Heart Case

Published on: May 5th, 2008

Editor’s Note: Tim has finished the Race Across America. Read the updated blog from the finish line.

Tim Case rides his bike pretty much everywhere, every day. He owns a home in Idaho Springs, works in Boulder and has a girlfriend in Louisville.

He hasn’t ruled out trying to ride from Louisville to Idaho Springs every once in a while, just for kicks. Knowing this, I figured it would help if I got to know Tim where he is most comfortable, in the seat of his Bianchi.

We meet at Amanti Coffee in North Boulder on a breezy, early spring Saturday morning. The coffee shop is perhaps the capital of Boulder cycling. Most of the java drinkers are dressed in the geeky, barely socially-acceptable cycling gear: super tight spandex shorts, zip-up jerseys pelted with dozens of sponsors, and the always clacking cleats that ensure normally nimble athletes slip across the slick floor.

With some of the best rides in the region just to the north and west of this NoBo hotspot, the café has become the meeting place for Boulder cyclists. Everyone from the city’s seemingly endless line of pros to the more massive group of amateurs love to pedal out on the windy county roads.

Tim, a Boulder firefighter, seems a little uncomfortable with the scene—there’s an attitude of elitism that exudes from many of the groups setting out for a ride in matching attire.

He rides for the Horizon Organics cycling team as a semi-pro and has more endurance than a camel. Tim sports the requisite jersey, goofy farmer’s tan and smooth pedal strokes, but he doesn’t want much to do with the hordes of spandex-clad bike riders. He barely considers himself an athlete, let alone a gifted cyclist.

It’s hard to buy into the “not special” talk when you think about what he will be attempting next month, a solo Race Across America that will take him a mere 10 days.

Some motor homes take longer to get from the Golden State to Maryland. Frankly, I’m a bit intimidated to ride with perhaps the quickest fireman in Boulder.

I had just purchased my first biking jersey a half hour prior—simple white, no advertisements—and hadn’t been on my Bianchi in more than a year. I feel small next to guys with oak-thick thighs about to set off on a ride with a man preparing for a series of 300-mile days.

Tim reassures me countless times that I have nothing to be nervous about, but I can’t shake that anticipation.

We start cruising north on Foothills Parkway, the rolling foothills to our left, immense views of farmland and plains to our right.

This isn’t so bad.

About 30 miles later, my tune changes.

On our approach back to North Boulder, a stiff headwind batters us like a tidal wave, dulling our cycle strokes to a mere 11 miles an hour.

“This wind sucks,” Tim says, glancing over at his exhausted cycling partner.

That’s about the biggest complaint you’ll hear from Tim. He’d just the same deal with the adversity than fuss about it. He knows that when he crosses Kansas during the Race Across America in June, the wind will pound him. It won’t surprise him when snowflakes fog his sunglasses as he climbs the mountain passes around Pagosa Springs. Torrential downpours in the Appalachians are expected.
For those last grueling miles of our far-from-difficult ride, I couldn’t help but wonder about the scope of his trip. We’d been away from the warm confines of the coffeehouse for less than two hours. Soon I’d be zipping home at 65 in my Mazda with a hot shower, bed and nap waiting.

Had this been the start of the race, we’d be a tenth through day one and only 1 percent finished with the entire trek. These thoughts dance through my head as the ride winds down and are as painful as the tenderness that had developed on my buttocks.

Tim likely wasn’t thinking too hard about miles 30 and 31, although it’s safe to assume 20 hours into any given day during the race he’ll be downright exhausted.

He can use the kids at Camp Odayin he’s raising money for as inspiration when he’s bleary-eyed at 3 a.m. in the middle of New Mexico.

Woody Hust may seem like your typical 13-year-old. An avid ski racer, he
plays tennis, eats just about anything that’s not nailed down—steak and duck, especially—and reads books about war, baseball and history.

But he’s already undergone two heart surgeries.

“You don’t notice he’s a heart kid when you look at him,” says mom Heidi, during a phone interview from her home in Orono, Minnesota. “His insides are all mixed up.”

While still in his mother’s womb, Woody was diagnosed with a critical aortic valve, forcing doctors to perform a valvotomy at birth. Basically, his pulmonary valve replaced his troubled aortic valve and an implant replaced the pulmonary valve. When he was six, he had that implant replaced. Now, his aortic root is expanding, much like a balloon, his mom says. Woody will go under the knife again in a few months.

He’ll face procedure after procedure throughout his life.

But being the weird kid with a zipper scar emblazoned on his chest, who passes out if he overexerts, is far more difficult for a 13-year-old to endure than worrying about years of surgeries.

The first time Woody took off his shirt at the public pool led to a lesson in just how mean kids can be. The major scars were too much for other girls and boys to ignore.

Woody became a teasing target.

“When he actually swam on a swim team at the country club, the first time he took off his shirt in swim class; it was awful,” Heidi recalls. “He came home crying. They were staring at him as if he was a leper.

