The ride of a lifetime

School of Law professor John Thomas takes on Great Divide, prostate cancer

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 November 11, 2023

School of Law professor John Thomas rides his bike on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

For three weeks this summer, John Thomas battled the unforgiving inclines of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. This marriage of exhaustion and elation began in Banff, Alberta, a small resort town incorporated inside Canada’s first national park.

There were some days when Thomas didn’t see another human being. There were other days when the cattle ran alongside him with hooves of thunder. And still others when the mud, hail and rain gladly took their pound of flesh. But somehow, he managed to press forward.

For Thomas, this soul-chafing mission ended 1,000 miles after it began — perhaps mercifully, perhaps not — in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

If nothing else, you must understand this truth: The ride of a lifetime came to a close on terms negotiated by Thomas, a venerable professor in the School of Law fighting incurable prostate cancer.

“Initially, I was going to do the whole ride, which is 2,700 miles to the Mexican border,” Thomas said. “But I thought 1,000 miles was a good, round number. I had gotten out of it what I wanted, so I started thinking about the people and things in my life. That’s the hard thing about a legacy, right? You have to be honest with yourself.

“Given that I don’t know how much time I have left and what the quality of that time is going to be like, I had to consider that,” Thomas said. “I’ve been calling this my last big physical dance. I’m probably never going to do something like this again, so I didn’t want to do another month out there away from my family and friends.”

Instead, Thomas climbed off his bike among the Tetons and summoned a smile.

This ride was always a gift to himself, proof that a 68-year-old man can raise hell and a finger to cancer. But the crusade was over now. His wife, Dr. Dorothy Stubbe, a psychiatrist and program director at the Yale Child Study Center, was there waiting, just like at home in Hamden. And then she hugged him, maybe tighter than ever before.

Unforgiving and unforgettable 

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest and arguably the hardest mountain bike race in the world. That’s why Thomas chose it. This year’s first-place finisher was Ulrich “Uba” Bartholmoes, 36, of Munich, Germany. He reached Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in 14 days, 3 hours, and 23 minutes.

Like Bartholmoes, Thomas navigated the “peanut butter mud” as best he could in the rain. He climbed through the Rocky Mountains, only to have the oxygen sucked from his lungs and the will drained from his calves. Despite consuming 5,000-6,000 calories a day, there’s no beating the fatigue from the Great Divide. It literally comes with the territory.

“It was this existential experience. You’re out there and it’s so hard. Every day was just so hard,” said Thomas, who recorded thunder and lightning, the craggy peaks, the massive grizzly bears and more in 20-second bursts on the GoPro camera mounted on his helmet.

“But deep inside, you wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “There were different points of time when I would look around and think, ‘Who’s luckier than I am?’ You’re in this gorgeous place riding a bike. That’s where I’m the happiest. On a bike. And I can’t tell you why except I think it’s the ideal speed for me to see the world.”

Thomas spent the first five days of the Great Divide riding with Marine de Marcken, a fourth-year medical student at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine. The two met years earlier as fellow cyclists in New Haven.

“She wanted to talk about which residency to pursue and where to do it. We talked a lot about medicine and this last year of medical school. She’s like a surrogate daughter to me,” Thomas said. “Everything about her right now is focused on the future, while for me, it’s all about the present. So that made a really interesting juxtaposition.”

They spent hours cycling in the moment. They talked about everything and nothing. Together, they rode their mountain bikes from Canada over the U.S. border into Montana. Box checked.

“So one day, I had climbed about 6,000 feet. Marine must’ve climbed about 7,000 feet, but she would circle back to see how I was doing,” Thomas said. “You're carrying all your camping gear and food, so I was climbing, but not as quickly as her. She's a fantastic cyclist, one of the finest in Connecticut.”

And then came the wall.

But this isn’t hitting the wall when you’re spent and have nothing left to give. This is 1,000 feet of roots and rock, straight up. The only way to stay on the trail is to climb this cliff — all while pushing a 55-pound mountain bike over your head.

“You’re supposed to grab onto the roots to help pull you up. It’s kind of like rock climbing,” de Marcken said. “But then you’re trying to find a place to rest while you’re balancing your bike at the same time. Somehow, I managed just well enough at one point to launch my bike up over the top of the wall.”

Meanwhile, Thomas was struggling to carry his bike, just like so many other riders. Mountain bikes are bulky, heavy and awkward, especially when they’re loaded with a tent, clothes, bike parts and tools.

“At one point, I saw John’s bike was almost on top of him. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, no. Are we going to have to find a different way to do this?’ But his attitude throughout the whole thing was amazing,” de Marcken said. “He didn’t care how long it took. He just wanted to do it.”

So de Marcken found her footing and grabbed the rear wheel. Thomas took the front wheel and secured his grip. Together, they pushed the bike up and over the wall. Thomas was grateful for the help, but even more grateful for the companionship.

