Paralympic athlete Ryan Chalmers pushes his racing chair in… (DAVID EULITT / MCT )
When you set out to push 3,000 miles across the country in a racing wheelchair, you expect a few challenges along the way.
Ryan Chalmers had his share, that's for sure.
Hands that blistered and cracked and turned the color of eggplant from punishing 70-mile days? Check.
Hairpin turn on an eight-mile descent in the Rocky Mountains that nearly caused him to wipe out into the side of a tunnel? Check.
Enraged bull on the side of a road in Illinois giving him the evil eye? Check.
Apparently you haven't lived until you've seen that.
But when Chalmers, a 24-year-old paralympian born with spina bifida, set off from Los Angeles on April 6 to cross the U.S. and arrive in New York in 71 days, he knew there’d be situations he couldn’t anticipate.
But the message was too important to let hardships stop him.
"I want to show people that, able-bodied or not, if you're passionate and set goals for yourself, you can achieve those goals," he said Sunday when he pushed into Baltimore on Day 65 of his epic journey, arriving at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel accompanied by a police escort and some 20 disabled riders from the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
What compels someone to rise at 5:30 every morning and push the equivalent of two to three marathons a day through all kinds of weather and over all kinds of terrrain for over two months?
In Chalmers' case, it's to raise funds and awareness for Stay-Focused, a non-profit that provides SCUBA training for disabled teens and young adults.
His team thinks this will be the fastest a wheelchair athlete has ever pushed across the country. But the logistics of putting everything together were daunting.
A team of six people accompanies Chalmers daily, plus two videographers. Four vehicles travel with the Churchville, N.Y., native: an RV with food, luggage and bathroom facilities, a Ford Edge with flashing lights in front of him, a supply van with flashing lights behind him and a car for the videographers.
(You'll be shocked to know that even with all those flashing lights, some idiot driver would occasionally weave into the procession and scare the hell out of the team.)
But maybe nothing shook Chalmers more than the incident at Wolf Creek Pass in the Colorado Rockies.
After an eight-mile climb that took two hours and 16 minutes and involved over 5,000 feet of elevation change, Chalmers decided to make up some time on the way down.
So he made it to the bottom in 16 minutes.
That's because he was screaming downhill at 35 mph. Nearing the bottom, he was alarmed to see what he now casually calls "a tight turn."
To make matters worse, it was leading into a tunnel.
At this point, Chalmers was starting to picture the emergency room he'd end up in.
Or the coffin.
"I've been racing in wheelchairs since I was 8," Chalmers said. "That was the first time I thought I'd totally wipe out. There was no chance I was gonna make it. I was thinking, 'This is gonna be painful."
But somehow he kept his cool and slowed down enough to avoid pinballing off the walls and ending the journey right there.
By the way, that wasn't the highest speed Chalmers attained on this trip — not even close.
On the push east into Oakland, Md., on Day 59, during a long downhill straightaway with no traffic and no wind, Chalmers hit 65 mph. Which is practically like breaking the sound barrier in a wheelchair.
When she got word of it, his mom, Linda Chalmers, texted a simple request: "Make sure you don't go over 40, OK, please? I'm rolling my eyes at you, just so you have a visual."
The bull on the road to Illiopolis, Ill., was another adventure.
"We got a call [from the RV] that there was a bull ahead of us," Chalmers recalled. "It was going crazy, jumping up and down and running across the road."
Me, I would've been thinking "detour" at this point. Heavy detour.
But Chalmers pressed on. Fortunately, as he passed the beast, it stopped snorting and jumping and did nothing more than stare malevolently at him, with the cold eyes of a mafia don.
Chalmers, who was on the wheelchair basketball and track teams at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and raced in the London Paralympics last year, said he concentrated more on training his mind than training his body for his cross-country journey.
"People said 75 percent of this [was] going to be mental," he said. So Chalmers said he spent hours thinking: "OK, this is going to happen, and what can you do to overcome it?"
But the physical pounding got to him, too. The heat wiped him out on several days. His hands became raw and bleeding despite the plastic molded racing gloves he wore. His forearms and wrists took a beating, as well as his shoulders, which tend to pop in and out of place as a result of old training injuries.
"I've learned that the key to setting goals and pushing yourself is finding what your reason is," Chalmers said when the 41-mile push from Washington to Baltimore was over. "You see these New Year's resolutions and they last two weeks. But I'm so happy doing this. You need to find your reason for doing something and just keep pushing."
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