Cheered by family and friends and escorted by a contingent of New York police officers, wheelchair cyclist Ryan Chalmers sped across a finish line at Central Park in New York City on Saturday, completing an epic 3,320-mile cycle across America.
The Paralympian athlete, who first conceived of the “Push Across America” challenge while in Cayman, set off from Los Angeles on 6 April and arrived in New York 71 days later.
“I have not been able to come to terms with the fact that it is over, but once things die down, I will be able to think about it a little bit. I still feel like I should be going out tomorrow and doing another 60 miles,” Mr. Chalmers said in a phone interview with the Caymanian Compass on Tuesday.
After 71 days and well more than 3,000 miles, the 24-year-old cyclist is not as exhausted as one might expect. “My body, when I first started was definitely very, very sore but it started adjusting to pushing seven or eight hours a day,” he said.
However, he admitted that he was feeling somewhat fatigued and plans to rest for a while before getting back to training to prepare for his next big adventure – taking part in the 2016 Rio Paralympics in Brazil as a track and field member of Team USA.
The idea to launch his “Push Across America” came during a conversation with Roger Muller, president of Stay-Focused, an organisation that teaches children and adults with disabilities to dive in the Cayman Islands and with which Mr. Chalmers has been associated for several years.
“This came about after I was chatting with Roger over a coffee in the Cayman Islands in 2009 where we were talking about a guy who was going to run across America. He jokingly asked me if I could go across the country with my racing chair,” Mr. Chalmers said. And the rest is now history.
The cyclist was a participant in a Stay-Focused diving session back in 2005 when he was 15 years old and he went on to become the group’s first mentor two years later. Last October, he got his Dive Master certification and will return to Cayman this summer to teach kids in the Stay-Focused programme to dive.
Mr. Muller was with Mr. Chalmers throughout the 71-day challenge, driving the support vehicle immediately behind him. Four vehicles accompanied the cyclist on the road – one in front to lead him, one behind him to protect him from any vehicle coming up behind, an RV in which the cyclist and the other five members of his team ate, and a vehicle for a camera crew who are making a documentary about Push Across America. Throughout the ride, a Go Pro camera mounted on the bike was focused the cyclist, while the camera crew also filmed him.
Coach Adam Bleakney from the University of Illinois advised him not to overdo his training and get fatigued before he even began his long journey from Los Angeles to New York, so Mr. Chalmers did not alter his training specifically for this cycle, which equalled the length of two to three marathons a day.
“I was training six days a week for the Paralympic Games in 2012 in London, so after I got back from London, I didn’t change the training too much. In February, I did a lot more lifting than I am used to, so I was able to gain about 5 pounds within a month. I wanted to put on some weight because going 60 miles a day, I was going to lose calories and I wanted to make sure I maintained the weight I started with,” he said.
A typical day on the road for Mr. Chalmers and his support crew started off at 7.30am, eating breakfast beforehand. He stopped every hour for five minutes for an energy drink or power snack and then for an hour-long lunch about 11.30am in the RV. Each day’s ride would end about 2.30 or 3pm.
He maintained his starting weight, although through water loss, his weight could fluctuate up to three pounds in a single day, he said.
Throughout the 71 days, as well as riding, he met with people on the road who were waiting for him at daily finish lines across the country, spoke at events and did media interviews.
Highlights and challenges
Mr. Chalmers, who was born with spina bifida and does not have full use of his legs, said there were many special moments throughout his journey, but what really stands out for him were the people he met along the way. “They really made this special – the kids that were sitting there at the finish lines that were waving … That was an incredible experience throughout the campaign.
“I had multiple goals for Push Across America. One was to raise funds for the organisation [Stay-Focused], but also to raise awareness. I feel like I succeeded in that. That’s really what made this whole campaign worth it … We showed people what a person with disabilities is capable of. It’s all about awareness and I think we raised a tremendous amount of awareness in our 71 days across the country,” he said.
But the journey was not without challenges and day five proved to be the toughest. That was the day he cycled across California’s Death Valley.
“Going through Death Valley, the temperature was 95 degrees. It was a 65-mile day. We had to start the day at 5.45am, so that meant everyone was up at 4.30am. We started the day with a seven-mile incline and I was going at 3 to 3.5 miles an hour… I finished the day with another 13-mile climb out of Death Valley, again going about 3 to 3.5 miles an hour. That all made for an extremely long day,” he explained.
But there was not a single day where he wanted to quit, he said.
His final push into New York was definitely one of the highlights. There at the finish line were 20 family members who had come to New York to welcome him back, along with several media organisations. Also at the finishing line, was Hunter, a 5-year-old boy in a wheelchair, who he had earlier met along the way in Cincinnati. “He and his family came along. It was great, really nice to see him again,” he said.
He was also escorted by NYPD officers in police cars and motorcycles. “It was all a bit surreal at the time,” he said.
“I’m coming to Cayman for the Stay Focused programme in the summer and after that for the next three years, I will be 100 per cent focused on Rio,” he said.
His Push Across America campaign was sponsored and promoted by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. “They were our first major sponsor … They were incredibly supportive the entire time and promoted the event. I am very thankful for the participation of the Department of Tourism.
“Also Dart. We’re good friends of Mark VanDevelde, CEO of Dart. They came on as a sponsor as well … They all really made this happen,” he said.