PRESQUE ISLE, Maine —
Shortly after Melanie Stewart-Ring of Steuben was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer in November 2017, her sister, Beth Williams, and longtime friend Stephanie McKeen decided that they would put a team of cyclists together to ride in the annual Trek Across Maine in honor of Stewart-Ring, herself an avid cyclist.
Neither one expected the team to accomplish what it has done today. But now the team of 63 cyclists and volunteers have returned home after the three-day, 180-mile trek from the mountains of Sunday River to the coastline of Belfast and raised $38,230 for the American Lung Association.
“Probably one-third of the people on the team didn’t know Mel personally, but they wanted to come out and support her in any way they could,” said Williams, who is a client services representative at Barresi Financial in Presque Isle and a six-year breast cancer survivor. “She has been blown away by all the support people have given her.”
Despite completing her first of six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment, which will be followed by colon surgery, Stewart-Ring, 47, stood at the finish lines on both the second and final day of the race to cheer on Mel’s Trekkers as they cycled to the end of their journey in Belfast.
Team captain Stephanie McKeen has been friends with Stewart-Ring for seven or eight years, ever since Stewart-Ring, the former owner of Mojo Outdoor Sport in Presque Isle, helped her choose her first bicycle. They have since participated in many Trek Across Maine events together and McKeen saw the fundraiser as a great way to honor her friend and raise money for an important cause.
McKeen described Stewart-Ring as “a force of nature” who makes everyone around her feel happy. That positive spirit helped McKeen, Williams and the rest of their team get through the challenges of the long bike trek.
“I fell off my bike and hurt my elbow on Friday, so I didn’t ride on Saturday,” said McKeen, who is a licensed massage therapist and yoga instructor for Araya Wellness in Mars Hill and Presque Isle. “But as I watched all these people see Mel for the first time I thought, ‘My friend is fighting for her life, but she still came to support us. I think I can suck it up and get on my bike for the rest of the trip.’”
Williams said that, unlike her sister or McKeen, she is not an experienced cyclist and that the trip from Sunday River to Belfast was both physically and mentally exhausting. But she continued on because of the inspiration she felt when watching Stewart-Ring become the team’s biggest fan.
“Knowing that my sister would be at the finish line waiting for me was what kept me motivated,” Williams said.
Both women said that one of the best parts of their Trek Across Maine venture was seeing people from communities both locally and outside Aroostook County come together in support of Stewart-Ring. Washburn-based artist Filomena Irving designed the Mel’s Trekkers jerseys and head buffs, and Gretchen Morse, local financial advisor for Edward Jones, suggested that part of the proceeds from the Aroostook River Fun Run go toward the cyclists. In early June, people gathered at the Inside Scoops in Mars Hill and took turns getting dunked into a water booth as a fundraiser for Mel’s Trekkers.
By the time the trip was over, the team had placed first in the community team category for donation totals and third in the overall team category, behind only L.L. Bean, whose members raised $73,842, and athenahealth, whose members raised $79,807. McKeen said that as of June 20, people were still donating to the cause, with remaining proceeds to likely go toward the 2019 Trek Across Maine.
The cyclists on the team ranged in age from their early 20s to their 70s, and many were friends of Stewart-Ring’s from southern Maine. One of McKeen’s friends, who did not know Stewart-Ring beforehand, flew from Columbus, Ohio, to take part. Those who could not ride in the trek stood on the sidelines holding up handmade signs that said “Mel’s Trekkers” and gave much appreciated moral support.
“I feel that as humans, it’s our duty to help each other out and we’re so lucky that in Aroostook County that happens on a daily basis,” McKeen said. “We saw so many people accomplish what they never thought they could, all because of Mel.”
With the support of her now famous trekkers, Stewart-Ring is focused on beating cancer and becoming strong enough to hop on her own bicycle again.
“She would really like to ride in Trek Across Maine next year,” Williams said. “Seeing the smile on her face when we finished on Sunday was probably the greatest moment for me.”