elevation towards the finish line – all with the shared goal of ending ALS.

Still, John Street wasn’t silent. A handful of people came to mark the event, in an unofficial, socially distanced fashion. Glynis Murray, known to many over the years for her enthusiastic cheering and her trademark dinosaur costume, made the trip all the way from California by van to mark the occasion. A few staff from the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) also travelled down from Massachusetts to walk the end of the route, passing many of the miles that had been virtually “dedicated” in remembrance of those who have passed on from ALS.

Although there were only a few people physically present, there were many more there in spirit. All over the country, across 39 states, people were finishing their own versions of the ride. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused the cancellation of the Tri-State Trek, a virtual edition of the ride kept the Trek community together in the face of trying times, and raised over $400,000 – and counting – for ALS TDI’s mission to find effective treatments for ALS. It was called the My-State Trek.

Canceling the Live Tri-State Trek

The decision to cancel the Trek in its original form was wasn’t easy, but in March, as it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping across the country – and with the knowledge that many people in the ALS community are more vulnerable to the virus – it was soon apparent that it was the only option.

“I would never feel comfortable throwing an event where we could have to say to some of the people that we serve, ‘you can't come,’” says Carol Hamilton, ALS TDI’s Senior Director of Development. “We made that decision fairly quickly. Everybody was on board. We mourned it, certainly, but we pivoted fast."

As soon as the announcement was made, the events, development, and marketing staff at ALS TDI got to work at reimagining the Trek experience for the new realities of social distancing. The chief concerns were how to replicate the spirit of the event – both the fun of gathering people to participate in a physical challenge and the sense of community in honoring and remembering the people we ride for who are living with and have passed on from ALS.

Pivoting to the Virtual My-State Trek

The team arrived on a solution that would allow people the flexibility to participate in their own way. Participants could choose to recreate the 270-mile ride by covering the same mileage in their hometowns over the same weekend, to spread out the mileage over several weeks, or even to participate in their own custom event – running, walking, or choosing any other challenge while raising money to support our critical ALS research.

Fortunately, the digital tools were available to allow people to participate together while physically apart. A group was formed for riders on Strava, a social networking app that let participants share their individual rides and track their mileage, as well as give each other “kudos.” Riders were even able to ride “together” form their homes.

“We had two days of virtual ‘Trek Together’ where folks tuned in on Zoom and I was riding on Zwift with a pack of riders,” says Brittany Schwartz, a longtime Trek ride marshal who became a virtual ride leader. “It's kind of like a video game where you're riding your own bike on stationary platforms like an indoor trainer. You can watch yourself on the screen and you move in real time with others in this virtual world.”

The virtual community wasn’t limited to riding together, however. People were also able to gather on Zoom to share stories and acknowledge the people we rode for – a silver lining of the online experience, according to Brittany.

“There were two town hall sessions and one open mic session on Zoom,” she says, “and it was nice to get to actually see folks, people's faces really close up talking instead of in a really big crowd. It felt you were making eye contact with the person who was sharing their story, which is really powerful.”

Keeping the Focus on Fundraising to End ALS

Beyond the physical challenge and inspirational community aspects of the Trek, there was one other important feature that needed to be reshaped for the virtual edition: the fundraising component. The Trek is ALS TDI’s biggest fundraising event, and this year, the revenue it generates became even more crucial as hundreds of other in-person fundraisers throughout the rest of the year were cancelled almost overnight.

However, even with a smaller ridership and big fundraising challenges, the participants in this year’s ride were able to raise more than $400,000. This was thanks to the efforts of many individuals and teams like Crush ALS/Team Bannon, decade-plus veterans of the Trek who raised more than $160,000 and counting for the event.

“Communication,” says Bob Higgins, who was riding his sixth Trek with the team this year, when asked about the secret to keeping donors engaged this year. “Every day when I’d conclude my ride, I’d sit down and write a long summary of the day and throw in a few anecdotes. I want [my donors] to feel like they went with me. I told them that fundraising was difficult this year and that if they were in a position to do so, I needed them to dig a little deeper. And many of them did.”

Fellow team member – and brother of team namesake Chuck Bannon, who passed away from ALS in 2009 – Breen Bannon agrees. He adds that the images of the team out riding were crucial to giving donors a sense that they were part of something important.

“We're fortunate that we've been doing this long enough that we've, regular donors,” he says “But to communicate with them and to send them photos of us and action, I think the photos really mean something to them. It’s us they see, not other people from stock photographs, in action. They know it's near and dear to us.”

One image from the team, in particular, was inspiring for everyone who saw or heard about it. On the same Sunday of the weekend that would have been the in-person trek, 865 miles from Greenwich, Connecticut, Bob recreated the end of the ride on his home turf outside of Chicago.

Knowing of a similarly challenging hill in the nearby town of Algonquin, Illinois, Bob created a replica of John street. He called the local police, who arranged to block off traffic, and enlisted his daughter to film him out of the sun roof of his car while his wife drove.

“It took me about two and a half minutes to climb it,” he says, “so it's nothing really like John Street, but it's the toughest hill around here. And as I did it and some of my neighbors and my sister and my niece and her children showed up. And they were standing on the sidelines ringing cowbells, much to my surprise. It was very moving.”

It certainly wasn’t the same as having everyone together, cheering the end of the race on John street, but, in its own way it was very special – proof that even a global pandemic can’t stop the spirit of the Tri-State Trek, a reminder of what we’re all missing, and, what we can’t wait to experience in person next year.

There’s still time to donate to the My-State Trek if you’d like to support the riders and ALS TDI’s mission to find more effective treatments for ALS. To donate in honor of the My-State Trek, click here.