La Center schools chief to cycle across U.S. for cause

He will use journey to raise money for charity

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Cycling for Leader Dogs

Crazy Guy on a Bike

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He originally laughed off the idea.

Pedaling across the country on a bike? That was crazy talk, La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell thought to himself after a fellow school district head suggested it three years ago.

The idea dug its way into his brain, though, and never left. He and his wife, Debbie, purchased touring bikes and rode in a handful of 100-mile-plus rides during the past year. He also did a 380-mile solo bike ride to Spokane.

What once was crazy talk had become a burning desire.

Mansell, 51, will ride solo on a 3,500-mile journey across America this summer to raise money and awareness for Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Michigan-based organization that provides trained sight dogs for the blind.

The La Center School District granted Mansell a two-month sabbatical to pursue his quest. He will stay on top of district issues, such as summer main

tenance, by using video conferencing and other technological methods, he said.

Mansell is scheduled to leave Portland on June 16 on his La Center blue Surly Long Haul Trucker bike and arrive in Portland, Maine, on August 8 or 9. Along the way, he will stay at the homes of Lions Club members.

The idea to wed his cross-country ride with a good cause came during the planning stages for the ride, Mansell said. He became interested in Leader Dogs through his membership with La Center Lions Club, he explained. Lions Club members in Detroit initially started Leader Dogs in 1939.

Mansell described his visit this spring to Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester Hills, Mich., as a “life-changing experience.” While there, he and his wife had an “a-ha moment” when they did a blindfolded walk with a Leader Dog.

The bike ride, Mansell said, has taken a back seat to the trip’s greater purposes, namely raising around $35,000 for Leader Dogs and providing the nonprofit free publicity in every state he travels. The money Mansell hopes to raise equals the cost of training one guide dog. He has raised $5,000 so far, he said last week.

His face lit up when talking about the program, which pairs more than 240 dogs with clients each year.

“People who were shut-ins before have their whole world open up,” he said.

On his journey, he will wear a dog tag that belonged to a deceased Leader Dog named Lacey, a yellow lab who served for almost 12 years in New York.

Mansell’s Jan. 16 email proposal surprised Leader Dog officials. Subsequent talks with him convinced them he would be an ideal ambassador for them.

“He’s just an amazing man,” said Mike Dengate, liaison between Leader Dogs and the Lions Club in Michigan. “He’s got a huge heart and he’s really passionate about what he’s doing.”

The seeds of Mansell’s coast-to-coast ride were planted three years earlier at a superintendents’ meeting in Spokane, he recalled. A fellow superintendent shared with Mansell tales of his nationwide bike rides.

Though he would not have predicted it that day, the cycling bug bit Mansell. Already, an accomplished marathon runner, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Mansell started training and participating in duathlons, featuring running and biking.

Last year, Mansell and his wife embarked on an eight-day ride from Fort Stevens to the northern California border, a 240-mile ride down to the Columbia River Gorge for Memorial Day, and a 400-plus mile ride along the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway around July 4. He and his Debbie also did a 312-mile journey around Hawaii earlier this year.

As demanding as those rides were, he had Debbie, whom he affectionately calls his best friend, accompanying him. To know whether he could cycle across America alone, he had to strike out on his own.

Mansell did his first long-distance solo ride over Labor Day weekend last year -- a three-day, 380-mile ride to Spokane.

“There were times when I thought, ‘you are nuts,’” he recalled of his Spokane venture, but not long after his doubts surfaced, he reached his destination.

Now, when people ask if he worries about breaking down during his nationwide bike ride, he tells them no. He is capable of fixing his bike, and can always hop a ride, if need be.

His determination to succeed in this task does not surprise his fellow members with the La Center Lions Club, they said.

“He is probably one of the most driven people I’ve ever known,” said Steve Fuller, a five-time president of the La Center Lions Club. But Fuller noted, “Mark is going above and beyond with this one.”

Sure, riding across America “sounds daunting,” Mansell admitted, but the freedom of riding, his passion for service and love of dogs outweigh the potential hurdles.

“I am always looking for a challenge, especially when people say it can’t be done,” Mansell said.

In this instance, the person who said biking across America couldn’t be done -- or more accurately, initially considered it nuts -- is ready to strap on his helmet and ride east where adventure awaits.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.