Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | July 31, 2016

Days 37-45: Lots of riding, no writing

Days 37-45
Destination: Crossing Iowa
Miles ridden: 475 miles. Total: 2,460

jenna hug

Sweat wasn’t the only salt water being shed right here. Tears of joy, relief and the sadness of parting after such a great week were also in play for father and daughter.

When we started to list the highlights and lowlights from our week biking across Iowa in the 2016 RAGBRAI, my first instinct was to focus on the fact that we’d spent a week without many of the usual comforts of home.


We started this part of the trip more than a week ago. I was joined for the 420 or so miles of biking over the rolling hills of southern Iowa by my daughter, her boyfriend, one of her friends and her dad, and my cousins Mike, Sally and Shannon. We all rode. We all got sore. We griped a little about the hills, the camping conditions, and the challenges of grinding out miles, day after day after day. But we also reveled in the experience. Our group rode the miles. Grinded out the hills. We ate, drank and slept RAGBRAI for a week. And that’s not all.

When you share a camp with 1,000 other cyclists, you share more than the space. You compete for food. You compete for quiet. You compete for shade. And you endure a week of porta-potties. And let me tell you this: When there are 1,000 people in camp (the case for our particular charter company), the 12-20 porta-potties just doesn’t cut it. So, yeah, there were lots of stories that dealt with bodily functions. That just goes with the territory.

Here’s the mileage for the week:
Saturday, July 23: I rode 35 miles, arriving in Glenwood, Iowa, the starting point of this year’s ride. I was greeted by my cousin Mike, our chief organizational officer for this group. He was a rock, from beginning to end. He made everything easier than it otherwise would have been. Soon after we all arrived in camp, we were in downtown Glenwood VFW Hall, enjoying air conditioning and $1 Bud Lights.

Team ragbrai 2016

Our “team” in Pork Belly Ventures camp.

Sunday: 55 miles (it was supposed to be about 50 miles, but because we got lost coming into town — I’ll take the blame for that — we ended up riding five more miles than we were supposed to.) If this would have happened any other day, I would have faced the wrath of my teammates. Instead, everyone was in good humor and soon we were shifting into post-ride mode.
Monday: 75 miles of rolling hills. Always rolling. The day featured, according to the organizers, 4,000 feet of climbing. Someone we talked to, who had a computer during the various climbs said it was close to 5,000 feet. I believe that guy. It was a long and hard day. Jenna had never ridden more than the 55 miles we had ridden on Sunday. We were doing fine until we stopped for a beer at the Iowa Craft Beer Garden about 12-15 miles from town. That was a mistake. Well, at least for Jenna. She struggled all the way home and the hills were hellish late in the ride. There was a lot of silent suffering going on, but we made it in. That’s really all that counts on some of these days.
Tuesday: 58 miles and again lots of climbing — almost 4,000 vertical feet, according to the RAGBRAI website. It was a long day with many stops for food and drink. I rode with Jenna’s boyfriend, Alex, and we blasted up one hill after another. As we entered the host town that night, we passed a sign for a spaghetti dinner. We looked at each other and immediately knew we were going to be stopping. “Spaghetti dinner, that sounds pretty good,” I said to Alex. As we approached, two little girls screamed. “Spaghetti! Spaghetti! If you don’t stop, you’ll make us dance.” And then they danced. We stopped. We did not regret having two dinners that night. Having 3, 4, 5 full meals a day just seems right when you’re riding like this.Everyone made it to camp and no one had trouble falling asleep.
Wednesday: 65 miles. Still more hills. But we had figured out by now that this was just going to be a week-long spin class led by a masochistic leader. Competition for Butt Butter was fierce, but that and the beer took the edge off. Spirits were high. It seemed like we had crossed some sort of threshold. Jenna and her friend Dana wondered aloud if they might like to do this again next year.

Jenna montage

Sharing RAGBRAI with Jenna.