Food for thought

During his ride, Thomas stopped at several local bars and restaurants. Usually, he was covered in mud and smelled like he hadn’t taken a shower in days because, well, he hadn’t.

There was the octagon-shaped Basecamp Bar in Seeley Lake, Montana, a monument to life-sized Lincoln Logs, right off Highway 83 North. And there was the Silver Saddle Bar & Cafe in Basin, Montana, about 140 miles to the southeast, complete with a retired jail out back. Folks welcomed Thomas as a new friend, someone who took the time to listen and ask questions about their lives.

“The overarching theme in these conversations was what the pandemic had done to the economy there,” Thomas said. “They talked about the people with fancy jobs who aren’t tied to one place anymore because they have Zoom. During the pandemic, they moved out West to these places where the land was cheap.

“The thing is, the land isn’t so cheap anymore. It really affected the local economy in these small towns. Everything got much more expensive,” he said. “There’s a resentment now of how these out-of-towners came in and changed a way of life that had been one way for a long, long time.”

Thomas has always appreciated the humanity of storytelling. As a professor of international law and health law, he understands the impact of strong voices like the ones in Montana. And with more than 200 publications, two completed books and two more in progress, Thomas regularly writes about these stories and shares them with his students.

“I love the classroom — partly for the teaching, but also partly for the experience,” Thomas said. “I’ve never used a note in class. I always prepare ahead of time. I want to be extemporaneous, so it’s kind of like being on a tightrope. And I love that feeling.”

There is an element of performance when Thomas teaches. It’s no different when he invites his students to come sit in his backyard and hear him play one of his guitars, most likely, a Gibson.

For School of Law Dean Jen Brown, who has known Thomas for more than 20 years, he holds the credentials of a Renaissance man.

“He’s got the three A’s. He’s an athlete, an academic and an artist,” Brown said. “He pursues each of those passions with his whole heart and all of his energy. I think that’s what makes him so special. The other thing I can say about John is that he’s laser focused and a champion for his students. He shows up to their events and is fiercely loyal to them.”

Loyalty matters to Thomas, especially now. There is no oxygen for anything less. There is only all-in and a bike that works.

‘Cancer, Schmancer’

The initial cancer diagnosis came in early 2020, just before the pandemic shut down the world. Within a few months, Thomas tested positive for COVID — the first time. For most people, it would have been too much to handle. As it was for Thomas, it was almost too much to breathe.

“I was sick and quarantined in my house for about two months. I had a really, really hard time breathing,” Thomas said. “Meanwhile, I was stuck with my cancer diagnosis trying to navigate the healthcare system during COVID. Finally, I got my very first biopsy at Yale on June 1st. A month later, on July 1st, I got my very first surgery.”

For all its cruelty, incurable cancer brings people closer. It is no different with Thomas. His wife and children, his friends and colleagues, his neighbors and fellow cyclists, every day finds more signatures on his enlistment contract, folks willing to go to war against cancer — and still, there are never enough soldiers.

“My cancer is somewhat enigmatic,” Thomas said one afternoon this summer at Best Video Film & Cultural Center on Whitney Avenue, just down the road from Quinnipiac. “Prostate cancer, as soon as it metastasizes, it becomes incurable for reasons that I still don’t fully understand. I also had a DNA test of my cancer that a pathologist kept in a freezer. My prostate cancer is the most aggressive flavor possible.”

Thomas originally planned to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route last year, but a rogue deer had other ideas. A month before he was scheduled to leave, Thomas slammed into the deer in West Rock Ridge State Park, a few miles from his home.

“I was coasting down a slight slope, maybe 30-35 mph, when this deer jumped out and collided with my front wheel and flipped me over,” Thomas said. “I nearly died.”

He broke 18 bones, including 16 ribs, his collarbone and his acromion, the little bone between the collarbone and shoulder. He also punctured both lungs. To mark his near-death experience, Thomas got a tattoo of a deer bounding across the top of his shoulder. If you ask nicely, he just might show it to you.

Thomas still rides for 30-60 miles on most days. Sometimes, more. On those rides, he heads down to New Haven, turns left and traces coastal Connecticut. When he hits Old Saybrook, Thomas points his bicycle toward Wallingford and heads home. A recent Facebook post filed under “Cancer, schmancer” clocked him at just over 100 miles in under 6 ½ hours.

From there — and really, everywhere from now on — the route is up to Thomas. There are no fancy maps with compass stars at the top. There is only pedaling, each turn of the chain another victory, absolute in its courage.

“I’m not here to make this a pity party, to think about how unlucky I’ve been. I’ve had enough of that,” Thomas said. “I still want to ride my bike and play my guitar and write. I want to do what makes me happy. I’m not finished living. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I guess I’ll find out.”

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