Her name was Pam Thomas. And I heard her name EVERYWHERE. Oh Stephanie you want to learn more about bike handling and how to ride better outside? You should take a class with Pam Thomas. You want to learn how to put together an interval workout? You should train with Pam Thomas. You want to be better at climbing hills? Well you should ask Pam Thomas.
After the 10th reference that I heard regarding this Pam Thomas I decided I might as well see what all the hubbub was about and looked at the cycling class schedule to see when she was teaching. Sunday at noon. Perfect. I could sleep late, get up and have a light breakfast, don my spandex, and head to the church of cycle. I quickly scanned the description of her class and one particular sentence caught my eye. “In this class we will learn how to use the bike computers’ relative measurement of watts and train with power.” Oh I liked the sound of that. I almost felt like grunting in the style of Tim Allen from Home Improvement. I had been training somewhat consistently and was starting to see a difference in my level of fitness. I loved getting stronger. I definitely needed more power.
That Sunday I headed over to SBR and remember wondering what this Pam Thomas would look like. I imagined in my head a tall, extremely fit woman with the typical cyclist build. You know, tree trunk legs and a slender upper body. What I saw was a teeny little woman who was barely over 5 feet and maybe weighed 100 lbs soaking wet. She was just so cute! Until she hopped onto the bike and turned into Mighty Mouse.
That day she put us through one of the most brutal interval workouts of my entire life. It was called a power ladder where you gradually “climbed” in intensity every few minutes by pedaling faster or increasing resistance until you were so fatigued you could climb no further. When we were finally allowed to step down from the ladder I looked at it up on the white board and decided I was now afraid of heights…and that I would be back again next week.
That winter I would attend her class almost every Sunday along with Laverne and Shirley as well as quite a few other women I had the privilege to get to know (and a few brave gentlemen) . As they and I became acquainted I realized that all of them knew Pam and each other from the Bluegrass Cycling Club. When I learned this I was excited and intrigued. There was a group of people who all loved to ride bikes and they met multiple times a week to ride together? Routes were pre-determined, there were maps, leaders who made sure you didn’t get lost, and popsicles at end of the ride? Such sweet genius!
Until now I had only ever ridden alone or with my ex-boyfriend. I was always nervous to ride solo because of the chance of something bad happening. I did not want to get caught out on a country road by myself with a mechanical problem or worse an injury. Riding with my ex had been somewhat stressful because I could not keep up and I hated feeling like I was slowing him down. The BCC solved this problem for me because there were plenty of groups that rode at what I like to call a respectable “steady” pace. When the weather got warmer I began riding with the group outside on Wednesday nights after work. Of the A,B, and C pace groups I would pedal with the “slower B” group or what I like to call the “steady B’s”. Happy to be able to keep up and ecstatic to be out on the road seeing parts of the Bluegrass I had never seen with some truly amazing and inspiring people. For a few weeks she let me pedal around those gorgeous horse farms in my comfort zone but Pam Thomas is not someone who sits idly by and lets you waste your potential. She had not spent those winter months making us climb ladders for nothing. She had other plans in store.
One night after a “steady” 30 miles Pam mentioned that I should try riding with the group that she led every Wednesday. I had been joking around with Cheryl while enjoying my post ride cherry popsicle but this statement sobered me up quickly.
“Oh Pam I don’t know.”
Pam led an all-women’s “Fast” ride where they practiced forming a paceline. Members of the group lined up handlebar to handlebar in two by two fashion and formed a long chain of bikes only two to three feet apart. This mob of spokes and wheels then pedaled the same route but at a much faster speed with the two lead bikes breaking up the headwind and setting the pace. When they were fatigued they broke off to the outside and the rest of the chain filtered through to begin again with a set of two fresh riders at the front. To do this you had to be a good bike handler and a much faster cyclist than I was. I had been riding a comfortable pace with the B group and had no aspirations of pushing my body to the red line while we were out on the road. If something went wrong the hospital was way too far away. If I road with this fast group I would most definitely have to push myself to keep up and what if my body couldn’t handle it? Plus I was petrified of wobbling into someone else and causing that pedaling amoeba to crash like very expensive and painful dominos.
Pam was not to be deterred.
“What don’t you know?”
I stuttered and wracked my brain for something to get me out of it. What could I use as an excuse to get out of riding in that scary phalanx? Pam knew my medical history so I couldn’t use that. Was I too old to say my mom wouldn’t let me? As I mentally grasped at straws she just stood there, stock still and looked at me, waiting for an answer. In the end I told her the truth.
“I just. Well, I just , I just don’t know if I can do it. What if my body can’t do it?”
Her expression did not change,
“You can do it. You’re just scared. Next week you’ll ride with me.”
She said it like we were talking about something trivial. Like my ability to change a light bulb. I think she saw the panic in my face so she followed with.
“Stephanie you can. Don’t worry, it will be fun. Once you are out there you will love it.”
