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A Love Story

A 4,000-mile cycling trek for cancer awareness led this young couple to the altar

James Baden and Mackenzie Williams, met, fell in love and courted over the 4,000 miles of a bicycle trek that stretched over 70 days and crossed the continent.

Couples can make less-than-ideal traveling companions. It’s a rare relationship that blossoms under the strain of a long-distance trip. Now imagine making that trip on bicycles, riding from Maryland to San Diego. A recipe for disaster? Hardly. It was a recipe for love.
    Our couple, James Baden and Mackenzie Williams, met, fell in love and courted over the 4,000 miles of a bicycle trek that stretched over 70 days. The recently married pair agreed to share their story with us.
    It’s a love story that starts with a terrible word: cancer.

The Diagnosis
    “In 2012, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor,” says Baden, 25, a native of West River. Baden’s tumor was cancer, and his promising future seemed at an end.
    “I was only 22, just out of college. I had everything in front of me,” he says.
    “Then on my first day of internship with the Boston Celtics, I had a seizure. My internship ended that day. I came home, and my doctors found a tumor in my brain.”
    The tumor was removed during surgery in August 2012 at Johns Hopkins. Pathology results indicated brain cancer.
    “After my surgery, I couldn’t drive for three months. So I had to pull out my bike,” says Baden. A student athlete, he played soccer, lacrosse and wrestled at Annapolis Area Christian High School and later at Messiah College, where he graduated in 2012.
    “Having cancer really brings you down off cloud nine,” says Baden. “I was on chemo for most of 2013.”
    That’s when Baden vowed to turn his experience from an end to a beginning.
    “I enjoyed riding my bike,” he says, “so I began doing some research and found 4K for Cancer, a fundraising branch for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults based in Baltimore.”
    Baden signed on for a bike trip across the country, Baltimore to San Diego: a 4,300-mile journey riding for six to eight hours a day and sleeping in homes, churches and gyms along the way.
    He was so committed to the cause — vowing to be the single largest fundraiser that year — that he signed up as a ride director as well. He ended up raising more than $24,000 and held the record until the following year.
    He credits his successful fundraising to community support, especially from his church, South County Community Church in Shady Side.
    “Matt and Debbie Kasap opened up their beautiful house to an auction and dinner to raise money. Christy Thomas also was a big help in organizing this, as well as my mother,” Baden says. “We had an amazing turnout from the auction and raised over $7,000.”
    The 4K for Cancer now raises more than $1 million annually for a fund for young adults with cancer.

The Plot Thickens
    This is where you expect his future wife’s entrance to the story. But she’s not due yet. First, an unexpected meeting.
    Baden set up a fundraising booth at a high school production of Hairspray at his sister Shannon’s school, Annapolis Area Christian.
    “This lady approaches me and begins telling me all about her daughter, who is also riding in a 4K for Cancer,” he explains. “There’s like 100 people participating in various legs of this event. Turns out, her daughter is riding in my trip to San Diego.”
    Enter Mackenzie Williams, the daughter.
    Williams, 20, a graduate of Broadneck High School, was living in Venice, California, with her aunt.
    “I had graduated early and moved out to California, planning to stay for a few months and then return to Maryland,” says Williams, continuing the story.
    “As ride director, James reached out to me through Facebook. We were both from the Annapolis area.”
    Williams signed up “to have a big adventure.” Meanwhile, she was contemplating a job offer in California.
    Then came a call from her sister.
    “She said she went to her friend’s school play and James Baden was there to raise money for your bike ride. Then she said what I thought at the time was the weirdest thing: You can’t move to California! You’re going to marry James.
    “I thought it was so strange at the time, but I turned down the job and flew back to Maryland. A month before the bike ride started, I began training.”
    When Williams returned to Maryland, she met Baden for dinner.
    It was not love at first sight, Baden admits.
    “She wasn’t really training before I met her,” he says. “She definitely needed a nudge. So her dad reached out to me as the ride director.
    “The first night I met her, she had just got in (from California) and she was grumpy because her car had broken down in D.C.,” he recalls. “I kept thinking to myself, This girl is kind of tough, and I kind of wish her sister Darcy was going on the ride instead.”
    They planned to begin training the next day. At that point, Williams wanted to back out but had no way of reaching Baden. Lucky for her.

