Two Journeys Converge on the Road to a Cure

Posted: Oct. 4, 2011

While many of us enjoyed the barbecues and beach festivities typical of summer, Glenn Caffery and Alan Arnette were doing something atypical. Instead of lounging by the pool, Caffery ran 3,312 miles across the northern United States—from Oregon to Rhode Island—with just a jogging stroller for his supplies, and Alan Arnette climbed two of the highest peaks in the world—Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska and Mount Elbrus in Russia.

While their physical journeys may have been different—one horizontal and one vertical—their emotional journeys were surprisingly similar. Both Caffery and Arnette lost a beloved parent to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and both have made an enormous commitment to help fight this debilitating disease by challenging themselves physically to generate awareness for the issues and raise money to help find a cure.

All about the cause.

Denali and Mount Elbrus were the fourth and fifth summits on Arnette’s Seven Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories Are Everything expedition—his yearlong mission to scale the highest peak on each continent to raise money for the fight against Alzheimer’s and to honor the memory of his mother, whom he lost to Alzheimer’s in 2009. The Alzheimer’s Immunotherapy Program of Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy and Pfizer Inc. are funding Arnette’s journey, which means 100 percent of the money he raises goes directly to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund and the National Family Caregivers Association.

Native American for “the Great One,” Denali is the highest summit in North America at more than 20,000 feet high. While Arnette has summited each of the peaks on his expedition so far, unrelenting 70 mph winds made attempting Denali’s summit too dangerous. When Arnette told his donors, who had sponsored him a penny a foot, that they were off the hook for the full amount because he hadn’t summited, they donated the full amount anyway.

“It was a wonderful reminder that my journey is not about the summit—it’s about the cause,” says Arnette.

At greater than 18,000 feet high, Elbrus is a dormant volcano with two distinct summits. To get to the top, Arnette had to navigate through crevasses using crampons and ice axes. “It was great to look out over the Russian Alps and see the Black Sea in the distance,” says Arnette, “but the biggest takeaway for me was the cultural experience. Here I was on the other side of the world, and I was struck by how many people have been affected by Alzheimer’s.”

For every continent Arnette has been to, there have been teammates who have had very real stories about the impact of the disease on their lives and how they’ve all shared that feeling of helplessness. “Alzheimer’s is truly a global issue,” says Arnette.

From coast to coast.

While Arnette was battling strong winds, snow and ice, Caffery was dealing with blistering heat, physical injuries and the constant fear of being hit by a car. From late May to August, Caffery ran 50 miles a day or more to honor the memory of his father, whom he lost to Alzheimer’s in 2002.

“Part of the motivation for my trip was to continue with my mourning process for my dad,” says Caffery. As he ran, memories of his father came surging back, and he finally had the opportunity to engage with them, which he says “was of great emotional value.” By day three Caffery was already thinking, “I’ve had enough of this,” from purely a recreational perspective. But people were investing in him and he couldn’t let them down. Says Caffery, “If my goal had been to finish, I might not have been able to do it—but my goal was to honor my dad,” which helped him put his best feet forward every day.

From the very beginning of his journey, Caffery had no choice but to be open and trusting of other people, because he literally was sleeping on the side of the road in a tent.

“I came to think of all the people whom I met along the way as friends and helpers,” says Caffery. “Many of them had loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and talking with them was cathartic, because we all related to the emotional pain we shared. It’s amazing how many people have been affected by Alzheimer’s,” he says. “What was so paradoxical was how many people have these really powerful stories, but how little they are part of their regular discourse because they are so difficult to talk about.”

On his trip, Caffery was threatened with baseball-sized hail, coyotes, snakes, flat tires, injuries, speeding cars and lightning while he consumed 7,000 calories a day. Sadly, Caffery also had to endure the passing of his father-in-law from cancer.

“The generosity of people along the way was overwhelming,” he says. “Friends, friends of friends and strangers would drive me places, let me stay with them and clear their lives out for me. It was hard to accept all the generosity,” Caffery says, “until I realized that it wasn’t about me—it was about the cause I was running for. I was thrilled with my partnership with CAF and how they were right there with me throughout my trip.”

What’s next?

Arnette was to depart for his sixth summit, Kilimanjaro in Africa, on Sept. 11. “World Alzheimer’s Day is September 21 and, wherever I am, I’ll be sending a message of hope, urgency and the need for support to find a cure,” he said. Arnette already has raised more than $30,000 for CAF and more than $20,000 for the National Family Caregivers Association, and he’s not done yet.

Although Caffery’s run is over for now, his push to do his part to find a cure is not. “This trip made it clear to me that I have an obligation to continue to share my experience with Alzheimer’s, and I’ll continue to look for ways to do that so I can do my part to try to stop it,” Caffery says. “It’s so frustrating to watch someone you love suffer so much when you’re utterly powerless. That’s why I’ll continue to do what I can do.” So far, he has raised more than $23,000 for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which will be used to fund critical research.

“We are grateful to Alan and Glenn for their selfless commitment and their unrelenting drive to help us get closer to a cure every day,” says Tim Armour, president and CEO of CAF.

To support them, please visit our website at www.curealz.org.