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Man raises awareness for bone marrow charity

Somewhere between Itasca Lake and the Gulf of Mexico is a man in a yellow shirt riding a bicycle with a cause.

If you passed him on the Paul Bunyan Trail during the first leg of his journey, you might have recognized him by his bright yellow shirt that reads "Marrow Quest" on the front and "Traveling at the speed of Steve" on the back.

That's Steve Matchett, who calls Charlotte, North Carolina, his "sort of" home.

He began his trip June 16, and every day since he has travelled farther and farther south. He passed through Hackensack on June 17 and Pine River on June 18.

Matchett is on a quest to raise awareness, donations and registration for bone marrow transplants. That quest began at the Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park and is leading to where the river finally empties into the ocean, a journey inspired by an iconic American novel.

"I was raised outside of the USA, and as a little boy, I kept my copy of 'Tom Sawyer,' and I dreamed of the Mississippi and the Mississippi has always represented America to me. My initial plan for years was I wanted to float down the Mississippi, but I knew nobody would pay me money to have a good time floating down the Mississippi," Matchett said while in Pine River. "So I thought, 'I'll ride a bicycle down the Mississippi, because that's going to have its uncomfortable days.'"

Matchett's journey is in conjunction with efforts by the Hendrick Marrow Program, run by Hendrick Automotive group. As Matchett works his way south, the marrow program acts as his harbinger, setting up marrow donor registration drives in cities along the way.

Matchett said the program was also his inspiration. Matchett was once the personal assistant to Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Automotive group.

"He got leukemia, and his first thought was, 'What can this do to help other people? What can we do to benefit other people?' We started the marrow program and almost overnight came the biggest marrow fundraiser and the biggest marrow drive," Matchett said, noting Hendrick's generosity inspired him.

"I wanted to find a way to thank Mr. Hendrick for everything I'd seen him do for other people and the extraordinary kindnesses and considerations he and his family had shown me," Matchett said.

Matchett was particularly hooked by a young man he met through the program while working at a bone marrow drive outside Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, he met a teenager who had leukemia, Andrew Jackson, and became friends with his family. A match was found, but the match backed out. Jackson died. During his funeral, the pastor reminded everyone that there was still a need for registration.

"That set the hook in me to do something," Matchett said.

Matchett is not a regular bike rider. He once rode across Iowa with the Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, and he once rode from Texas to California just because he wanted to go to San Diego, but he said riding a bicycle in Charlotte is so inconvenient that he never even tested his equipment before beginning his journey.

"I did absolutely zero miles in preparation for this, and the first time I had all the bags loaded on the bike was the day I set off. It's still been a learning experience," Matchett said.

He said most bicyclists think he's crazy for undertaking a journey of more than 2,000 miles (depending on route) without training. In spite of minor inconveniences like soreness, weather problems and getting lost, Matchett is focusing on the positive.

"Inconveniences? I don't really think of it that way. It's just a sheer pleasure to get out and do exactly what I want to do, which is see the Mississippi and go on a bike at my own speed," he said.

When the going gets tough, he said it is an incredible boost to remember that some people have pledged money to the Marrow Foundation for every mile he travels.

Matchett did say the Minnesota leg of his trip began smoothly, though riding may get rough in later states.

"Minnesota is reputed to be one of the best and safest areas for long distance bike riding because of the Paul Bunyan Trail and other trails. It is so well done. Other states, you are just thrown out onto the highway with the 16-wheelers and it gets a little hairy. I will take every side road and byroad I can find to avoid the big trucks, because they could hit me and not even know it," Matchett said.

Matchett considers even this a small inconvenience compared to his cause. Even though there are thousands of registered marrow donors, he said there are also thousands of patients in need of donors, and the number of matches is small by comparison. For this reason, he said it is important that everyone who is able should register to be a bone marrow donor to increase the chances of finding a match.

Matchett hoped to make his journey in approximately six weeks, but he has already had delays because of rainy weather. At the end of his journey, his bicycle will be auctioned by the Marrow Foundation.

For more information, to donate or to track Matchett's progress via global positioning systems, visit Marrowquest.org.

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