“He gets made fun of because he can’t run. In gym he has to walk the mile, and he takes a lot of heat for that…a lot of kids are really mean.”

It’s tough being the kid who’s different.

That’s why Camp Odayin has been such a blessing. That’s why people like Tim Case mean so much to the Husts.

“It’s like the best thing in the whole world,” mom says.

Six days, 15 hours and 13 minutes. Four cyclists had just pedaled across America in six days, 15 hours and 13 minutes. Working in tandem, each rider taking four-hour shifts, sprinting 20 minutes on, taking 20 minutes off, they finished the Race Across America in third place. They rode through the night. Under the blazing sun. Dodging the rain, wind and sleet.

Sounds like the battle cry for mail carriers or Lance Armstrong’s fabled U.S. Postal Service cycling team. Yet just a few hours prior to crossing the finish line of the toughest bike race in the world (apologies to the Tour de France), Tim, one of the four, came to a realization.

“We were 100 miles outside of Atlantic City sitting in the RV, and, off the cuff, I was wondering what kind of riding was in Atlantic City,” Tim remembers. “I realized I wanted more of it. Everybody was wiped out—I wanted more of it.”

Sure, he had help throughout the challenge. It was a relay, after all.

Still, it’s not the type of race that leaves you with energy to keep going east after more than 3,000 miles of thigh burning hell. It’s probably a good thing the Atlantic was there, otherwise, Tim may have pedaled all the way to Europe.

“I was more confident on the bike than off, which is kind of a blessing and a curse,” he says during a casual conversation at an Old Town Louisville coffee shop.

The curse has led to his next goal, trying the race solo. He’ll leave Oceanside, California, June 8, cross the Rockies, Great Plains and Appalachians all by himself, riding 20-plus hours a day in an attempt to cycle the continent in less time than it takes most of us to plant a garden.

Tim’s not thinking about that despite being admittedly nervous about the first pedal stroke. He has the heart-troubled children who find summer refuge at Camp Odayin to keep him preoccupied.


When Sarah Sather’s mother,
Barb, starts talking about the heart ailments her child faces, it’s handy to have a few medical books nearby for quick reference.

Sarah has a large ventricular septal defect (a hole in the bottom of her heart), a straddling micro valve (something Barb struggles to explain) and a blocked pulmonary valve.

Sarah’s heart is a one-pump operation.

Despite being just 8, Sarah has already undergone three major heart surgeries to ensure the blood from the bottom half of her body re-circulates. She will undergo another procedure in her teens and faces the daunting probability of having a full transplant in her 20s.

“We’re hoping for development in medical advancements,” her mother says, nervously.
For now, Sarah is your typical child (almost) with sufficient energy. She runs around the playground of her Monte Vista, Colorado, elementary school, playing “Cats” with a few of her close friends.

She loves pizza and spaghetti.

She has few activity restrictions, although there’s a constant worry in the back of her parents’ minds.

“We worry about her more,” Barb says. “We’re close to the school nurse.”

Despite the grave implications of a future transplant, Barb is focusing on one simple thing: “I want her to live as full a life as possible.”

Sending her daughter to Camp Odayin for the first time this year is a good start.

Tim Case is driven. His whole life, he’s been told what he can’t do, starting with virtually every athletic endeavor through adolescence due to severe asthma.
He loves proving people wrong.

“I couldn’t finish a run,” he says. “Proving people wrong; it’s sort of just continuing the story.”
That resolve is why he is fairly confident about being able to pedal 3,008 miles virtually ’round the clock and possibly finish in the top five in the race.

But personal reasons aren’t the only motivation driving him. He doesn’t want to let Woody, Sarah or any of the other 200 or so campers attending Odayin this summer down. Tim is riding for Team Strong Heart, an effort he helped forge a year ago to raise money for the camp through this extreme endurance race.

“I’m just an average, everyday rider. I’m just motivated. I have a good cause,” he says, in a statement that seems to become his mantra the more you try to pry details about his obsession with this challenge.

The cause is certainly a good one. The camp allows kids facing major heart ailments and death on a daily basis to be typical kids for once.

And since Tim’s the only returning member from a year ago, he has to balance supporting these kids, keeping the team strong (four new members will participate in the same relay he finished last year), and training for his solo ride simultaneously.

He feels the pressure of shouldering the Strong Heart load for a tiny camp for heart kids in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Camp Odayin is entering its seventh summer, offering kids the chance to forget about hospitals and mean kids who point fingers.

Campers face a wide spectrum of ailments, ranging from kids with a hole in his or her heart to one pre-teen camper already on her third heart.

Since medical bills for these families run as high as humidity in the Minnesota summer, Odayin charges just $25 a camper.

Offering overnight, day and family camps for children from all over the United States, it relies on funding from four sources: grants, donations, three annual fundraisers, and crazed athletes who seem to think riding a bike across the States in 10 days is fun.

