The heat radiating off the blacktop road stretching across South Dakota was almost unbearable. Looking off into the horizon, I pondered what to do about my second flat tire of the day, and the third in the past two. I didn’t have another spare tube to fix it, and there would not be a bike shop for 200 miles. Until yesterday, I had never replaced a flat tire, and I questioned whether I was doing something wrong. Now I would have to figure out how to patch one, which would be a new experience as well.
Just a little more than half a year ago, my riding partners and I were only acquaintances, united by my friend Diane and her dream to bike across our resident state of South Dakota before she turned 50 in June. When she asked me to join her that previous November, I was going through a divorce, I didn’t have a bike, and I was 50 pounds overweight.
Yet, here we all were, with 10 practice rides and a few months of training behind us, and the open prairie in front of us.
My life had completely changed.
My husband and I were just kids — I was 19, he was 20 — when we met and wed. Which is why the dissolution of our 22-year marriage had me scared beyond words.
I had never lived alone, and my income was in flux after changing careers less than a year before. I was living in the home where we had raised our children to minimize the changes for our youngest daughter. I loved the house, but staying there was difficult for me. One moment I felt strong and focused; the next minute I was sobbing as I thought about the memories we’d all made together. It felt like emotional torture to be there.
My doctor prescribed antidepressants even before the divorce, and I felt that they were helping me. The divorce proved to be a tipping point, though. I distanced myself from my closest friends since they were also friends of my husband. I quit going to church: I needed time to sort through my feelings and beliefs, which felt in direct conflict to church doctrine. Without a support group, these changes felt like more than I could bear.
Up to this point, the joy I derived from life had been a result of taking care of others. My life was scheduled around my children, the needs of my students at the high school where I taught until recently, and my church.
Now, even making simple decisions was difficult. The day after my husband moved out, I was at the grocery store. After meandering through three or four aisles, I stopped and looked down at my cart’s contents: I had filled it with red meat, Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, pizza, chips, and a number of other items my husband and daughters liked. Not one item in the cart was anything that I would purchase for myself. I retraced my steps and emptied the cart, walked out to my car, and the tears began to roll.
I realized that I had been so consumed with taking care of everyone around me that I had lost touch with my own needs. I felt alone, and confused.
My weight increased incrementally after the birth of my children, and now it was continuing to escalate. An emotional eater since childhood, I found myself binging to pacify my emotions. It made me upset and depressed to acknowledge how overweight I’d become. When I lost weight in the past, it was only temporary and I’d gain it all back. I knew that permanent weight loss required more than a diet; it required a change in lifestyle.
And I was ready to embrace new experiences.
Soon after my divorce was finalized, I saw Diane at a basketball game at our kids’ high school. I knew she had been divorced for a few years, so I invited her to a movie. It was the beginning of a friendship that developed quickly.
During a phone conversation, she shared her dream to bicycle across South Dakota.
“I think that you just might be crazy enough to do it with me. Are you interested?” she asked.
I hesitated. With my weight gain and lack of biking experience, it did seem crazy. But I wanted to be adventurous in this next chapter of my life, so I accepted her invitation.
With only six months to train and winter fast approaching, we planned to do most of our workouts indoors at a local gym. This goal gave me the push to commit to exercising regularly.
It wasn’t long before I met Julie and Elsa at the gym and encouraged them to join our quest. With our team in place, we purchased bikes to start riding together on Saturday mornings when weather permitted.
Once we decided on a route, we talked logistics: We didn’t want to carry camping gear on our bikes, and we knew finding hotels and grocery stores in the small towns, some with 50 or fewer people, would be tough. So we rented a motor home, and two family members agreed to take turns driving.
So here I was, on the side of the road with a flat tire. The temperature had reached 90 degrees, and there were no trees or buildings nearby for shade. Sweat poured off my face, my hands were coated in grease, and my legs were covered in fine dust.
I felt beaten physically and emotionally. I got the patched tube inside the tire and back on the rim, but then the pump wouldn’t work. Julie and I tried for more than an hour to fill the tire. Then the RV arrived, and Julie suggested we load up the bike and drive to the nearest town in hopes of finding a gas station.
But I kept pumping: I so badly wanted it to work. And I did not want to give up. I just wanted to finish riding the miles to our destination for the night. I tried to internalize my emotions, but I was having difficulty restraining my anger. We loaded the bike into the RV.
Then we saw the Missouri River, and Julie suddenly asked the driver to pull over.
“We are going for a little swim,” she announced.
Off into the river she went. As I swam out to meet her, we both started laughing as we stood there wearing our biking shorts, shirts, helmets, gloves, and biking shoes. Then we turned to one another and embraced in a hug.
We finished our ride later that week, after another two flat tires and a fix with duct tape.
Now, 12 years and 25,000 miles later, I am still biking. I lost those 50 pounds — for good. Biking became more than a lifestyle: It became my passion.
That South Dakota bike trip was about more than the physical changes that occurred in my life. It was a spiritual journey for me. I took it at a time in my life when I felt like the willingness to die was almost greater than the desire to live. I found a level of inner strength that I know I can rely on to assist me whenever I feel the weight of life’s challenges.
One of the greatest gifts derived from that week and those friendships was realizing that someone believed in me at a point in my life when I did not believe in myself. The camaraderie and support of others provided me with an opportunity to experience a fuller life — one filled with lots of joy and love.