Interviewed by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
Photos Courtesy of Amateur Cooperative & Lindsay Runkle
(reposted from Pretty Damned Fast)
I first saw Lindsey Runkel this past summer at Mountain Creek Bike Park in Northern New Jersey. I was hosting a downhill camp in conjunction with Kathi Krause of Dirt Rock and Root Training. We were a group of novice riders from New York City, a bit out of our element and nervous about some of the downhill trails we were about to hit. Lindsey was with a small group of friends, getting ready to do the same. I was fascinated by her bike, it looked almost extraterrestrial. I wanted to go up and ask a million questions. But I figured she was just there to ride, and well so was I, the million questions would have to wait.
Kathi would ultimately help me track down Lindsey, who immediately chastised me for not chatting with her that day! Lindsey’s warmth and positive energy come through immediately. And while she is driven by her sport and her road to recovery, she is equally passionate about advocacy for adaptive athletes. She knows that her presence alone at downhill bike parks is a powerful force in changing how people view adaptive athletes. She is a committed athlete, every bit as active in mountain biking as she ever was. She has recently started competing in Spartan Races as well. It’s hard to believe how much she has accomplished in the year after her spinal cord injury. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for her. Her activism and athleticism are truly inspiring.
Cut down in her prime, Lindsey Runkel, a 23 year-old mountain biker from coastal Fairfield County CT, sustained critical damage to her spinal cord following a fall from her bike on Sunday, October 5. Her injuries include a fracture at the T-5 and T-6 vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and a few broken ribs, and at the moment, she has no feeling from the belly button down.
AM: You used to live in Arizona, did your love of Mtb start there or where you currently live in the Northeast?
LR: I was actually born in Texas and raised in the Northeast. I moved to Arizona in 2010 and that is where I fell in love with mountain biking. I started out as a road biker and got a job working at our local bike shop. I worked with only guys and only mountain bikers. They made fun of me (in a brotherly love kind of way) and finally convinced me to get on a mountain bike. A week later, I sold my road bike, bought my first mountain bike, and never looked back.
AM: Are you the only mountain biker in your family? Did you grow up in a family that rides?
LR: I am the only rider in my family. My parents own bikes and when I was growing up we would ride down to the beach together but it was nothing like what I do now. My parents think I’m nuts for mountain biking.
AM: I’m always struck by how deeply mountain biking makes you confront your fears and move past your mental limitations and by how powerfully a positive attitude can influence you as a rider. Do you pull a lot from your mountain biking history into your journey as an adaptive athlete?
LR: I think my bike has been my motivation to stay positive. I have kept both my trail bike and my downhill bike (that I crashed on) because I refuse to believe I won’t be back on them some day. I look at it and I know one day I’ll be back in that saddle. I think mountain biking shaped me as a person far before my injury. It helped me find who I was, it helped me find people who I truly connected with, and helped me become comfortable in my own skin. THAT change has been the driving force in my attitude towards recovery. I’ve pulled a lot from that in my journey. I am comfortable with who I am, able bodied or adaptive.
AM: Cycle sports have always seemed to be on the cutting edge for adaptive athletes, but maybe that’s just my impression as a Murderball fan. How would you describe your personal experience?
LR: It’s funny because handcycling is HUGE for adaptive athletes. It’s one of the first things I was pushed towards in recreational therapy which was awesome. But adaptive mountain biking is such a niche sport. You can hardly find adaptive mountain bikes to buy- few companies make them. Most mountains I’ve gone to don’t have their lifts set up for adaptive athletes so I end up teaching them how to load my bike or we work together to figure out solutions. I’ve been the test dummy for a lot of trail crews in terms of figuring out if trails are proper for an adaptive athlete. Adaptive mountain biking just doesn’t have the same draw as other adaptive cycle sports because it’s higher risk and a lot of people find it hard to return to high risk activities after getting hurt.
AM: Do you see other adaptive athletes who don’t have a background in cycling, taking up cycle sports?
LR: I’ve seen a lot take up handcycling because most hospitals or therapy programs have teams surrounding handcycling but mountain biking less so. I’ve only really met a couple of other adaptive mountain bikers– one had a motocross background, one a snowmobiling background, and another with a mountain biking background. Basically, all the adaptive mountain bikers I know have a history of high risk sports.
AM: Can we talk about your amazing bike? Where did it come from, what is it called, and who developed it?
LR: That beautiful piece of equipment comes from a company in Poland called Sport-On. It’s known as an Explorer 3 and it uses current mountain bike technology with killer engineering to create a stable and very familiar mountain biking experience.