She smiled and wished Cheryl a good night and left me standing there with my mouth open, a knot in my stomach, and my cherry popsicle melting all over my hands. Next week? That was seven days from now! Tick Tock.
The following Wednesday I showed up. I was so nervous I almost fell while standing still during the club announcements. We broke up into our different pace groups and I looked wistfully over at my “steady” B group as they pedaled away into horse country and then turned slowly to face my fate with the Lady A’s. We lined up and I pedaled up next to Pam. I thought I was doing ok when she motioned me closer to her. “You need to be in tight enough that we could almost rest our elbows on each other’s shoulders. Get closer Steph” I shied away from her. Did Pam know that if I got that close and fell into her my 140 lb frame would crush her? Like a twig? Seriously, imagine Mighty Mouse and Clifford the Big Red Dog riding bicycles next to one another.
“Stephanie, it’s ok. If something goes wrong I’ll pull my bike to the left. There’s more road over here. Don’t worry” I took a deep breath and gave my handlebars the death grip and scooted closer to her. “Excellent. Now just try to relax and enjoy the ride”
I barked with sarcastic laughter. I was on a rollercoaster where none of the cars were connected to each other and we were rolling down the road building momentum with each turn of the crank. Sure. I was totally relaxed.
I focused every bit of my brain power on the group and keeping a steady rhythm. As the time went by I glanced down at my watch to see how many miles we had accomplished praying that it was somewhere close to 30 so I could get off this thing. When I did I caught a glimpse of our speed. This group was cruising at 20 mph! I guess there’s something to be said for drafting. I did not feel like I was pedaling hard at all. This was great! If I didn’t let the logical side of my brain remind me that airbags deploy in car crashes that happen at 20 mph and I was only wearing a helmet pedaling on a 20 lb piece of carbon fiber while rocketing through the country side I could actually enjoy this! Wheeeeee!!!
It was only when I realized that Pam and I had worked our way to the front of the line and that it was my turn to “pull” that killed my buzz. “Ok Stephanie it will be important when we get up there to maintain a steady pace going up and down hills. If you create a gap or tap your breaks suddenly the effect is multiplied for the person at the end of the line.”
Do not slam on the breaks or you will kill us all. Got it.
When we reached the front of the line I took a deep breath and tried to hold my bike steady. It was all I could do to keep up with mighty mouse next to me but it was just enough. I did not fall behind and she coached me through every shift of the gears. When it was time to come off the front of the line I stayed to the right and let the group file through. As they passed me everyone was smiling and congratulating me. “Nice work Steph!” “Excellent job!” “knew you could do it!” “way to go!” It was like a receiving line for my self-esteem. By the time I reached the back I was on cloud nine.
Could life get any better than this?
As the ride went on I did relax and enjoy it. I rode next to and pulled the line a few more times with other members of the group. During a particularly beautiful mile of that ride the woman pedaling next to me looked to her left out over a gorgeous farm with rolling hills and horses dotting the landscape, she sighed with contentment and turned to me saying, “I’m just so thankful that I’m able to be here and DO this aren’t you? I mean, think about the people that can’t. They will never see this or know what it’s like.” I looked out over her shoulder where some of the horses were now galloping along the fence with us and nodded because if I had said anything my voice would have cracked into a sob. Thankfully I had sunglasses on so she could not see that I was blinking back tears. She could never have known that not so long ago a day like today would have been impossible. When I talk about or describe my surgeries and when I was mentally at my lowest I always use the phrase “mind, body, and soul tired” to describe my state of being. After going through so much so quickly I was exhausted to the core.
I had no idea that on a random Wednesday night, riding with a group of people that I hardly knew, through the middle of nowhere Kentucky, that I would find a way for my mind, body, and soul to heal.
When we finished the ride and my legs were back on the ground where they belong I ran over to Pam and hugged her. I think she was a bit startled by my gush of emotion but I couldn’t help it. My body had betrayed me during the summer of 2012 and I was very hesitant to trust it again. On our ride that evening I had made the realization that there were people around me who cared enough to pay attention. Who saw things in me that for one reason or another I could not.
What made me so emotional was that Pam had not thought that I could do it she had known it. She had been so certain about this that she was not afraid to hitch her wagon right next to mine, handlebars almost touching, and careen down the road into the wild blue yonder.
There is nothing in this world that can make you feel stronger than the conviction in someone’s voice when they tell with absolute certainty that “you can do this”
That day I realized that whether it’s a bike ride or a skull base surgery you need people who can truly “see” you and what you are capable of. Sometimes in life a problem can be so big it can temporarily blind you; making you unable to see the strength that surrounds you and more importantly that which resides within.
After saying thank you and good night to a still somewhat startled Pam I bounced over to the cooler and grabbed a cherry popsicle. Feeling victorious I enjoyed every ounce of that high fructose icy goodness.
Life really was so sweet.