Saltwater Portrait

Mark Williams cycles country in 50 days

The late Tommy Coveleski inspires former Rehoboth lifeguard’s journey
August 22, 2017

As Mark Williams coasted down Baltimore Avenue toward the Rehoboth Beach Patrol shack on the Boardwalk, there was a smile on his face. After riding 4,000 miles over the previous 50 days, he had finally reached the end.

"It feels good to be done," he said with a sigh, as he jumped off his bike. "The first three things I'm going to do are hug my wife and daughter, jump in the ocean and go to Nicola's for a Nic-o-boli."

In short order, those three tasks were completed, but with another in between. A veteran of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol from 1981-85, Williams was greeted on the Boardwalk by some of his old friends and colleagues, including Pete and John Coveleski.

But there was one Coveleski missing, Tommy, and he was partly the inspiration for Williams' cross-country trip. Though Williams only guarded with Coveleski for five years, the friendship lasted for decades beyond.

"He was a man of perpetual motion," Williams said. "He was always encouraging others to challenge their body."

Total mileage: About 4,000 miles
Average daily mileage:  80 miles
Longest day: 123 miles
States crossed: 11 (California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware)
Flat tires: 0
Pounds lost: 18

Coveleski, who lost his battle with cancer at age 60 in 2016, was a community guy. He taught physical education at Sussex Consortium, coached various teams and was a mainstay in the Cape Region running scene.

Shortly after his death, a plaque was placed on the Rehoboth Beach Patrol shack – and that's where Williams went after reaching the Boardwalk. The trip was a tribute to his friend.

The journey began June 4 in San Francisco with his friend Mike Hill. Together, the duo traveled eastward with no support staff, crossing through the heart of the country before reaching the East Coast in Yorktown, Va. From there Williams forged on alone, up through the Delmarva Peninsula and to Rehoboth Beach two days later.

It was worth the two extra days and 200-plus more miles to finish in his home state and the place where he spent much of his childhood.

Williams is originally from Newark – his father was a noted history professor at the University of Delaware – but his family moved to Georgetown in 1967 when he was just 4 years old. He attended Sussex Central High School, where he was a four-sport athlete, playing football, wrestling, baseball, and track and field. He would go on to also run track in college at the University of Delaware. After serving as a relief guard in 1981, he won Rookie of the Year with the Rehoboth Beach Patrol in 1982.

Williams is a professor in the finance department at Boston University, and he has authored several books, including one about the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis. But athletics are part of his life, and he is working on the manuscript for a book about the Georgetown Senior League team that won the World Series in 1981 and how a small town from Delaware could defy the odds and produce a world-class baseball team.

Williams' cross-country trip was also about raising awareness and funds for a charity close to his heart – Bikes Not Bombs. The program works with inner city children, teaching them to work with bicycles. At the end of the three-month program, the child gets a bike.

"A lot of kids don't have the opportunity to get a bike," Williams said. "This is a really special program, and it works. I raised $21,000 for them, the most they've had raised by a rider. They were very, very pleased."

The trip wasn't easy, he said, and it was a sacrifice not only for him but also for his wife and daughter.

"My bike wasn't cheap, and taking time off is certainly an expense," he said. "But my wife's dedication ... she made this possible. There are a lot of things to do around the house, and I was absent for almost two months."

Williams took the trip very seriously and trained hard leading up to the start. During the trip, he and Hill would get up at 5:30 a.m. every day, stretch, eat a healthy breakfast and get on the road by 6:30 or 7. They would take a couple breaks, but ride until 5 or 6 p.m. They did not take a single day off during the trip, and avoided alcohol and coffee.

"Every day was a new athletic event," he said.

When temperatures soared above 120 degrees while riding through the desert in Utah, the day started at 3 a.m. to beat most of the heat.

The route Williams and his partner took across the country was designed to reduce their risk of injury. Because of that, they rode mostly on back roads, which gave them a look at real America. The most jarring experience, he said, was the poverty in the middle part of the country.

"The country is really divided into two parts," he said. "There's the wealthy sections and then rural poverty, the areas bypassed by railroads and highways, places that have been long forgotten, where they have poor internet and water, and very little shopping to buy good groceries."

Despite the condition of the community, he said, the people he met could not have been nicer.

"They are some of the most generous and kind people," he said. "They opened their homes and businesses to us to use the restroom or for a cooler place to sit. This is a theme across the U.S."

One of the biggest challenges came in the form of feral dogs in Kentucky. While riding through the Appalachian Mountains, he said, the dogs became ferocious, ready to chase and attack.

"We heard stories from other bikers – one story about a biker who got attacked and had to go off to the hospital," he said. "They were very aggressive, and we were really on high alert. It was a bit stressful."

The duo carried pepper spray and protective sticks to ward off any dog that tried to attack.

Once they crossed over into Virginia, the threat had mostly subsided.

A two-month laborious cross-country journey does not come without personal challenges and insights, and Williams said he learned a lot about himself.

"I learned that if you challenge your body you can achieve greater things than you envision," he said.

He also learned you can live for two months in just four bags.

"For existence, you don't really need a lot," he said. "It has me reassessing my own life and how much I actually need to be happy."

Now that he's back at his home in Boston, he plans to take it easy and relax. He does have one goal in mind though. "I want to learn to ride a unicycle before I turn 54."