Thursday: 51 miles. It was a nice day, but still more hills and the grind of the week of camping and the ongoing discomfort of long days in the saddle began to take its toll. The mood swings from one day to the next were dramatic. “I think I’m over it,” Jenna said. “I’d be fine if this ended right now.”
Friday: 68 miles. Our group, at least some of us, got a second wind today. The ride was long, but the hills heading east were gentle and we rode under clouds most of the day with a steady tailwind. It was, by far, the best riding day of the week. Just spectacular. Jenna and I rode together all day. She had a big smile as we rolled into camp. We were almost done. The weariness of Thursday gave way to melancholy that this great ride was coming to an end. Like I said, mood swings. One highlight: As Jenna and I were cruising just a few miles from finishing, we passed the Iowa Corn Growers association tent. They were offering free corn. And free T-shirts. And free beer koozies. “We haven’t had corn yet,” Jenna said by way of encouragement. So we stopped. I had two ears of “peaches and cream” corn. They were just a little slice of heaven.

Screen grab alex jenna mark

Crossing the RAGBRAI “finish line” with Jenna and Alex on my right flank.

Saturday: 50 miles (plus about 20 more for me) This was a sweet ride. Tail winds. Mostly flat (only about 1,300 feet of climbing). I rode with Jenna, her boyfriend Alex, Jenna’s friend Dana and her dad Greg the whole day. Everyone felt strong today. We rolled into Muscatine on the waves of emotion and relief and the cheers of locals. We had done it! The sweetest words we heard all day? A woman near the peak of one final hill climb, said “That’s it! It’s all downhill from here!!” I glanced over at my daughter, caught her big smile and knew we had made it. The finish line for the rest of them. And a bittersweet parting for me, as I had more riding to do. Always a little more riding.
Sunday: A day of rest. I needed a little healing day today. That and we needed to do laundry and reorganize after a week of choas that included just shoving all of our stuff in various bags.


Mississippi arrival

Me with Greg Svendsen, Dana Svendsen, Alex Brandwein and Jenna Wollemann. Awesome group of riders who made the trek across Iowa a treat that I won’t ever forget. Thanks, guys!

Some of the highlights.
* Free beer and lemonade as we arrived into camp. Every day. The best way to end any ride.
* The food. Always the food. Mr. Pork Chop. Tender Toms Turkey. Beekman’s root beer floats. Amish pies and home-made ice cream. The Iowa Craft Beer tent and their humongous hot dogs. Farm Boys (now Farm Kids because of some sort of trademark infringement from some California company) breakfast. And one pancake and breakfast sausage place that just knocked my socks off. Oh, and free corn on the cob from the Iowa Corn Growers Association. So, so good.
* Nights sitting around our campsite before and after dinner and swapping stories from the day with our crew and other riders. So much laughter.
* A week without cellphone and wifi service (thanks, AT&T). I mean, it was weird to be so completely disconnected, but it was a gift, too.
* An hour-long deep tissue massage I got on the last night. After a month and a half on the road, it really hit the spot.
* The emotional goodbye from Jenna as she and Alex headed for the bus back to Omaha and their flight back to NYC while I took off for the bridge over the Mississippi to continue my ride across the country. So sweet.


And finally, another word about my saintly spouse, who continues to travel the same path as I do but is putting in a completely different — and in many cases, more difficult effort — to navigate this coast-to-coast trip. Melody negotiated with our charter company to produce some promotional videos for their website. But she also decided to stay “in camp” with me and the rest of the gang. That meant sleeping in tents for the week on an air mattress that had suffered a few puncture wounds (which meant it would turn into a little bit of a “bouncy house” by the morning. If either of us got up, the mattress would deflate underneath the other, leaving that person on the ground while the air went to other parts of the mattress. It’s perhaps inelegantly explained, but let’s just say it wasn’t comfortable. Ever. So as much as I needed Sunday as a day of rest, I think Melody needed it more. It’s been a rough stretch to be “my support.” I hope she can hang on a few weeks longer.


  1. Thanks for the description! Did Jenna and Alex bring or rent bikes? I can’t imagine flying with them! Congratulations to both you AND Tune for making it through RAGBRAI!

  2. So happy to “hear” your voice again after a week-long absence. Congrats to all of my family of riders and to Mel for following along with this crazy bunch.

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