His back ached. His quads burned. Before the end of his first day of cycling more than 60 miles, Sean Brown started "bonking" - rider slang for hitting the wall.
Every time he got over a hill, another rose ahead of him. This weeklong trek across Iowa was tougher than he thought.
"That first day was pretty scary," said Brown, recalling last year's bike ride, for which he raised more than $7,000 for cancer research. "I thought I couldn't do this for seven days."
One thought kept him going: The pain he felt was nothing like the pain that his sister, Lisa Kae Brown, underwent before breast cancer claimed her life in March 2006. It doesn't compare to the pain from the partial mastectomy that his other sister, Lori Fisher, had the week before his bike ride started in July 2007.
Brown, 38, was riding for them. He was riding for himself, too.
"When you watch someone you love die, and you can do nothing ...," Brown said, his voice trailing off. "In her memory, we could do something for other people. That was how it was cathartic. Just going out and hurting felt good."
Brown and his brother, Jeff Brown, who live together in Curtis Bay, will join up to 200 other riders with Team LiveStrong to take part in The Des Moines Register's annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa from July 20 to July 26. RAGBRAI, as it is known, attracts more than 10,000 riders, and it will go on this year despite flooding that ravaged parts of the state last month. The 471-mile race cuts through the center of Iowa and climbs 22,500 feet of hills.
Each LiveStrong rider must raise a minimum of $1,500 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The Browns hope to raise $10,000 this year. So far, they have collected $795 in donations.
The brothers' ride takes on renewed meaning this year. Their mother, Shirley Brown of Glen Burnie, had a cancerous tumor removed from her colon in May. Doctors will check her again next week to determine whether they removed all the cancer.
Shirley Brown, who hails from Ottumwa, Iowa, said she is proud of her sons for finding a way to cope with the death of their sister. The death of one of her six children devastated her and the rest of the family.
"You don't get past it," Shirley Brown said. "It's a void in your life that never goes away."
Doctors diagnosed Lisa Brown's breast cancer in August 2005. She died March 12, 2006. Lisa Brown, who lived in Severna Park, was a teacher at Arundel Middle School in Odenton.
Jeff Brown, 45, said it was hard to recover from the shock of seeing his sister turn from a vibrant, energetic woman into a heavily medicated cancer patient in a matter of six months.
"There's nothing you can do," Jeff said. "It's just a very helpless feeling."
Sean could not stand to see how much his sister had deteriorated and said he prayed for her life to end.
"I never thought it would get to that point where I would just want her to go," Sean said. "I was embarrassed. I was very angry that I was thinking that."
After her death, Sean tried to focus on work and block out thoughts about his elder sister's death at the age of 47.
Jeff, a triathlete, suggested they do RAGBRAI. Three of their elder sisters, including Lisa, had lived in Ottumwa until the family relocated to the Baltimore area about 1962.
Jeff had heard that Lance Armstrong might ride in RAGBRAI again to raise money for his foundation, which has taken in more than $250 million for cancer research and prevention since 1997.
The two brothers are huge fans of Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer and went on to win seven Tours de France. They wore his LiveStrong wristbands even before Lisa's diagnosis.
"That's epic what the guy did," Sean said.
The brothers contacted the foundation and joined the team. During that time, doctors discovered that their 53-year-old sister Lori had early stages of breast cancer.
She decided to take a more aggressive approach than her sister and had her right breast removed.
"I didn't want to have to look back and look over my shoulder," said Lori, who lives in Glen Burnie.
As she recovered from the surgery, her brothers jumped into the car and drove out to Iowa. Armstrong spent several days riding with team LiveStrong before flying to France to see his Discovery Channel team accept the championship for the Tour de France.
Sean rode behind Armstrong for about five miles before pulling away to let other bikers get close to him.
"Frankly, I didn't have the legs to keep up," he said.
Jeff, who had an easier ride, coached Sean to eat more Power Bars and energy gels to keep up his carbs and electrolytes.
The brothers took emotional energy, too, from riding with cancer survivors. One woman, who had lost all her hair, had taken a break from chemotherapy to ride.
"It was awesome to be around those people," Sean said.
By the second day, the brothers traded their LiveStrong shirts for T-shirts with Lisa's picture on them. People started to approach them on breaks and ask about Lisa. For Sean, it felt good to break the silence and talk about her.
Sean and Jeff rode five hours a day, clocking more than 60 miles a day. Their sister, Lori, tracked their route online and sent text messages to Sean daily about the towns he would visit.
Lori, who is now cancer-free, said she swells with pride knowing that her brothers are contributing to free cancer screenings and help for cancer patients. "There are options out there for people because of efforts like my brothers'," she said.
To prepare for this year's race, Sean rides his bike three hours a day after he finishes working from home for Trace Security, which provides cyber-security services. He wants to be up to 40 miles a day by the time the race starts. Jeff, who is a personal trainer and helps run the family shoe business in Severna Park, will bump up his weekly ride from 180 miles to 200 miles for the next two weeks.
Still, Jeff expects the ride to be tough this year with the odor of rotting crops and the bulging mosquito population brought on by the flooding.
He thinks that Iowa needs RAGBRAI as much as he and his brother do. Each town along the route sells food and provides services for the riders as they roll through.
"They need something like this to bring them out of the funk that they're in," Jeff said.