Jefferson High School assistant girls track coach Emily Thomson loves to climb hills – on her bike, and in life.
“I’m okay if the world is uphill,” she says.
It’s an attitude that has propelled her to the mountaintop – literally, as the women’s amateur champion at this year’s Mount Evans Hill Climb in Colorado, one of the toughest bicycle races in America.
It has also shaped her coaching philosophy, as she helps her athletes climb methodically to their personal heights.
“The thing I talk about with the kids is that you want to get after things, not just through them,” she says. “There are a lot of things in this life that are really, really important that you only get one chance at.
"You have to keep doing the things that will get you there. Hopefully those will be skills that they use not only in athletics, but in things they want to go after personally or professionally.”
From an early age, Thomson had the will to push herself – and others – a little harder. She grew up in Mount Pleasant, in a close-knit community that included, among others, the Calloways and the Vilsacks – two families that have remained pivotal in her life.
Her dad was a four-sport athlete at Mount Pleasant High – a member of the locally famous football team that was never scored on, she says. Thomson and her siblings were all runners.
“We were a track family,” she recounts. “The Drake Relays were like Christmas at the Thomson house.”
When Thomson wanted to step up her performance, her dad called Mount Pleasant native and family friend Bill Calloway, coaching at Jefferson, and Calloway provided regular workouts for her by phone.
“I was the first one to train year-round and to venture into the weight room. Now strength training is a huge component of training,” she says.
The payoff came in her senior year of high school, when Thomson placed fifth in the 1,500-meter run at the 1992 Iowa Girls State Track Meet – the first female runner from Mount Pleasant to medal at state.
She enrolled at Wartburg that fall, intending to run there, but was injured her entire freshman year. The next year she returned to Mount Pleasant and enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan, where she earned her degree in English.
“I hung up my running shoes,” says Thomson, who went on to earn a degree in physical therapy at St. Ambrose University in 1998. She got a job at Physiotherapy Associates in Cedar Rapids and was hired by Calloway to help coach the distance runners at Jeff.
In 2005, she got a call from the Governor’s Office. Tom Vilsack was in his last year as governor, and the First Lady needed someone to run her office.
“It’s that old nepotism thing,” Thomson jokes. “My dad and Christie Vilsack’s brother were best friends. When her chief of staff left, she called me. I managed her schedule and traveled with her for that year. It was never a dull moment. She’s an amazing woman with boundless amounts of energy.”
Back in Cedar Rapids the next year, Thomson went to work as a physical therapist for Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA), providing physical therapy for children with disabilities. Although her schedule prevented her from taking an official coaching job, she returned to Jeff as a volunteer to work with the hurdlers.
Thomson continued coaching as she earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Drake University and moved into a new role at Grant Wood, where she now provides professional training for the mentors who work with first-year teachers. “My whole professional career I describe as being a coach,” she says.
Working with the hurdlers at Jeff, she has become a student of the event, seeking out the knowledge and resources needed to help her athletes. “I’m geared toward technical things, and I communicate with highly respected coaches for advice.”
Speed on two wheels
Thomson had started running again, but when recurring injuries put a halt to that in the late 1990s, she turned her athletic impulses in a new direction.
“Bill [Calloway] and his son were involved in cycling, and I went riding with them,” she says. “I started biking with a Schwinn cross-bike. I didn’t know anything about shifting or riding in a group.”
Her growing interest in cycling led her to try time trials – a discipline well-suited to her fiercely independent style.
“In time trialing you can’t draft,” she explains. “It’s just me against the clock – and that’s me. I rode in the Iowa Games, did fairly well, and saw the potential. I started looking at ways to become more aerodynamic.”
The next year, 2001, she won the Iowa time trial competition for women, averaging a blistering 24.2 miles-per-hour for 40 kilometers. She went on to compete at the national time trial race, where she outpaced some of the professional riders.
Back injuries put an end to her competitive time trialing, but Thomson found a new passion while visiting the Calloways during their annual Colorado vacation.
“I went with my bike, and I realized that I really like to climb mountains,” she says. “I found that I was quite successful at it. I can focus well – one of the skills you need. You have to be able to get in a rhythm, because it’s a grind.”
After riding Colorado’s famous Mount Evans hill – the highest paved road in America – she and Calloway decided to sign up for the annual Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb, a bicycle race that starts at 7,540 feet and climbs 27.4 miles to the summit at 14,264 feet. The race draws professional riders – including Olympians and Tour de France participants – from all over the world. It also features a “citizens” race for amateur riders such as Thomson and Calloway.
Conquering the mountain
In her first official tryst with Mount Evans in 2011, Thomson set a goal of breaking three hours and reached the summit in 2:58. Mission accomplished.
“I was pleased, but I knew I could probably do better,” she says. “I learned a little too late that I was probably riding too big of a gear. And the less weight you can carry up the mountain with the same strength-to-weight ratio the better.”
During the next year, she got a bike that was four pounds lighter, leaned up her body, and assiduously followed a plan crafted by her longtime coach.
“One of the things I have always benefitted from is that Coach Calloway prepares you to peak at the right time,” she says. “We trained all year for that one race. We had a very scripted plan that had us ready – and that’s what we try to impart to our kids as well. We start with the goal – the state tournament or whatever it is – and map backwards from there. As coaches, our one goal is to maximize the kids’ potential.”
Over the last year, Thomson rode thousands of miles and powered her way up every large hill in Eastern Iowa. Although she doesn’t find adjusting to the change in altitude to be a particular problem, she extended her pre-race time in Colorado from 11 days to 20 days and spent that time doing intense hill riding in preparation for the July 21 race.
Her goal was to hit 2:48 or better, following a methodical plan to drop 10 minutes off her 2011 time. As she cranked her way up the mountain on race day, she was on pace to hit her target with time to spare when she started cramping up at mile 18 – midway through the steepest portion of the climb.
“It didn’t quite go as anticipated,” she says. “I had to just hold steady the last five miles instead of time trialing. The last two miles I needed all of the time I had built up. I kept my mantra in my head – I call it ‘ticking’ – to just keep pedaling. I was really suffering toward the end.”
But when the end came, she had crossed the line in 2:47:48. To her surprise, she was also the first amateur woman to reach the summit. Calloway, her intrepid 65-year-old coach, was less than four minutes behind her.
Her monumental achievement notwithstanding, Thomson says she doesn’t talk about her competitive triumphs with her student athletes unless they ask.
Instead, she says, “I try to use my vulnerabilities to give them a perspective of what I have learned.” That might mean talking about her comebacks from injuries, her moments of doubt, or the challenge of putting your goal in front of people and working to accomplish it.
“Everybody can train like a champion,” she stresses. “It’s a matter of how you work in practice, how you prepare your body, how you think about yourself.”
Needless to say, having conquered Mount Evans lends that message an extra measure of credibility. “The kids never question the level of intensity we require in practice and in competition, because they know we have done it," she says.
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