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Surviving the Habitat 500

By Staff | Aug 25, 2019

The whole Habitat for Humanity 500 mile bicycle ride fundraiser near Duluth did not go exactly the way Martin and Faribault County Habitat for Humanity executive director Staci Thompson had envisioned.

“I wasn’t sure I could actually do it, for one thing,” Thompson says. “But I did make the half ride, and did 261 miles. Also, I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t realize it would be as hard as it was.”

She also had no idea that her local Habitat for Humanity affiliate would be able to raise as much money as they did.

“As of today (Aug. 19), we have raised $19,126,” she says. “We have not had a fundraiser come anywhere close to even $10,000 in the past, so this is huge. It will help us towards getting our house built in Blue Earth this next spring.”

She was also totally surprised when she ran into two former Blue Earthians, Marnie (Blom) Maki and Bitsy Schendel-Peacock who were also doing the ride.

And then there was one other really big surprise having one of her fellow riders, Kevin Benson, have a heart attack after the first day of the ride.

“It was utterly, utterly shocking,” she remembers. “It turned the whole ride into such an emotional five days.”

The first day of the ride, on Sunday, July 14, was from Hermantown (outside of Duluth), up to Two Harbors and back again, about 68 miles.

“I saw Kevin after we were all back at the Hermantown High School where we were staying,” Thompson says. “He said the ride had kicked his butt and he was going to take a shower and rest and meet up with me later.”

Benson says he was not prepared for all the hills around Hermantown.

“I was very uncomfortable and had an achiness in my chest,” he says. “There was a nurse there and she checked me and said I’m taking you to Urgent Care.”

Sunday night, Benson found himself in St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth finding out he’d had a heart attack.

Meanwhile, Thompson was back at Hermantown High School wondering where Benson was.

“The nurse assigned to the ride came up to me and said Kevin Benson was in the hospital and had a heart attack,” Thompson recalls. “I was in shock. I told her she must be wrong; there were other Kevins on the ride and it must have been one of them. But it wasn’t and she insisted I go to the hospital immediately.”

She had an even bigger shock when she found Benson in the hospital.

“It was so hard to leave him there and continue on the ride the next day,” she says. “But we did.”

Her fellow riders were Eric Johnson, from Fairmont, doing his 11th ride, and Cory Germain, of Fairmont and formerly of Winnebago, on his first ride. And Benson.

“We were all just so shocked that this had happened,” Thompson says. “I had thought that if anyone of us four was going to have a heart attack it was me.”

After an electrocardiogram and angiogram and other tests, Benson’s doctor told him stints just would not do it and so it was going to be triple bypass surgery on Tuesday.

“I know a lot of people were shocked to hear this,” Benson says. “But nobody more than me. I had no hint this could happen to me.”

Well, he did have about five seconds of a sharp pain a few weeks ago on an early morning bike ride. But, he had none of the usual factors for a heart attack.

“I have no heart disease in my family, I am not overweight or out of shape and I don’t smoke,” Benson says. “I think I can attribute it to the stress I had over the years.”

Benson, who is 66 years old, retired two years ago from his job as general manager at KBEW radio station in Blue Earth.

“I always wanted to do this Habitat 500 Ride ever since I was first on the board of our Habitat for Humanity group about 15 years ago,” Benson said. “But I was too busy at work so I said I would do it after I retired. The first year after I retired I had a conflict so I was excited to finally do it this year.”

It is not like riding a bicycle is something Benson just took up recently. He has been riding a bike in the mornings with a group of guys for 25 years.

“We used to ride at 5:45 in the morning,” Benson says. “But now that we are all retired we don’t go until 8 a.m.”

His fellow riders, Dave Kittleson, Mike Ellingsen, Dr. Joe Tempel, Bob Martig and newcomer Peter Koenig, have been a big support, stopping in to see Benson after they finish their ride.

“We always meet at the courthouse and go between a six to 10 mile loop,” Benson says. “I added some extra to get in training for the Habitat 500, so I probably rode 1,000 to 1,200 miles per year. But it was all relatively flat. I wasn’t used to hills like those up by Duluth.”

Benson spent 10 days in the hospital in Duluth recovering. Thompson kept in contact with him by phone and in person during the rest of the trip.

“I would ask how he was doing and he would just say ‘fine’ and then asked me to tell him all about how the bike riding was going,” Thompson says. “That is just so like him.”

She relates that one day on the ride everyone went by a Habitat for Humanity house under construction in Eveleth and signed their names and left messages on the walls.

“I left a message and signed it Kevin Benson,” she says. “When I told him about it he said, well at least I didn’t have to write ‘in memory of Kevin Benson.’ I just shook my head at that.”

Benson is now home and doing physical therapy, which, he says, is going very well.

“I am getting better every day,” he says. “Just tired a lot.”

He has a lot of people he is thankful to, starting with his doctor, Dr. Kalyen Vinnamadala, or Dr. V for short, for literally saving his life.

“He is a great guy, wonderful bedside manner, and sense of humor,” Benson says. “On the day of surgery he said he hoped I would have a good day. I told him, no, doc, I hope YOU have a good day, and he laughed.”

There are others he wants to thank as well.

“All of the staff there in Duluth,” he adds. “I have a newfound respect for everyone who works in the medical field.”

He is thankful for his wife, Becky, who is taking excellent care of him, he says, from being nurse to chauffeur to cook.

“I gave blood just a couple of days before the ride,” Benson says. “Becky asked me then if I thought that was a good idea and I told her, oh, I will be just fine. Now she hasn’t once told me ‘I told you so.'”

He also thanks everyone for the dozens of cards and letters from so many people, and to all of those who are continuing to make donations to Habitat in his name.

“I think 40 percent of the Trinity (Lutheran Church in Blue Earth) congregation has donated,” he says. “And so many family, friends and others.”

Benson says he has a lot of time since his heart attack to reflect on his life, his faith, and all the things he has been blessed with. And decide what is important.

One of those things remains riding his bike.

He plans on getting back to bike riding by Sept. 15, if the doctors will let him. It will depend on how the physical therapy goes and how he feels.

Will he ride in the Habitat 500 next year?

“I will just have to wait and see, but I would like to,” he says. “After all, I still have 430 miles that I never finished this year. I feel bad about that. But, I do feel good that I was able to help bring awareness to our local Habitat for Humanity chapter.”

Thompson says the local Habitat for Humanity group is still getting donations in for the ride and will continue to accept them through the end of September, especially if someone wants to make a specific donation in Kevin Benson’s name.