Friendship Turns to Love
    “Something definitely clicked for us on that training ride,” she says. “We went out nearly every day until the 4K.
    ‘Since I only had one month before the bike ride once I came back to Maryland, and no job — plus James was finishing up chemo and radiation — we had a lot of free time on our hands.”
    Friendship had time to bloom.
    While training, the couple also volunteered at the Hope Lodge in Baltimore, where cancer patients can stay during their treatment at Hopkins.
    That’s where Williams says she “really started to see that James has the kindest heart.”
    They also found out they were pretty similar.
    “We had many things in common,” she says. “We were both close to our families, we both went to the same middle and high school and we both liked to take adventures and laugh a lot.”
    Baden, in turn, was moved by Williams’ dedication to attend doctors’ appointments and check-ups with him.
    “She goes to every scan I have, even now,” he says.
    Soon friendship turned to love.
    “I started falling for James before the ride ever began,” Williams now admits. “I started to see that he really stood firm in his faith and that inspired me. Plus he is a man who puts family before anyone else. He was incredibly respectful. He listened, was funny and very driven. He pushed me, and I pushed him back. We could be competitive together.
    “We grew very close very fast. There were countless times I thought he would kiss me before he actually did.”
    On a big training ride from Annapolis to Ocean City, they moved officially out of the friend zone.
    Williams remembers sitting on the dock, talking. “He said to me, I know I’m older than you — he was 23 and I was 18 — and I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage of you, but can I kiss you? I agreed.”
    The couple jokes that Baden didn’t want to move faster because if things didn’t work out, he would be stuck riding with her for 70 days.
    “Now he is stuck with me for life,” Williams says.

Going the Distance
    Then came the 4K.
    “We rode 60 to 120 miles a day, usually in small groups. After spending six to eight hours a day with someone, you get to know them very well,” Baden says.
    Crossing the country, the cyclists made visits to support groups, cancer societies and facilities, places such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Hope Lodges, the Livestrong Foundation and Duke Cancer Center.
    “It was amazing to see how much what we were doing inspired people,” Williams says. “Everyone has at least one connection to cancer, and people were very, very generous.”
    As they rode, commitment deepened.
    “I was sure that this was the man I was going to marry,” Williams says. “I wrote him a note telling him for the first time that I loved him. A few nights later, he woke me up to tell me that he loved me too.
    “I rode every day thinking of my Aunt Rachael, but as the trip progressed I realized I was also riding in support of my best friend and future husband.”
    Back in Maryland, “I immediately started saving for a ring,” Baden says. “I asked her to marry me after a motorcycle ride to North Beach.”
    Baden secretly arranged for a photographer to follow as they walked on the beach.
    “I had it all planned, and it ran 100 percent according to my plan,” he says.
    Until he bobbled the ring.
    “I had the ring in a little zipper pocket. As I’m walking behind her, I’ve got one eye out for the photographer, and I’m trying to get the ring out of my pocket, and it falls … Thankfully I caught it and got down on one knee.”
    “I pushed him and told him to stop messing around,” Williams recalls. “He almost dropped it again. Then I saw the ring and realized what I had done. Whoops!”
    The hidden photographer captured the moment.
    The couple wed in September at a family friend’s home on the water in Chester.
    The couple took off on their second big adventure, backpacking across Europe for three months. They returned in December and are looking forward to their next adventure. Baden is in remission, and Williams is starting school again in Virginia.
    “There are,” Baden says, “so many more things we want to do in our lives.”