Ragbrai-e-i-e-i-o

The (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Or Ragbrai, for short. It began in 1973, and every year travels the state West to East (or from coast to coast, as I keep saying). Riders traditionally dip their wheels into the Missouri River at the start and the Mississippi at the end. It’s the oldest (43 years), longest (462 miles this year), and biggest (20,000+ riders (!!!!!!) ) bike touring event in the world. I’d wanted to do it for years, but it’s a week of riding, plus travel, and there’s CAMPING, and complicated logistics. So I’d managed to put it off for just as many years. (I said MAYBE and LATER, but not YES.) Then, Jeff, a Livestrong pal, asked me to join this year’s Livestrong-Ragbrai team and said I could ride PART of it, and Cindy, my Kilimanjaro tent mate offered to bring me a tent and sleeping bag, thus minimizing schlepping, and Ragbrai 2015 materialized.

This being a Team Livestrong extravaganza, I knew it would be organized, fun, and inspirational. I flew in to Cedar Rapids International (!), got my bag from carousel one, (the only one), and met Jen, who drove us to Cedar Falls, where the ride’s Grand Depart would be the next morning. We rolled up to the Livestrong RV and campsite in the early afternoon; most of the 60 riders on the team were still out on the course somewhere, so I set up my bike (by myself) and my tent (with lots of help). I’ve been to many, many Livestrong events over my 15 years supporting the Foundation, and I felt like I know most of the other longtime supporters. But as my teammates rolled in, I realized that I didn’t know almost any of them, even though some of them have raised money and awareness for Livestrong since the Foundation first fielded a team 9 years ago. I was blown away by this fact, and by my cohesive, passionate, grounded Ragbrai team. Different people, same inspirational life stories. Proof that you don’t need to go too far out of your box to discover cool new people and experiences. All I had to do this time was poke my head out of the top.

Riding and living Ragbrai for the first time with a Livestrong team was the best of all worlds. Ragbrai is an undeniably overwhelming experience. When I took my first turn out of the campsite onto the route, I was taken aback by the sight of thousands of riders of all abilities, sizes, and ages crammed onto (both sides of) the road. I can’t even do it justice with photos or words; it’s just…… big. I found Ragbrai to be an indescribable rolling party with every kind of food, including homemade PIE; many. many beers stops, and all kinds of shops along the way. (Conventional wisdom is riders come home an average of 4 pounds FATTER than when they started.) You ride from town to town at whatever pace you like and stop wherever you like until you reach the overnight city. Riding with my Livestrong team meant I was never alone, always had someone to answer questions or laugh at my dumb jokes. It meant that when I dedicated my ride to my friend, Stu, no one asked who that was or why his memory still powers me down the road. It’s family, even though I’d only known them a few hours.

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Living strong for Stu

Having ridden through Iowa the WRONG direction last month with the Road to Discovery, I knew there would be hills, and I wasn’t disappointed. I also wasn’t disappointed with the amount of rain, which was confined to two hours yesterday. We hid under the Tom’s Turkey tent and ate sandwiches and pie til the rain stopped. What was slightly disappointing was the steadiness of the headwind. It can just suck the life out of you. After all, we are riding West to East this time and we should be getting a decent tail wind.

That all turned around today, our last day, when we got 60 miles of a pretty steady tailwind that bumped up our pace around 5 miles an hour or more. Add to that Amish-baked blueberry pie (I had pie every day, by the way) with homemade ice cream,

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Pie and ice cream with Kili tent mate Cindy!

a petting zoo where I got to hold a piglet named Bacon,

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I won’t eat you. little Bacon!

and riding to the finish with scores of Livestrong teammates I didn’t even know I had.. The powerful feeling of riding together to finish this ride made me want to cry, I won’t lie. It was one of my best days ever on the bike.

I went into Ragbrai expecting to experience an iconic bike ride through cool towns in Iowa while sporting yellow and supporting Livestrong, but as usual, I came away with much more. As always after a Livestrong event, my soul is recharged from being plugged in to the power of a team of people that speak my language, have lived my life, and have shared the emotions, frustrations, and victories that fighting this terrible disease brings. But I also saw, on every mile of the road, people who just went for the joy and the challenge of riding a bike (or an elliptical bike, roller blades, or a long board) across a state. These are thousands of people who may or may not be in physical or emotional shape to ride nearly 500 miles in a week, but they just went for it. Ragbrai makes that possible. There was no cut-off time or disqualification if you were slow; there was a SAG wagon if you didn’t feel like finishing one day, but you could get back on your bike the next day. And lots of folks did that. Resiliance. Determination. Call it stubbornness if you want. I loved the power of the human spirit. It’s Living Fearlessly. There are practical and dumb reasons I waited so long to dive in to this experience, but it was just as terrific as I could have hoped for.  And in two weeks, after I hopefully, get more good news on my CT scan at the NCI (or even if I don’t), I will head off to Columbus to ride in Pelotonia, a cycling weekend fundraiser for the James Cancer Center. Another first for me, but one that I said yes to the first time around. If there’s opportunity, I don’t say no anymore if I can help it. What are you NOT going to put off today?

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Team Livestrong at Ragbrai 2015