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Four wheels, two people, one goal: Northborough friends bike up East Coast to help those with ALS

Jim Bruce will be riding from Florida to Massachusetts starting next month to raise funds for CCALS. (Photo/Courtesy CCALS)

NORTHBOROUGH – When Jim Bruce is midway through a long bike ride, he doesn’t think about his aching muscles, tired body, or the many miles ahead. Instead, he thinks of his son Matt, who passed away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 2014 at the age of 26.

On April 1, Bruce, along with his longtime friend Diane Stokes, will leave Falmouth, Fla., on a 29-day, 1,600-mile bicycle journey winding up the Atlantic Coast and ending in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The trip is meant to honor Bruce’s son Matt, as well as raise funds for Compassionate Care ALS (CCALS).

Bruce, who is married and had three children, has lived in Northborough his whole life and had a 34-year career as a police sergeant.

However, tragedy struck the Bruce family when his son Matt was diagnosed with ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — a fatal disease that affects the connection between the nervous system and the muscles, leading to muscle atrophy and eventually the loss of the ability to walk, talk, and breathe.

There is no cure for ALS.

Bruce said that his family’s life was “forever changed” upon learning of Matt’s diagnosis. An outgoing and outdoorsy man, Bruce said his son loved to live life. Matt had graduated from college with the hope of becoming a funeral director. He had passed his first board exam at the time of his diagnosis.

“He never complained or said, ‘why is this happening to me?’ As a matter of fact, the day he told us he had ALS… he actually went back to work. He just enjoyed life,” Bruce said.

“I don’t know that it made it easier or harder for us,” he continued. “Usually when someone gets a diagnosis they’re feeling bad and that makes you feel bad. But when somebody accepts it, sometimes that makes you feel good, but at the time it made me feel sad that he was accepting it.”

Matt passed away at the age of 26 in 2014, but not before seeing Europe with his cousins and taking a separate trip to Ireland.

“He lived his dying, basically — right up until the moment he passed away.”

Riding with compassion

After Matt’s death, Bruce, Stokes — who was a fellow outdoor enthusiast he met while she was his daughter’s teacher – and others used their athletic talents to raise money for CCALS.

While some organizations focus on finding a cure or raising awareness about ALS, CCALS focuses on making sure people diagnosed with ALS are comfortable and receive the best quality care as they battle the disease.

The Bruce family connected with CCALS early on. Today, Bruce serves as President of the CCALS Board.

Bruce, who had been curious about riding cross-country prior to his retirement, settled on a bicycle ride designed to honor his son and fundraise for CCALS.

Stokes wasn’t going to let Bruce bike alone.

Diane Stokes will be riding from Florida to Massachusetts starting next month. (Photo/Courtesy CCALS)

“The Bruce family is just a wonderful family,” Stokes said. “So when Matt got sick, we were just trying to help them in any way that we can. When Jim said he wanted to do this ride… I said, ‘Well, you’re not doing it yourself, so I’ll do it with you!’”

With the two avid cyclists raring to go, the only question left was where the journey would take them. Falmouth, Mass., immediately came to mind.

It’s home of CCALS and where Bruce got his start in running.

After Matt was diagnosed, CCALS founder Ron Hoffman built a special race wheelchair in Bruins colors for Bruce to push Matt in during the race. Though Matt passed away before race day, Bruce still pushed the wheelchair, holding only a picture of Matt, during the race.

“Every year since then, I push someone in the wheelchair [Ron made] during the Falmouth Road Race that’s living with ALS,” Bruce said.

Falmouth would be the ending point, and since Bruce and Stokes opted for an East Coast journey instead of a cross-country venture, they made the choice to start their odyssey in Falmouth, Fla.

All in all, between Florida and Massachusetts, the journey covers over 1,600 miles. The “lightest” day of travel calls for a 26.2-mile ride.

The duo will stop 29 times. Each time they stop, they will meet with a local family that has been affected by ALS.

While both Bruce and Stokes are experienced cyclists, both acknowledged that this is a unique challenge. After even their most ambitious races, they often have several rest days to recover. Not this time.

“We’ve never ridden 30 days in a row between 60-100 miles a day. This is going to challenge us in a new way that we’ve never been challenged before,” Bruce said.

A welcome challenge

However challenging the race may be, Bruce and Stokes emphasized that ALS patients and families have it worse.

“I’ve always tried to keep my son in my memory and also the people who are living with ALS,” Bruce said. “I figure, whatever pain I’m feeling, whatever discomfort I’m feeling, I try to figure that what I’m feeling is nothing compared to what they’re going through.”

“You’re thinking about how much your butt hurts, how much your shoulders and back hurt… but you just try to put all that behind you and remember what you’re out there for,” he added.

Stokes agreed.

“It’ll be a challenge, but nothing compared to what the ALS patients endure and what the families are dealing with,” she said.

Bruce and Stokes hope to fundraise $100,000 for CCALS to help those afflicted with the disease — every dollar helps. To donate, visit