5 lessons learned from biking Iowa (at RAGBRAI)

Made it to the Mississippi River!

I had the awesome fortune to spend last week in Iowa with friends from Team LIVESTRONG. We biked across the state, dipping tires in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, to raise funds and awareness of LIVESTRONG‘s programs and services for people facing cancer. Sixty-five teammates raised more than $180,000 and created some amazing memories through our adventures.

I first rode in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) last year with the team (read about my favorite memories of that trip). I was nervous and excited for the endeavor, not sure how the titanium rod in my leg would hold up across so many miles on a bike. I said it was the only time that I would ride RAGBRAI. Until I registered again this year (ha). And I once again showed up nervous and excited. My leg felt amazing. I unfortunately developed another minor health issue that kept me from riding as much as I planned, and while I was disappointed in that, I still had a fabulous time with my friends. Through every adventure, I learn something, about myself and others. I loved visiting so many small towns, some with populations of under 1,000 (which can be quite overwhelming when 15K+ people show up to your town!), and meeting people from all across the country and world (Italy, England and Australia!). I loved reinforcing relationships with others, enjoying conversations, laughs and quiet moments that don’t need any words.

I learned a few lessons along the route that I’ll share below:

There is no “I” in team. It took our team working together to create a successful outcome. We raised more than $180,000 to support people facing cancer. This funding supports LIVESTRONG’s programs, including LIVESTRONG @ School, fertility assistance, navigation services, advocacy efforts and more. On the road, around the campground and in towns, we shared the LIVESTRONG message, our personal stories and even others’ stories to raise awareness of the programs and remind others that they are not alone in this journey. And while we in many ways rode as individuals, we supported, encouraged and cheered our teammates along the route.

Setting up at a new camp every night.

Getting out of your comfort zone is good. I love biking, camping and traveling. Doing all at once for a long period of time in the middle of small town Iowa (mostly without service) can be challenging. When I started to not feel well, I thankfully was in Signourney, a town of 2,100 that happened to have a walk-in clinic. And one pharmacy. And super friendly people who ferried me around on a golf cart. Attempting to bike 45+miles in a day is slightly intimidating, until I realized I was more worried about keeping up with my teammates than the physical challenge. When I shared that concern with one, she insisted I ride with a group of women who turned out to my heroines of the week by not only riding with me, but checking in constantly with me. I stretched myself emotionally, physically, and mentally, and experienced many new things, sights and activities. I loved (almost) every moment. It is a huge reminder that getting out of your comfort zone, no matter what part of life, can be amazing for you.

Being present helps others. I admit I was disappointed and frustrated when I learned I had to take some time from biking to get better. I worked hard to be physically ready to bike hundreds of miles. My leg felt great. I should not be sidelined. But as I’ve learned, life sometimes hands you lemons when you least expect nor want. When a friend heard my news, she gave me a huge hug and reminded me that I am still part of the team, still able to inspire and be there for others. She said, “You’re here with your family. With us. And every time someone arrives at camp, you share your smile and kindness. And that means something to that person. To all of us.” Her words hit home. She was right. Just because I couldn’t be on the bike didn’t mean I couldn’t help at camp, cheer for others, be a happy presence, and big hugger.  The week wasn’t about my personal journey, but being part of a team with a greater purpose of helping others.

Inspiring people.

People will change your life. There are a lot of personalities and stories on a team of 65 cyclists (and staff/volunteers). Every one has a cancer story. Some of us are survivors, others support family members and friends, some miss those no longer on this planet, and a few of us are all of the above. For all of the different backgrounds, ages, geography and personalities, we all come together as a family to support each other. Beyond our team, I love meeting people on the route and in the towns. I biked several miles with a woman who lost her 20-year old son to Ewings sarcoma (another form of bone cancer). When she heard I’m a 20-year osteosarcoma survivor, she wanted to hear my story for inspiration. That same day, I met another man whose sister is a 5-year bone cancer survivor. There is the woman who met her new husband at a cancer survivors conference two years ago (You all know I’m a sucker for a romantic story!), and the girl who lost her dad to multiple myeloma like I did. Then there was the young adult guy who approached our group when he saw the LIVESTRONG jerseys, because he was proud to be part of a cancer survivor community (I gave him a yellow wristband and huge hug). The people are so much of why I love this ride – the motivation, inspiration, hope and determination to power me forward on the bike and in life.

Ruby makes me smile.

I found “my happy place.” Horses were an obsession from a young age so when my parents finally let me start riding before my 10th birthday, it was a dream come true. I took lessons, worked at the barn for more riding and learning time. I was good at handling and riding horses, and was thrilled that I finally found something I truly excelled at. I was a strong rider and I simply understood the animals. But equally, they brought a peace, confidence and pleasure that I was sure would never be replaced. When I was diagnosed with bone cancer and the surgery to save my leg forced me to stop riding, I was admittedly devastated. The gaping hole in my heart lasted a long time, until I simply ignored it and concluded nothing would make me feel alive, confident and peaceful as riding horses. I tried a lot of activities, and as much as I enjoy things like hiking, camping, rock climbing, etc., nothing really clicked. And then I was encouraged to buy my road bike (read my blog about the freedom of the bike). While a road bike can never replace the love and joy from a living, magnificent animal like a horse, the activity of riding my bike suddenly blossomed into…..something special. I may still ask a million questions about my bike (there is so much to learn and I love it!), but there is something that finally clicked in me. Confidence, joy, mental peace, laughter, excitement at exploring, pride and much more. As a bone cancer survivor, I am limited in a lot of what I can do physically. It’s the reality of my situation (know that I am truly grateful for the abilities I do have), and I try to accept it but I admit there are times that I get frustrated with limitations. And while the risk of falling is fairly dangerous, and I won’t ever be the fastest, strongest or bravest cyclist, I can still feel such freedom and joy on that bike. And it finally clicked last week.

So it was on a day last week when I was riding into Ames, Iowa that there was a moment as we neared the end town, as I was tucked in behind one of my favorite people who was kindly blocking the headwind, that I couldn’t decide if I wanted to smile or cry (or maybe both). Because in that moment I realized the complete joy I was feeling on my bike. I felt physically confident, mentally relaxed and emotionally full of joy and contentment. This was that moment I had been seeking since I was forced to give  up horses because of cancer. Maybe it was the complete package of where I was, who I was with. Whatever caused it, I tucked that moment into my heart and I’m not going to forget any time soon. I will appreciate every moment that I’m able to ride, embrace the adventures and memories created on the bike, and feel gratitude for every person I encounter.

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