AM: You work with Road 2 Recovery and the High Fives Foundation, can you tell us a little about what they do?
LR: Well, I technically work with High Fives Foundation and The 33 Foundation– Road 2 Recovery is a campaign to help a fellow pro mountain biker who recently suffered a spinal cord injury. I promote Road 2 Recovery because it’s important for me to help others in a situation like mine- especially someone who is so close to my heart. I don’t know Paul personally but many of my friends do so I promote his cause as much as possible. As far as High Fives and The 33 Foundation, both are killer support systems for me. High Fives focuses around mountain athletes. The founder, Roy Tuscany, was injured while skiing and now focuses on helping other driven athletes, like himself, get back to what they love. They’ve supported me since the start and have granted me both some extra PT time and my new bike. Definitely an awesome group of like minded people making a huge difference. The 33 Foundation is another really awesome foundation that has supported me in my recovery. It’s run by a young guy named Matt Curran who was injured in 2001 and who did his rehab at the same place I do mine - Journey Forward. His wife is another integral part of the foundation and the two of them couldn’t be more amazing. They raise money to help people such as myself get more therapy time since rehab can be extremely expensive. They recently granted me a whole extra year at Journey Forward. The 33 Foundation and High Fives are more like family than anything else.
AM: What are your personal goals for 2016?
LR: Ask anyone with an SCI what their goal for the next year are and I guarantee they will say to walk. That would be my ultimate goal. But intermediate goals would be to continue growing myself both physically and mentally. I want to continue challenging myself to do things that people wouldn’t expect a paraplegic to be able to do. This past year I started racing Spartan Races. With the help of my team, I hope to complete at least one trifecta which consists of completing a 3-5 mile course, a 8-10 mile course, and a 12-15 mile course within a calendar year. I hope to go for a double or even triple trifecta because it allows me to realize my potential and proves to others that there is ability beyond disability. I also plan on racing my mountain bike because there isn’t really any category for adaptive riders. I want to create that. I want to create an opportunity for other adaptive athletes to race and bring out our competitive side.
AM: I am truly struck by how positive and motivated you are. Who or what is it that motivates you?
LR: I made a decision when I first got injured and that was to stay positive. Being upset isn’t going to change anything about my situation. I stay motivated by staying busy and continuing to push my limits in the pursuit of doing things I love. Having an adaptive bike helps a lot. But having a killer support system helps the most. All of my friends from my local mountain, Highland, have been by my side since the day I was injured. I didn’t spend 1 day alone in the hospital. Ever. I had friends bring my stuffed animals, I had a group come every Sunday to watch the Walking Dead and eat Chinese food, I had friends snuggle in my tiny hospital bed until I fell asleep. I’ve fostered such strong friendships through hardship and that’s gotten me farther than I ever thought I could. And those same people treat me like I’m no different than the chick who used to rip two wheeled bikes and walk around. I’m also just motivated by the idea of making a difference. I push my limits. I ride mountain bikes still. I workout harder than I used to. I run obstacle course races. The idea that I can change someone’s outlook on life is such great motivation to keep pushing on.
AM: Who are your favorite folks to ride with, and what are your favorite places to ride?
LR: Oh if I could only name all of my favorites– the list would be never ending. But I have to say my “HighlandFam” are my favorites– specifically my corner compounders. The Corner Compound is our home at Highland Mountain Bike Park, which is hands down my favorite ride spot- such a great ride community there, always good vibes. There are probably about 30 of us that camp in that corner of the parking lot, but we’re such a tight knit family. They are not only some of my favorite people to ride with but just my favorite people in general. We’re never short on laughs or good times. Same goes for my other Highland friends- they are just my favorites all around. I also really love getting to ride with my friend, Tyler, who is also a T4 paraplegic. He let me borrow his bike before I had my own and it’s just such an amazing experience to get to ride and enjoy in life with someone who completely gets you on a whole different level. Other places I’ve ridden that have been great on the adaptive bike are Thunder Mountain, they’re phenomenal when it comes to helping out, and Mountain Creek which was surprisingly more fun on my adaptive bike than my regular bike. But for all you able bodied riders out there– ride destinations I would not forego: Sedona, Moab, Bellingham, and, of course, Whistler. I can’t wait to make it back out to those hot spots on my new bike and I just might have something in the works for crankworx 2016. Stay tuned.
Although she’s made incredible progress, Lindsey still needs support to reach her goals. You can support her efforts here.
A special thanks to the groups that have helped Lindsey get back to the sport that she loves: