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Call Her Quiet Thunder: Breast Cancer Didn't Slow Down this Cyclist

Jennifer Diederich pulling her dog on her bike

Somewhere in storage, Jennifer Diederich has a racing jersey that reads, "Quiet Thunder." Though the nickname was given to her by a cycling group several years ago, the sentiment is still evident in Jen today. She is soft-spoken by nature, but her athletic feats speak volumes.

Born into a military family in Illinois, Jen and her twin sister, Melissa, moved around a lot as kids. Texas, Arizona, Alaska, and Oklahoma were all places they called home. Decades later, Jen and Melissa returned to Alaska as adults. Although the two were inexperienced cyclists at the time, they decided to train for a race. But it wasn’t your typical distance, or even an ultra. It was the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). The Iditarod, known to many as a sled dog race ending in Nome, Alaska, is so named for the trail system that cuts diagonally across frozen tundra and wilderness. The invitational is 350 miles of cycling, skiing, and walking the Iditarod Trail. It is held in February.

"We’d been training for the ITI, and I ended up finding a lump on my left side. I went in for a breast exam. I was 40, so I was planning on getting a mammogram that year. I had a diagnostic mammogram, and the doctors found something. I got an ultrasound, a biopsy, and another biopsy because there was another lump on the right side."

Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. After meeting other people with breast cancer, she calls herself lucky because they caught the cancer early, before it had spread.

"Cancer was life changing," Jen reflects. "I ended up saying yes to a whole lot more and doing lots of different things—which has been great."

Jen and her sister hit the trail again. They attempted the ITI in 2017, but had to stop partway through because a flu had spread among riders and they fell terribly ill.

"But we completed it in 2018," Jen says. It took them eight days. "For the last 50 miles, the trail conditions were just mush. We had to push our bikes to the finish. It took us 23 hours. We took breaks but didn’t stop to sleep," Jen recalls. "There were a lot of hallucinations on that last leg," she laughs. "But we just wanted to finish it."

Jen and Melissa Diederich with their bikes in the snow
Jen and Melissa at the start of the last 50 miles to McGrath.

By then, Jen had moved to Salt Lake City for work, but she’d flown back to Alaska for the ITI. A few months later, she heard about the Huntsman 140: a road bike race benefitting Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), where she was receiving follow-up care for her cancer. She signed up for the race.

At a checkpoint, Jen paused for a snack and some water. There, a fellow cyclist named Frank struck up a conversation. "He said to me, ‘Your bike is heavily loaded,’" Jen remembers. "Because I had my pump. I thought I might need it for the race. With the ITI, you pack all your own gear. I said, ‘This isn’t heavily loaded. I’ve been doing fat tire biking and that is heavily loaded,’" she laughs. "I think it was an excuse he came up with to chat."

The two clicked immediately. Frank, who was there with some Air Force buddies, was wearing an F-22 jersey. Jen had worked on that exact fighter jet program when she was at Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense company. As it turned out, they had a lot in common. Both Jen and Frank are twins. Both grew up with fathers in the military.

"We actually started on the F-22 Program the same year. I was at Lockheed Martin and Frank was at the testing facility in the military," Jen says. "But we didn’t know each other at all. I left a year later to start my master’s in biomedical engineering."

It would take months to learn all of this about one another, as the spark from the checkpoint grew. They had met at mile marker 70: the halfway point.

Jen and Frank got married a few years later—at the finish line of a different bike race (where else?).

"Our wedding was pretty much all bike-related. We got married in biking clothes after a gravel race. A friend said to me, ‘Okay, I’m at least going to wipe the dirt off your face.’"

Jennifer Diederich getting engaged to Frank
Frank proposing to Jen.
The two moved later that year, after accepting an opportunity from Frank’s work to live abroad. They currently reside in Holland and just finished their first bikepacking vacation with some friends, pulling their gear and dog in a trailer as they made a loop through the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium.

"Both of us have traveled a lot," Jen says, "but this is my first time getting to live overseas. I’m really enjoying seeing the different areas and getting to know the environment and the culture."

"We’ll be abroad for the foreseeable future," she continues. "So when I came back to Salt Lake City to sell the house and downsize, pretty much all furniture was donated or sold. But we kept the gear and bikes."

Cancer touches all of us.