Is this heaven?
No. It’s Iowa.
Barbara Simmons didn’t share Shoeless Joe Jackson’s first impression of the Hawkeye State. Sure, it was Iowa. But there was nothing heavenly about it.
In fact, it was hell.
For starters, there was the heat. Most of the United States sweltered through a relentless heat wave during the Summer of 2012, and Iowa was at the heart of all that hot. July was particularly merciless in the mercury department, with an interminable tirade of triple-digit temperatures during the day and little forgiveness at night.
Then there was the bike. Barb was many things; an avid or experienced cyclist was not among them. By July 2012, she had run multiple marathons and close to two dozen half marathons. But beyond riding her basic beginner’s road bike around her neighborhood in Bloomington, IL, and participating in Ride For The Roses – an annual ride held by the Livestrong Foundation for its most prolific fundraisers – she was no biker, not in her mind or anyone else’s. She certainly was not someone you would’ve expected to find among the pack of 20,000 cyclists who had tripled the population of Sioux Center that scorching Sunday, saddling up for a seven-day, 465-mile ride from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.
But saddling up she was, preparing to embark on her first RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, originated by the Des Moines-based newspaper in 1973. Barb wasn’t there because she wanted to take up some new fitness challenge. She was there because she lost a bet.
During an evening out with friends at Ride For The Roses, Barb issued a challenge: If her cycling buddies from Livestrong would run a half marathon over the next six months, she would register for a ride. She figured it was a fairly safe wager (“There was bourbon involved,” she said) and was floored when they actually took her up on it. One of the guys involved did it, she figures, to have a reason to keep in touch with a woman he’d just met. Still, he did it, he ran his half marathon, as did the other two. Now, Barb had to pay up.
That’s how she came to RAGBRAI 2012. How she came to Livestrong in the first place, and to that bar in Austin, TX where the bet was made and lost, is really the reason Barb rides.
In August 2004, Barb’s husband, Brian, noticed blood in his stool. “Unlike the majority of us, who wouldn’t do anything until we noticed it 20 times, he went to the doctor,” said Barb.
Brian had been losing weight, but he figured it could have been the increase in his exercise regimen or some changes he’d made to his diet. He had been tired, but so had Barb. “At the time, we had a newborn, a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. I mean, how exhausted can you be?” she said.
But something compelled him to see a doctor that day, and that’s when everything changed for the Simmons family. Barb received a call that evening from her husband, who informed her that the doctor had taken one look at him and sent him immediately to the hospital for bloodwork. His explicit order: Do not leave until you get the results.
That was a Thursday. Within a few days, Brian was undergoing exploratory surgery, his doctors desperate to determine what was wrong. During the procedure, they removed Brian’s appendix. It was riddled with cancer.
They found cancer everywhere they looked. One tumor was lodged in a major artery, making it impossible to remove. There was nothing they could do to save him.
The doctors didn’t know how long Brian would live, whether it was a matter of months or years. On Friday, August 20th– one day before their daughter’s first birthday – Brian Simmons passed away in the hospital he never left. Two weeks after he went to the doctor. Barb didn’t have enough time to even process the formal medical terminology for the strain of cancer that had stolen her husband, that had robbed her children of their father. It was rare and mysterious and deadly. That’s all she needed to know.
In the immediate aftermath, Barb didn’t know what to do. Young widows never do. She remembers looking out at people buzzing around the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University, which was adjacent to the hospital. She saw college students going about their daily lives, appearing almost in slow motion to her eyes and a brain that could not process a world that was still going on around her. “How dare they?” she couldn’t stop herself from thinking.
Soon enough, Barb recognized her own life was still going on. Her kids’ lives, too. She needed to move forward. One foot in front of the other, as the self-help books suggest. One step at a time. Before too terribly long, Barb Simmons was walking again. Then she started running.
That was what she would do, she decided, to honor Brian. He was a runner back in high school. She ran track, too, but only because her field hockey coach forced her to run in the offseason. Running got her out of the house, if only for 30 minutes or so at first. Eventually, she wanted to race, to have something to focus on, to train for. A reason to run. Barb found her way into the Livestrong community, which provided an endless supply of support and strength, of understanding and plenty of opportunities to fight back against the murderous disease that had taken her sister, both parents and her husband. Turns out, Barb had so many reasons to run.
She started with half marathons, then graduated to full marathons after one of her teenage sons suggested it would be cool if she would try one. “When your teenager says you’d be cool if you did something, you do it,” Barb said.
She raised so much money for Livestrong over the years that she was invited to the Foundation’s Ride For The Roses event. From there to the bar to the bet and ultimately to the bike.
That first RAGBRAI day was brutal. It began with a 10.7-mile leg from Sioux Center to Orange City, then 4.1 miles on to Alton and 7.1 to Granville. Another 32.5 miles after that, Barb and the rest of the riders had reached Cherokee, a tiny Iowa town known, inexplicably, for its symphony orchestra. Day One was in the books; Barb had ridden 54.4 miles.
“When you run a marathon, you don’t wake up and run another one the next day,” she said. “But in this, you have to get up every day for seven days, in 100-degree heat, and do it all again. It’s the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
There were many times that week when she felt she would not make it. One day, after seriously and silently contemplating withdrawing, she was befriended by a rider, an older man whose first wife had died from cancer and whose second wife was fighting it. He rode with Barb to breakfast that day. Then he rode the next leg with her, then the next. Every so often, he would disappear, to return with chunks of ice that he’d stick down the back of her sports bra or slide into her helmet, to provide what little comfort he could against the 106-degree blast furnace they were riding through.
“He could’ve gone on ahead and been done earlier,” she said. “But he stuck with me all day long.”
On another day, Barb lost the group she was riding with and couldn’t find the official RAGBRAI bus that she was supposed to rendezvous with. Instead, she came across a group of riders who were boarding a bus they had decorated to support their riding team. As soon as she stopped, she was swept up by her new insta-friends. “One guy picked up my bike, another handed me a beer. They didn’t even ask me. They just said, ‘We’ll take you,’ “ she said.
On the last day, Barb pedaled on and forward, head down, almost without stop, so that she could meet other Team Livestrong riders who would take the final leg to the finish line together. She was the slowest rider of the group and pulled up to the meeting spot, just before they were about to pull out.
“I was crying as we were riding in. Tears of joy, tears from all the stress you had all week. It was a complete emotional release, not anything like I encountered with any other athletic endeavor I’ve ever done,” she said.
Barb returned home after that week on the bike, dropped her stuff and fell fast asleep. It was the first time she’d been in a bed in days.
When she left Bloomington, Barb was no biker. At best, she was a runner with a bike. The woman who came home had been reborn a cyclist, with the chafing and the aching and the week’s worth of summer sweat and Iowa dust to prove it.
Now, marathons are no longer her primary outlet. She prefers wheels to heels. Where she used to run, she now rides in continued support of Livestrong, and of its community of people whose lives have been wrecked by cancer. She still raises thousands of dollars for charity and challenges her friends to get active and involved and inspires anyone who follows her on Facebook or reads her blog or is blessed with the chance to share a conversation with her.
And she still rides in RAGBRAI, through the heat and the hills and whatever hell presents itself in a given year. Because that’s what riders do.
Barb rides to raise money for Livestrong. Support her by visiting her Flipgive fundraising page below where you can donate or Shop & Support.