AURORA — Cycling 500 in miles in six days was initially all about the challenge for Mesabi East second grade teacher Mariah Peterson.
Little did she know then, fresh out of high school 10 years ago, that the mission of the fundraising ride would become so meaningful to her as an educator.
And, that all those miles of peddling would turn into a love story.
Peterson in 2010 rode her first Habitat 500 — a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota — after being invited by a friend’s parents.
Riding 500 miles “sounded a bit crazy,” she said. “But they were on the older side of parents, and I thought, if they can do it, I can do it.”
The following summer, Peterson participated again, cycling with her mom in the annual ride, which changes routes within the state each year.
It was then she met Josh Peterson, who was riding with his dad. “We rode a couple days together and connected afterward,” Peterson said. Soon the two were driving back and forth from North Dakota State University, where Josh was a student, and St. Cloud State University, where Mariah was studying.
They married in June of 2011.
Peterson and her husband, who is the sixth to 12th grade band director at Mesabi East in Aurora, will both participate again in this year’s 27th annual Habitat 500 which begins Sunday — with Josh cycling the full 500 miles and Mariah volunteering at rest stops.
He will be among the more than 140 individuals from across the state who will ride for one, three, or six days on the course starting and ending this year in Hermantown, with overnight stops in Hibbing and Aurora.
And the couple’s young children, Maizy, 2, and Alora 4 months, will be along for the ride — “helping” their mom at the rest stop.
The Habitat 500 has taken the Petersons each year to various places in the state, including the Twin Cities and western and southern Minnesota. Mariah Peterson said she is excited for the ride to be closer to home.
The route will “literally” circle their house in Aurora and Mesabi East school.
Each year, riders visit Habitat affiliates and work sites.
Tuesday, about 20 riders will spend time working on two North St. Louis County Habitat for Humanity home builds in Eveleth, said Susan Garrett, NSLCHFH community relations manager. Catholic Daughters of America will provide their lunch.
Last year, Habitat 500 raised more than $300,000. Riders collect funds and designate the Habitat affiliate they wish to support. One-day riders must raise at least $250; three- or six-day riders obtain a minimum of $500. Each rider also pays a registration fee of $100 to $400.
The event additionally raises awareness for Habitat, something that is important to the Petersons.
“As teachers, we both agree that with a stable housing situation, worries go away and children can focus on math or reading in school,” Mariah Peterson said. Every house the ride helps build, she said, has a “huge impact on everyone in that Habitat homeowner’s family, possibly for generations.”
Her husband has been “biking as much as possible” to train, often “towing the kids along” in a bike trailer that allows children to pedal. They cycle from Aurora to Giants Ridge in Biwabik, stopping for a while at a playground, she said.
Cycling 500 miles is tiring and comes with many sore muscles, Peterson said of her many years riding the full Habitat 500.
But it’s so worth it, she said.
She takes part in the fundraiser each year, she noted, because of all the passionate people involved in and impacted by the ride.