Many of Dr. Timothy Pawlik's paternal relatives died before age 65.
The likely culprit was cancer – more accurately, a genetic mutation that left them with a high risk of developing certain cancers.
Pawlik said he doesn't have the gene, but its specter has made him dedicate his career to waging a war against cancer and improving care for those diagnosed with the disease.
That's why he rides in the annual Pelotonia charity bicycle tour.
"This isn't professional; this is personal," Pawlik said.
Last summer, Pawlik moved from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to become chairman of the department of surgery at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a professor at Ohio State.
The 47-year-old Worthington resident said his move to central Ohio was motivated by Pelotonia.
Many research facilities want to do great things, said Pawlik, who grew up in a suburb outside Boston.
"There's not as many places that have the resources to do those great things," he said.
In the process of looking at career opportunities across the country, he said, he found great ideas, people and resources at Ohio State's James Cancer Hospital.
"Pelotonia is a big part of that," he said.
Pelotonia, founded in 2008, has raised more than $135 million since its first ride in 2009. This year, more than 7,500 riders and well over 250 pelotons – a term used for Pelotonia's fundraising teams that generally is defined as the primary group of cyclists in a race – are expected to participate in Pelotonia activities Aug. 4 to 6.
All money raised goes toward some form of research at the James. Researchers who receive Pelotonia funding are expected to participate in the bike tour and fundraising process.Why he rides
Pawlik said he and his family arrived in Columbus at the end of July 2016, about two weeks away from last year's Pelotonia.
It was just enough time for him to purchase a bike and try it out on a 10-mile ride before the big event.
"I felt very passionately that I wanted to participate in it," Pawlik said.
Initially, he said, he signed up for the 25-mile route from Columbus to Pickerington, but a few days before the event, he decided to do the 50-miler to New Albany instead.
Pawlik said he felt a sense of community and purpose during the ride.
"I think I was incredibly motivated by the riders, by the volunteers, by the crowds on the side of the roads," he said.
He said the first 45 miles of his route last year flew by because he was motivated by everything he was seeing.
"I think it was a great experience," he said. "It was phenomenal."
During the last leg of his ride, he said, he thought of his family members and patients who had fought cancer -- and their hard work and determination in the face of it.
"It was the spirit of those people who carried me through to the end of the race," he said.
This year he plans to ride to New Albany again (the route is 45 miles this year) with his daughter, Katie, 15.
During those last 5 miles into New Albany this year, he said, he would think about the part Pelotonia plays in the James' clinical-care research and cancer education.
"I'm just very, very grateful that I can be a part of it," he said.Other experiences
Pawlik isn't the only member of Ohio State's cancer-research community who said he has been moved emotionally by riding in Pelotonia.
For Dr. Michael Caligiuri, director of the Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James, showing his gratitude for fellow riders, volunteers and spectators who make up the Pelotonia community is a meaningful experience.
"That is just incredibly rewarding for me," said the 61-year-old Upper Arlington resident, who also is a Pelotonia board member.
Caligiuri, who will ride the two-day 180-mile route from Columbus to Gambier on Aug. 5 and from Gambier to New Albany on Aug. 6, said he has participated in every Pelotonia.
Dr. Sameek Roychowdhury also plans to ride the 180-mile route for his seventh Pelotonia.
This year, the 40-year-old Dublin resident said he received a $150,000 grant from Pelotonia to investigate why some cancer cells are resistant to treatment.
"The riding itself is a symbol for our common goal," said Roychowdhury, a medical oncologist who also is an assistant professor at Ohio State and head of precision cancer medicine at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Jonathan Song, a 36-year-old Columbus resident and an assistant professor in Ohio State's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the importance of community is apparent when he rides in the tour.
He said Pelotonia brings awareness to the type of cancer research he does on the physical dynamics of tumors, for which he recently was awarded a $100,000 grant.
Song has cycled in Pelotonia since 2014, and this year he has signed up to ride from Columbus to Pickerington.Connections matter
For Pawlik, the connections researchers make with the community during Pelotonia are synonymous with the best treatment strategies for patients.
Pawlik said much of his research focuses on improving how doctors prepare patients for their journey after a cancer diagnosis is made.
Part of that includes determining how patients' prognoses facilitate their participation in clinical trials and empower them with the knowledge to make decisions about their treatment, he said.
Patients want to know and anticipate their chances for survival, as well as how likely the cancer could return, he said, and they must weigh the risks of drug therapies against their benefits.
"We need to create a shared vision and a shared set of values (between surgeons and patients)," said Pawlik, who in addition to his medical degree, masters of public health and Ph.D., has a master's in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.
Pawlik said his connections with former patients make his work worthwhile.
For example, he said, he regularly receives Christmas cards from them and their families and keeps in touch with many who have been under his care.
"There's nothing better and more satisfying than seeing my patients," Pawlik said.Coming July 20
The fourth installment of #MoreThanABikeRide on July 20 will examine how communities and businesses participate.
Features, photos and videos from each week are available at ThisWeekNEWS.com/Pelotonia.
To learn more about Pelotonia or sign up to participate, go to pelotonia.org.