The last day was the most grueling. Denise Roy had spent hours churning the pedals on her handcycle to get to the top of Kancamagus Pass, an elevation of 2,855 feet.
She was tired, her arms were sore, and it was cold up there, about 40 degrees. The wind howled, with gusts reaching 60.
But the ordeal was worth the effort.
"The hills were pretty darn intense," recalled Roy, a learning specialist for HCC's STRIVE program, who had just completed the 104-mile Three Notch Century Ride in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. "Then, when you get to the summit, the feeling you get ... the views were spectacular. You feel like you're on top of the world."
Roy was joined on the three-day charity ride in early September by Maureen Conroy, director of HCC's Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services (OSDDS). Together, and with nine others, they made up "Team Chaos," riding to raise money for Northeast Passage, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities participate in sports and other physical activities.
In August, Conroy had ridden 192 miles in the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise money for cancer research; Roy had never completed a ride this long before. Last year, in 2012, they had instead selected the one-day, 40-mile option for the Northeast Passage ride.
To get ready, they trained, putting in between 1,000 - 2,000 miles since February, Roy estimates, riding together, sometimes alone, often through the western Massachusetts Hilltowns to simulate the grades they would face in the White Mountains.
"But there is really no way," Roy said. "I can't believe I did it."
Roy has used a wheelchair for close to 30 years, ever since she suffered a spinal injury in a car accident when she was 18. The ride, though, meant more to her than merely conquering a physical challenge.
In the early 1990s, she served on the board of directors for the fledgling Northeast Passage. She credits the nonprofit with helping her come to terms with her disability.
"Over the years, my life has gone through different stages, and I just felt they helped me change how I thought about myself as someone with a disability," said Roy. "It was life-changing and made me really believe I could still live a quality life and do all the things I still love to do and had passion for. I just had to do it a little bit differently."
Before her accident, Roy says, she was merely a recreational athlete. It wasn't until she needed a wheelchair that she discovered competitive sports. Soon after her injury, she met Juan Dixon, now the administrative assistant in OSDDS and himself a former champion Paralympic athlete, who introduced her to United Cerebral Palsy, an organization that had a sports program in western Massachusetts for people with disabilities. Through UCP, Roy was exposed to all kinds of adaptive programs, including wheelchair soccer and basketball, track and field, weight lifting, and tennis, which became her best sport.
Back then, Conroy was the coordinator of the program and served as Roy's coach.
"She's amazing," said Conroy. "She's a superstar."
Eventually, Roy succeeded Conroy as coordinator of the UCP sports program. Later, she was invited to New Hampshire to conduct a tennis clinic for Northeast Passage and wound up moving there for a couple of years. "The executive director wanted disabled athletes to be part of the new board, so she asked me to join," Roy said.
She also wound up testing new adaptive equipment for Northeast Passage. She went water skiing and tried mountain biking on a state-of-the-art four-wheel adaptive wheelchair that had an independent suspension, disc brakes and no roll bar. "I became a guinea pig," she said.
Roy moved back to western Massachusetts -- she grew up in Agawam -- to earn her bachelor's degree in education at UMass, intending to become a teacher. She wound up working instead for the Massachusetts Office on Disability. She had worked at Holyoke Community College briefly in the early '90s, then came back in 2010 to work in OSDDS.
Now she works for STRIVE, on the second floor of Donahue.
"I'm doing the similar things I did downstairs," Roy said, "so I'm working with students with disabilities, first-generation students and students with low and moderate incomes. Really, it's about providing students with academic support. If they have a disability it's taking a look at what they're accommodations may be and just really helping them get the support they need and help them develop their independence."
About two years ago, she started biking, she said, because it gives her the same thrill as downhill skiing and is easier on the elbows and shoulders than tennis.
She says participating in the Three Notch ride was a gift both to Northeast Passage and to herself, a way for her to stay healthy and give back to an agency for which she has a huge soft spot.
She's hoping to recruit more people from HCC to participate in the ride next year.
The route through the mountains takes bikers past deep gorges, mountain streams and waterfalls, to Franconia Notch the first day, Crawford Notch the second and Kancamagus Pass the third.
"It's one of the most beautiful rides you can imagine," she said.
Photos: (Left) Team Chaos (including Denise Roy, in blue, bottom left, and Maureen Conroy, in red) at Kancamagus Pass, at the conclusion of the Three Notch Century Ride to benefit Northeast Passage. (Right) Roy, left, rides through the White Mountains. (Thumbnail) Denise Roy rides her handcycle in the Three Notch Century Ride.