In June 2018, Smeeta Hirani’s coworkers at Amazon got a simple email.
“I lost my dad unexpectedly to cancer last year and want to do this 5K walk Aug 11 for Obliteride,” she wrote. “If any of you are interested, be great to create a team and do this together.”
What they didn’t know at the time — what Smeeta herself didn’t know yet — was that they were about to become part of a surprising, exciting, and ultimately life-changing summer for Smeeta.
Starting with a bike.
Smeeta’s coworkers liked the 5K walk, but it was the 25- and 100-mile rides that really caught their attention.
The problem? Smeeta had never been on a bicycle. “I grew up in Karachi [Pakistan],” she laughs, “I was a bookworm — I never had to ride a bike!”
When she told her colleagues about her predicament, they were surprised. “Well,” said one brightly, “just learn!”
Just learn!? Obliteride, on August 11, was coming up soon.
“At first, I said — ‘I can’t learn to ride a bike in eight weeks!’” says Smeeta. But after a year of grief and change, the idea had appeal. Maybe, she thought, this would be a good way to channel a rough time into something positive.
“You become an expert”
For Smeeta and her family 2017 was a shattering year. Her father, Ashraf Hirani, passed away in January, just two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
“When you get hit by the news that your dad has stage 4 cancer, you very quickly get very laser focused on leaving no stone unturned,” says Smeeta, her eyes deepening with tears. “Your mission in life becomes, ‘I am going to be on top of every researcher, every oncologist.’”
Obliteride fuels Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center dollar-for-dollar, and the Hutch was part of Smeeta’s mission.
“The Fred Hutch website became my go-to place, because what I needed to do was understand the latest technology; immunotherapy; what else is going on, so that I could use that language and the vocabulary to talk to my father’s oncologist.”
“Every doctor will have so many different patients,” she says, “but for me, obviously, my dad is going to be the most important one.”
Now, in June of 2018, Smeeta was on another mission: the 25-mile Obliteride. And she wasn’t wasting time.
“I realized this was really a way to channel all that stuff, all my resources, to learn something new,” she says. She’d seen the event once before, when a friend rode, and the experience — especially the chalk wall where people write the names of the people they participate to honor — left a deep impression.
“I decided, You know what? I’m going to sign up!”
By that Sunday, she was at a local park, clambering on a rented bike with the help of her friend Kristine. That evening she was practicing again with her colleague Michael and his young son — who offered not only his own small bike, but plenty of encouragement. “When I think of that day, I think of Michael’s son,” laughs Smeeta, “He just kept telling me, ‘Keep pedaling! Keep pedaling!’”
Twenty-five miles was still a long way off. But “that was my day one,” she says. “Then I was just hooked.”
The following weeks were a cascade of firsts. Smeeta’s first bike, which arrived in dozens of unassembled pieces (“I called Michael.”). Her first helmet. The first of Seattle’s big hills (“I was like, ‘Dad, I did it!’”) And a flock of friends, family, and colleagues — some seemingly sent by the universe — who supported her training, fundraising, and confidence. (“There is no way I could have done it without them.”)
By August 11, Smeeta was ready: finally joining hundreds of other Obliteriders to raise crucial funds to end cancer faster. But it wasn’t until she saw the chalk wall again that her journey really hit home.
“Up until then, this experience of your losing your father, you’re all grieving: your sisters, your brother, your mom. And then you’re faced with this chalk wall, and there’s no space left to write a name. And in that moment, you realize, ‘Wow, I’m not alone’,” says Smeeta. “You get to the core of human experience, which is Who do you ride for? … It just really changed the game for me.”
Keeping her momentum
As life lessons go, learning to ride a bike was a big one for Smeeta. “I actually didn’t think I was going to do it,” she says. “I just thought about the next one step: ‘Today, I’m going to do one mile. I’m going to maybe do two miles. Oh my gosh, I’m going to do 2.5.’ Then, I’m like — it’s only ten times that!”
“It’s an inner triumph: it applies to anything in life,” she adds. “You say, ‘I couldn’t ride a bike, but look, I was able to do this. So why can’t I do this?’ It’s like a barrier you’ve knocked down.”
Now, Smeeta is keeping her momentum going. She’ll be back for Obliteride 2019 on August 10 — ready to honor her father, raise funds, and help cure cancer faster. This year, she’ll be supported by her sister and brother-in-law, who are flying from Dubai to cheer her on, and by contributions from her community around the world.
“It’s not about being on a bike — it’s about going through those emotional things,” she says. “You see all those people who are riding alongside you are also doing it for somebody. They are also paying a tribute to someone from their lives. It’s pretty special.”
Who do you ride, walk, or volunteer for? Join us at Obliteride 2019 on August 10, 2019. Together, we are pushing hard to Cure Cancer Faster!