For four years, Sinai Health System Chairman Steve Koch had been planning the bike trip of a lifetime: a 3,100-mile father-and-son ride along the southern tier of the United States, across desert, through bayous and over mountains. As the event neared, he waxed enthusiastic to Sinai CEO Alan Channing.

"He and I had done some biking together," says Channing. "And I said, 'Gee, maybe we should do it as a fund-raiser.' "

An investment banker not known for his impulsiveness, Koch was a bit hesitant at first, but he quickly warmed up to the idea. The timing was good: The 91-year-old Mount Sinai Hospital recently had embarked on a $20 million capital campaign for a new ambulatory care center.

"It provided a hook for people who might have had an awareness of Sinai to get intrigued on what's going on here," Koch says.

Located in Lawndale, one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, Mount Sinai rarely made the local news for anything other than a crime victim being transported to its Level I trauma center. "Other than that, it's out of sight, out of mind," Koch says. "It's always a challenge getting people in other parts of the city to pay attention."

The worn-out and outdated buildings definitely needed attention. Sinai's current ambulatory care center is squeezed into an old dormitory that isn't handicapped accessible.

"When I started here, I asked our chief financial officer the average age of the physical plant," Channing says. "And he laughed at me. I said, 'Why are you laughing at me?' And he said, 'Well, the answer is old.' "

The last capital campaign had taken place 30 years before. "When you're a financially challenged hospital in the inner city, you do everything to keep the doors open and focus on the care being given, not generating excess cash," says Koch, who has been on the board 24 years. He is the grandson of one of Mount Sinai's founders, Morris Kurtzon, a lighting factory owner who in 1919 saw the need for a hospital to serve Jewish immigrants in the West Side neighborhood.

Koch and his son Jacob kicked off their cycling odyssey Sept. 6 in San Diego. The trip to St. Augustine, Fla., took 56 days at about 75 miles per day, the first month of which was "bearishly hot," Koch says. They chronicled the ride at www.cyclingforsinai.com.

"This is the sort of trip where every day has something special or unique or memorable about it," Koch says. "There's just a rhythm to it. Accomplishing every day's goals is a highlight. We felt a huge high getting across a particularly big mountain, or an expanse of desert or across a river. The United States on this route breaks down almost perfectly. West of Austin, you get desert and mountains, while east is pine forest and relatively flat. You're exposed to the elements, and you get a deep visceral appreciation for the landscape."

Friends, including philanthropist Penny Pritzker and Chicago Park District President Bryan Traubert, pedaled along for stretches of the trip. Channing, a "bit of a biker" who had a quintuple bypass last April, spent four days and 200 miles riding with the Kochs.

"I made one big mistake," Channing deadpans. "I had the whole country to pick from, and I decided to join him in the West Texas hill country. Who knew that in Texas, when they say 'hills,' they're serious."

The ride so far has raised $400,000 for the hospital's campaign. Maybe more importantly, it was a morale booster for a staff wrapped up in the day-to-day intensity of trauma and poverty.

When the ride was over, Koch was welcomed back with a reception at the hospital. With the receiving line winding through the room and down the hall, Koch spent two hours shaking hands.

"The turnout was just phenomenal," Channing says. "I'd never seen anything like it. Doctors, nurses, housekeepers, food services people all lined up to say thank you to Steve, and he was unbelievably humbled by it. The idea that somebody did this for Sinai has made people walk a little bit taller."