Love, Inclusion, and Encouragement Made a 50-mile Bike Ride Possible

Love, Inclusion, and Encouragement Made a 50-mile Bike Ride Possible

August 08, 2023

By Liz Winders, Director of Communications
RAGBRAI (Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is an 8-day, 500-mile festival of bicycles, music, food, camaraderie, and community. It is the world’s oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle touring event. 2023 is their 50th-anniversary and the inaugural #BeUMC team’s ride. From July 22-29, I drove the 12-passenger minibus to support the team.
When I accepted my position as the Director of Communications for the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, RAGBRAI was not a part of my job description. 
I had ridden a day of RAGBRAI thirty-two years ago, in 1991, when I was in my twenties, and I am now an almost 60-year-old grandmother with a full-time job. 
Don’t get me wrong, I love to go on bike rides, but riding on one of the hottest days of the year in high humidity is not usually a day you will see me on the trails. 
Matthew Johnson is a forty-year-old Walnut Hills United Methodist Church member from Clive, IA, who lives independently with his cat Twist. After finding out that his pastor, Rev. Nate Nims, was a part of forming a #BeUMC team on RAGBRAI, his mom, Peggy Palmer-Johnson, emailed Nate inquiring if Matthew could join the team.
“Our son, Matthew, has mild intellectual and developmental disabilities…He loves to ride his recumbent three-wheel bike and has always wanted to do one day of RAGBRAI. I think it would be a wonderful ministry if someone were willing to mentor a group of individuals with disabilities to do a one-day ride,” wrote Peggy. “This would be a powerful message of love and inclusion to a group of people often marginalized in the church!”
In March, I met up with Nate, Matthew, and his mom and dad, and I agreed to accompany him for his first time on RAGBRAI to fulfill his dream of being on the ride. We planned to train on our bikes to get ready for the ride. Note: I should have prepared more by acclimating to the heat and humidity, which ultimately tried to do me in. Matthew did train diligently all spring on his NuStep machine.

So, on the fourth day of RAGBRAI, Nate, Matthew, and I set off from Ames Collegiate United Methodist Church and Wesley Foundation at 7:00 a.m. with approximately 60,000 others to bike from Ames to Des Moines.
I quickly learned that water breaks are essential when riding in the heat, and we stopped frequently. By the end of the ride, it was 96 degrees with a heat index of over 100.
We had a great ride stopping in Slater for breakfast burritos and a water break, seeing the antique tractors at a farm outside of town and a water break, enjoying an Iowa craft root beer and Mr. Porkchop (they were terrific) and a water break, eating fresh churned Beekman’s Ice Cream and signing the quilt at Hopkins Grove UMC and a water break, avoiding the crowd in Polk City and a water break, and finally stopping in Ankeny for a bite of pizza and a water break.

Now this is when the tables turned, and I needed to be accompanied by Matthew and Nate because I knew it would be a long haul for me in the heat to get to Des Moines, and I mentioned I might have to stop. 
Matthew is very knowledgeable about central Iowa and talked to me all day about where we were and what he knew about the places we were biking past, pointing out details as we went. He recently played on the Link Leisure Services Basketball Team at the Special Olympics Spring Classic Competition. He had plenty of endurance and no trouble riding, and he distracted me from thinking about the heat.
“Whatcha going to do, girlie?” Matthew gently asked me as we rested in Ankeny, and I thought I couldn’t disappoint him and not ride to the end, so I needed to keep going.
Did you know there is no shade from Ankeny to the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines? I didn’t. There isn’t. 
Matthew and Nate rode slowly with me and had incredible patience, stopping when I needed a break and encouraging me when I didn’t think I could go another foot. 
All my thoughts were about how weak I was, how I didn’t train properly, what an embarrassment I was, all negative. 
The reality was that I had been sleeping on a cot in communal-style arrangements in United Methodist Churches for the past four nights. I was getting up most mornings around 6:00 a.m., driving a 12-passenger minibus until well into the evening, and trying to eat healthy from Casey’s and Kum and Go’s. To say I was tired before hopping on my bike that morning is an understatement. I was wiped.
Thankfully people were spraying water onto the riders as we rode down NE 14th Street into Des Moines because those sprinkles of water were amazing. 
At about 5:00 p.m., I WAS ELATED when I saw Rev. Bill Poland, who agreed to drive the minibus for me for the day, sitting by the bus beside the 13-foot #BeUMC flag. I finished! I rode 50 miles! And Matthew had too! Nate is a regular biker, and this was like a recovery ride for him.
Later that evening, as I lay in my cot in the all-purpose room at Oakwood United Methodist Church in Pleasant Hill with the rest of the #BeUMC team, I thought about how strong Matthew and Nate are and had it not been for them, I wouldn’t have finished riding my second day of RAGBRAI. 
I said a prayer, thanking God for bringing people into my life when I needed them the most and for the love and encouragement given to me by Matthew and Nate. I promised God that I would continue to be loving and inclusive and that if Matthew or others with disabilities want to ride next year, I will be more than happy to ride my third day of RAGBRAI.
FYI: I still need another week of PTO to recover.