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Amy Donaldson: Cyclists ride to raise awareness, offer hope about mental illness

Published: Sunday, July 7 2013 2:10 p.m. MDT

Gary Ludlow (center) (Courtesy Stan Sadowski) Gary Ludlow (center) (Courtesy Stan Sadowski)

PROVO — Stan Sadowski didn't know an old friend had taken his own life until months after it happened.

He was overwhelmed with grief, but had no way to express it.

"I didn't even get to go to the funeral," he said. "I had no closure."

So he did what he and Gary Ludlow might have done together — he gathered some cycling friends and went on a long, hard ride.

"We wanted to remember Gary, to honor him," said Sadowski of the first Gary Ludlow Memorial Ride five years ago, which included Ludlow's siblings, wife and most of his eight children. "I think it gave his children a better appreciation for Gary."

Gary Ludlow racing as part of the La Grande Westwood Cycling team in California. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski) Gary Ludlow racing as part of the La Grande Westwood Cycling team in California. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski)

That's because Ludlow was happiest on a bike. A cross-country runner at UCLA, the American Fork man discovered as a college student both a passion and a talent for cycling.

Ludlow finished second in the California championship and completed the LOTOJA (Logan to Jackson) several times, including one trip in less than nine hours.

"He was remarkable," said Sadowski, who found his way to cycling after knee surgery made it impossible for him to continue running.

Sadowski's first ride was from Provo to Springville for ice cream.

"I thought, 'I can do this. I just love this!'" he said. "That was 1985 and I've been riding ever since."

Gary Ludlow (center) (Courtesy Stan Sadowski) Gary Ludlow (center) (Courtesy Stan Sadowski)

Sadowski and his wife met the Ludlows when all of them were newly married couples, most just out of college. While Gary Ludlow graduated from UCLA, Sadowski was a BYU alum. They were friends for years before Sadowski invited Ludlow to join him and some other friends on an evening bike ride. Ludlow said he might not make the ride as he had to work late, but assured him he'd try.

"He wasn't there when we started," said Sadowski. A few miles into the ride, they saw a lone rider behind them. Sadowski and his companion made it their goal to not let this rider pass them. When the man eventually caught them, it was Ludlow.

"He said, 'Why are you riding so fast?'" Sadowski recalled laughing. "He was phenomenal. He tried to get me into racing, but I just wasn't comfortable in a peloton. But that's where he was at home."

A cyclist pedaling in the early morning. Local cyclist Stan Sadowski (not pictured) has organized a cycling event in memoriam of Gary Ludlow, an American Fork man afflicted with mental illness who took his own life. (Shutterstock) A cyclist pedaling in the early morning. Local cyclist Stan Sadowski (not pictured) has organized a cycling event in memoriam of Gary Ludlow, an American Fork man afflicted with mental illness who took his own life. (Shutterstock)

They went on long rides on weekends until Ludlow moved to American Fork and the Sadowskis moved to north Provo. They still met up several times a year for rides, but Sadowski said he never knew Ludlow struggled with depression until a few years before his death in December 2008.

"I'd heard he had an accident and was in the hospital," Sadowski said. "I called him and he said, 'No, don't come and see me. You don't want to see me.' I said, 'OK, I'll respect that.'"

It wasn't until Ludlow was at home recovering that Sadowski was able to go see him.

"He looked terrible," said Sadowski. He looked dazed, and he'd gained weight. "That's when he told me it wasn't a cycling accident," said Sadowski. "He said, 'I tried to take my own life.' He told me about suffering from depression."

Gary Ludlow and other cyclists racing as part of the La Grande Westwood Cycling team in California. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski) Gary Ludlow and other cyclists racing as part of the La Grande Westwood Cycling team in California. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski)

While there was some family history, Ludlow told Sadowski he believed it never bothered him because of his cycling. His theory was that it became more debilitating after a cycling accident in which he crashed into a pole and had to be hospitalized.

Medication was now part of his daily life, but Ludlow was committed to continue cycling. When Sadowski asked how he could help, Ludlow asked him to ride with him. They met up for a couple of rides, but Ludlow was not the same athlete.

"He didn't quite have that same zip," said Sadowski. A few times during Sadowski's commute, he saw his old friend, still battling his weight gain, out there on the road.

Gary Ludlow (center) with friends and associates. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski) Gary Ludlow (center) with friends and associates. (Courtesy Stan Sadowski)

"He was out there exercising," he said of Ludlow's desire to fight depression with physical activity. "He had a passion for cycling. He was doing what he loved best."

It wasn't until April 2009 that Sadowski's wife told Sadowski she'd heard Ludlow had passed away that previous December. He was stunned. "I thought, 'When did this happen? How did I miss it?'" said Sadowski.

He called a mutual cycling friend who'd spoken at the funeral. That's when he learned Ludlow had successfully taken his own life at his home in early December. Sadowski's sadness turned to resolve when he decided that it wasn't too late to do something for his friend.

He organized that first ride as a way to honor Ludlow, and what better way to do that than in the saddle? He kept organizing it because friends and family found solace and comfort riding in Ludlow's memory. It gave them a chance to talk about him, remember his accomplishments, and feel a little of his passion for the sport.

It became clear to Sadowski that there was more happening at these gatherings than exercise and storytelling. A couple showed up at registration one year and told him how they'd lost a child to suicide. They'd never cycled before, but they were looking for a place to express their grief in a positive way. They were looking to talk to people who understood their loss, their pain, and the stigma associated with mental illness.

The third year, Sadowski hoped to make enough money to donate to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Utah chapter. He ended up donating his own money, but last year they made enough money to donate to the organization.

Suddenly his small ride was growing into a movement. Last winter, a NAMI official who coordinates fundraising cycling events around the country contacted him and asked him to make his event part of their circuit. He was thrilled to work with an organization that might be able to offer more than comfort to people struggling with mental illness and their families.

This year, the event's name has been changed to reflect their greater mission: NAMIBikes Utah: The GLMR. The lengthy name makes Sadowski laugh, and he felt compelled to tell former participants that they can still refer to the July 27th event as the "glimmer."

Sadowski hopes the ride, which has three different lengths for participants: 42 miles, 68 miles (a metric century) and 100 miles (a full century). Their motto is simple: Fight the stigma and ride. Professional cyclist Chase Pinkham from Team Bissell will give up competing in a race to ride with participants, Sadowski said.

"He understands the value of our cause," he said. "We want people suffering from mental illness to know there is hope. There is help out there. It's OK to talk about it, and that will allow others to help."

If riding a bike can bring relief, understanding and healing, Sadowski hopes the conversations that occur will bring real help, real solutions to those struggling with misunderstood illnesses.

He is the first to admit people don't understand mental illness and don't know what to say. So many of us end up saying nothing. Sometimes we walk away from the person. People struggling with these diseases feel alone because sometimes we leave them alone.

Fear and shame create a rift when we should be desperately building bridges.

"There's a stigma associated with mental illness and that leads to people feeling ostracized," Sadowski said. "I want them to know they're not alone, that there is hope, there is help."

Twitter: adonsports Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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