Kids who attend have trouble playing with others. They cannot run for as long, stand the heat as well and have scars that “normal” kids gawk at. Battling severe heart disease when you’re 10 makes you as popular in grade school as the child who doesn’t bathe often.

That all changes at Odayin.

“We want to create a haven for these kids,” says Sara Meslow, the camp’s executive director. “It’s a place for these kids to be normal.”

Campers ride horses, take nature hikes, and participate in arts and crafts. They get to visit the lakefront beach—without a shirt on. Surgical scars become badges of pride instead of sources for ostracism.

There are doctors and a resident cardiologist on site, just in case. Three children have died in the camp’s six years—a sobering reality, memorialized with a plaque showcasing the names of the deceased.

“It’s probably pretty tough when you are looking at your own mortality,” Meslow says. “It’s a pretty tough time.”

Some of the campers know that fate is likely just around the corner for them—others could very well live a long and healthy life. But for these short weeks, all they care about is capture the flag, arts and crafts, and being 11.

Every kid deserves that much.

Tim understands what Odayin kids are dealing with, to a degree. As a child,
he battled asthma severe enough that a bout with bronchitis almost killed him when he was just 2. He was hospitalized for a month.

“That was about as close to the edge as I’ve ever come,” he says. “Even though I was pretty young, I still remember it vividly. It set the tone through my adolescent years.”

Growing up, Tim couldn’t participate fully in gym, had to remain inside during heat waves and never considered himself a person with an athletic bone in his body. Sound familiar?

“I was that kid; I couldn’t do it,” Tim says. “It was very restrictive.”

He outgrew the asthma enough to try out for track during high school—still, his doctors thought he was loony. Now he’s serving in a profession, fire fighting, that puts a premium on lung capacity.
Tim came to Colorado from Minnesota on a whim to test for fire jobs in the region. He did well, and has been with the Boulder department for two years.

Yet he doesn’t fit the typical firefighter mold, assuming one exists. He has three tattoos (one of them an admitted cliché, a near full-arm sleeve of a flame), isn’t overly muscular and won’t likely be featured as Mr. August on the charity beefcake fireman calendar anytime soon.

When the other guys in the house are watching the Rockies game, Tim’s head is usually buried in a book. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky, is on his night stand now. “A real light read,” he says of his selection. “I read a lot. I’m a voracious reader.”

Any doubts about his ability to be a firefighter based on his stature (he’s just 175 pounds despite being 6’ 2”) were doused early on. He can haul hoses up three flights of stairs with the best of them.
He’s pretty good at that endurance thing, which should come in handy in June.

Tim is confident in his ability to finish, perhaps bordering on the always dangerous cocky. He also understands how easy it can be to fail. A bad crash, knee injury, dehydration: Pick your poison, these are just a collection of the many issues that could sideline the fireman.

But he has set this goal. And you know what, he’s pretty damn stubborn. He also shoulders the load of knowing he’s trying to raise money and awareness for Odayin and carry Team Strong Heart into another year of do-gooding. The entire camp will be following his progress.

He set a modest goal of raising $5,000—during a recent fundraiser at RedFish in Boulder, donations topped that figure. As part of the relay team a year ago, he helped raise twice that. But last spring, Tim didn’t have to worry about logistics of the race or being the spotlight of the fundraising drive. He simply trained. Tim remembers the team’s captain showing up on race day a year ago looking battered from dealing with Strong Heart logistics. It’s infinitely worse for Tim, since he’s going it alone.

“A couple of months ago, he was freaking out thinking we may have to pull out of this,” says Michelle Pearl, Tim’s girlfriend and the physical therapist/masseuse who will be part of the Strong Heart support crew that will drive across the country at 18 miles an hour while Tim toils.

Tim overcame those doubts. Basically, too much was riding on the race, and he knew he was in no position to complain.

Woody and Sarah have it much worse. So do the rest of the Odayin campers. But because of efforts from Tim and plenty of other volunteers, all they’ll care about this summer are friendship bracelets, lakeside entertainment, marshmallows, ghost stories and building self esteem.

One of the great stories Sara Meslow tells is about Woody. His sister asked if she could come to camp, and Woody emphatically said “No.” She didn’t have the “special” heart required, he proudly told his sibling.

Woody comes back from camp each year beaming with new found enthusiasm and confidence. And he has plenty of people to thank for the Odayin opportunity, but few, if any, are going to the lengths of Tim Case.

Perhaps that thought will help Tim during his final push into Annapolis, 10 days after leaving sunny California when his personal gas tank is on zero.

Then he can take a rest—until he tries it all over again next year.

For more…

• While pedaling across the United States, Tim has volunteered to keep us apprised of his journey. See his blog, beginning June 8, on the Yellow Scene blog page.

• To donate to Tim’s cause, visit his blog.

• Visit Camp Odayin online.

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  1. Christina…

    Plant the seeds of expectation in your mind; cultivate thoughts that anticipate achievement. Believe in yourself as being capable of overcoming all obstacles and weaknesses…

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