Cycling across America would be the ultimate accomplishment for most, but not Dr. Ron Williams ’60. The 58-day, 3,000-mile ride completed in 2014 is just another line on an already impressive resume of adventurous accomplishments for the retired physician.
The 76-year-old has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Rainier alongside his family. He and his wife, Margaret, offered medical aid in Sri Lanka after the devastating 2004 tsunami. He has also treated children in Thailand and Cambodia.
Such outreach is an inherent characteristic of Williams, who obtained a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins University after graduating from ISU with his degree in biology and completing medical school at the University of Illinois. Williams went on to establish a prolific career blending his medical knowledge with military service.
“I was a farm boy from Ottawa, Illinois,” Williams said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my career would take me to all of the places on Earth I’ve been, and the things I’ve done and the positions I’ve held.”
Williams planned to become a pediatrician before he was drafted during the Vietnam War. He was granted deferred entry into the Army until he finished his residency. After training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Williams was given a choice to be assigned to a base in Hawaii for three years or Vietnam for two years. Williams accepted the Hawaii assignment and became the only pediatrician at Schofield Barracks in Oahu.
The assignment marked a significant turning point in his career. Williams applied for and received a Pediatric Infectious Disease Fellowship in Honolulu, and was then offered a Research Fellowship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Though Williams had planned to leave the military after his three-year commitment, new opportunities caused him to keep renewing his contract.
“The experiences were so good, I kept staying in,” Williams said.
Throughout his career Williams held many posts including commanding officer of the General Leonard Wood Army Hospital; deputy director and chief of medicine at the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Science in Thailand; and commanding officer of U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
In that role during the Gulf War, Williams directed the research laboratory dedicated to developing medical defense against biological weapons. He was one of the last Army officers to visit the Soviet Union before its collapse in December 1991. He also took part in the Third Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, Switzerland.
“In the military you have these unique opportunities that present themselves,” Williams said. “I just don’t think that if I had stayed in civilian life as a pediatrician I would’ve had the opportunity to do some of the things I did.”
His quest to take on such unique professional challenges spills over into his personal life, as evidenced by the cross-country bicycle trek that was sparked merely by his desire to seize an opportunity.
“My father always instilled in me that you can do it if you want to,” Williams said. “He helped me play baseball. I wrestled at Illinois State, and then I was in the Army for 24 years. I didn’t want to ever say ‘I wish I would have tried that.’”
Having taken up cycling only three years earlier, Williams researched companies that supported coast-to-coast rides, settling on Bubbas Pampered Peddlers. In addition to transporting gear, arranging meals, and setting up tents and air mattresses, the group atmosphere guaranteed to make it a more enjoyable—but not easy—experience.
Williams, who resides in Olympia, Washington, left from San Diego with 42 other cyclists on March 8. At only 41 miles, the first day was the shortest of the journey. The group took off anticipating a relatively relaxing ride, however, there was a reason for the shortened distance. The ride featured 3,500 feet of climbing, while fighting a fierce wind.
“About 75 percent of us were wondering what we got ourselves into,” Williams said. “We had a headwind of 16–20 miles per hour, and it was just a killer.”
Williams and his group generally travelled 70 miles daily. The group woke at 5:30 a.m. to hot coffee and dark skies. A breakfast of oatmeal and eggs was served at 6 a.m. They were on the road by 7 a.m., stopping in a town for lunch and replenishing water supplies from vehicles in the caravan.
The riders rolled into camp between 3 and 5 p.m., after which dinner was served and a representative from the local community lectured on the area they had traversed. The day ended with the riders prepping their gear and turning in by 9 p.m.
Meals involved consuming carbs, proteins, and desserts of all kinds. Though Williams averaged 7,000 calories each day, he lost 9 pounds by the end of the trip, dropping to 129 and gaining an inch of muscle on each thigh.
Accidents and personal medical problems claimed three of the group before the trip ended. Some suffered injury and fatigue that eliminated them for miles. Many in the group contracted the Norwalk virus in Eastern Arizona, making them unfit to ride for several days. As a physician, Williams helped tend to the ill but avoided the ailment.
Good fortune occurred at a New Orleans bayou bridge that is just eight miles but too dangerous for cyclists to cross. Just before the support crew hauled the bikes away, a local police office offered to escort the riders.
“I got to pedal every mile of the entire trip. I felt really good about that,” said Williams, who persevered through some trying moments. He suffered one flat, one dog attack, and one dangerous fall while attempting to take a picture of the Catalina Mountains.
He lost control of his bike and went down, missing a sage bush that would have cushioned his fall. A harsh sound rang out as his head hit hard on a manhole cover, splitting his helmet down the middle.
“It would have just killed me without a helmet,” Williams said.
The fall cost Williams the top third of a molar as well. He thought he would miss a day of riding to get the tooth fixed. Luck was on his side again as he was able to find a dentist the next day, which was one of the rest days allotted every seven to 10 days.
The ultimate rest occurred on April 28, when the ride ended in St. Augustine, Florida. The group pedaled silently in a single-file line for the last 3.5 miles. As the oldest cyclist, Williams led the procession through town, through their hotel lobby, straight down the boardwalk, and into the ocean. The waves that lapped up on the feet of the 40 finishers signaled the successful end of a life-changing challenge.
“My eyes just welled up,” Williams said. “I felt really good, but I did choke up.”
Even while recovering from the ride, Williams began planning his next adventure. He and Margaret plan to hike Mt. Blanc in Europe and do a bike and barge tour of Holland.
Williams has shown that no dream is out of bounds. He still works part-time as a civilian pediatrician, allowing him to travel on a road that he thought he had turned away from decades earlier. With no doors closed to him, only one question remains: What will he do next?