by Richard Ensign
From the Editor: Richard has a long friendship with Ken Duke, who is a longtime leader in our Utah Affiliate. The relationship goes beyond friends since Ken is Richard’s brother-in-law. Here is what Ken has to say about an event dreamed up by Ken that took place in September of 2021. Enjoy the ride:
Ken Duke, who is an NFB of Utah board member and also the Salt Lake Chapter president, sets his sights high in everything he does even though he was born with a disease leading to blindness called retinitis pigmentosa. Ken is a true visionary and dreamer when it comes to setting lofty goals. Apparently completing fifty-eight marathons and five RAGNARS was not challenging enough. He wanted to plan something even more ambitious, and as his friend and brother-in-law, I got invited to go along for the ride.
For the past twenty years, Ken has been the president and board member of the Achilles International Utah Chapter. I love the symbolism in the story of this Greek god since Achilles was a perfect specimen except for his darn heal. Like Achilles, each member of this organization has one or more challenges such as amputation, cancer, or vision. Yet through great determination and grit, each seems to rise above their trials to become stronger.
Ken has been a big part of helping individuals set ambitious goals and then helping them reach them. About six months ago, he approached me with one of his hairbrained ideas. He thought it would be fun to bike 365 miles over five days to St. George, Utah, and then run 26.2 miles after only one day of rest. I thought he was joking at first, but he was dead serious.
Over the next few weeks and months, he began recruiting our team. This team consisted of six blind riders, six bike captains, and our support staff or SAG. He also secured the use of six tandem bikes.
By definition, a tandem is a bicycle in which two people work in partnership or conjunction to ride. Our tandems were a lot like the people that rode them—all different; yet somehow, we worked together to make this miracle happen. These bikes were different colors, makes, and designs. Some were newer and others faster. Each member of our team was also unique. We had contractors, computer engineers, firemen, and substitute teachers. We had athletes as well as beginner riders.
The story I would like to tell is not about the ride but rather the journey and what I learned along the way. I left Salt Lake last week telling family and friends I was riding with six blind people. Now I tell people I rode with six amazing, inspiring, determined individuals who happened to be blind. My attitude toward disabilities changed as I got to know each one of them a little better. I began to see them for who they are instead of for their disability. I hope you can too. Here is their story.
Lexie Eddington was born in Romania in 1991 to a young Turkish mother but was immediately given up for adoption. Lucky for her, she was adopted by a loving mother and raised in Evanston, Wyoming. With a graduating class of only ninty-nine, she had plenty of opportunities to shine as she ran track and was a cheerleader.
I met Lexie about a month before our event for our first serious ride. It was an eighty-mile mountainous course, where we climbed over four thousand vertical feet. The event was called the Summit Challenge and was sponsored by the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. Prior to this event, the farthest Lexie had ridden was only thirty miles. Most of her training was sitting on a stationary bike in the gym.
Lexie is one of the most positive, bubbly people I have ever met. She is also a talker. Mile after mile I got to learn about her family, her substitute teaching, and her love life. She told me about her best dates as well as her worst. Story after story entertained me as we pedaled from town to town.
On our last day, we were in a particularly bad stretch of road. I was doing everything I could to concentrate on not hitting the rumble strip as well as staying out of the way of the speeding semis while we flew down the road. We had not said much over the course of ten minutes when Lexie finally broke the silence and said, "I guess after five days of riding we've run out of things to talk about." This made me laugh since I was just trying to stay alive at that point.
Once we got out of danger, we started up our conversation again. Every time we hit a hill, Lexie would blurt out, "We got this. We're going to dominate this hill!" She never complained and always had a positive attitude. She told me at least a hundred times how wonderful I was and how much she appreciated me. How can you not like someone who praises you like that?
My greatest joy of the ride was seeing the love and support that Lexie received from her family at the finish line. Her ninety-year-old grandparents as well as her sister and brother-in-law had driven down from Salt Lake to cheer her on. Her mother Jan spent the week following us from stop to stop as a member of the SAG team offering support and encouragement. Lexie told me that she is a "mama's girl," and I could tell they truly loved each other. Lexie taught me about being positive, the importance of family, and a little bit about swearing when we hit the rumble strips.
Stephanie and Nick Cordova are Irish twins. They were born eleven months apart with Stephanie being the older, wiser blind sister. I did not talk to them as much as Lexie, but I did admire them from afar. After day two I thought that they might want to quit. They struggled over those eighty-one miles and looked exhausted at the end. However, the next morning they were back on their bikes ready to roll with a determined look in their eyes.
Nick and Stephanie had bike issues throughout the ride. Their chain kept falling off at the most inopportune times. We even gave them the nickname of the "chain gang." Through it all they never complained and pushed through.
This brother/sister duo taught me several lessons. You hear about siblings that grow apart as they get older. I could tell that Nick and Stephanie have grown closer together as they serve one another. They are not complainers. They were not the fastest of all the groups, but they were certainly steady and are not quitters. At the end of the ride, Stephanie posted a special shout out to her brother, thanking him for always being willing to join her and being so supportive.
Terri and Aaron Rupp joined us from the Las Vegas Chapter, and we are really glad they did. Not only did they supply one of the coolest camper vans ever made, but they also brought a lot of encouragement and fun. Aaron is an excellent cook and spent a lot of time sharing his skills with us. He is a fireman/EMT and had lots of entertaining stories and dance moves. I especially liked the story about what he did with his grandpa's inheritance money. I am pretty sure grandpa may be rolling over in his grave.
Terri's background is incredibly inspiring. Her family had to flee Cambodia because of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s. Terri was born in Thailand in a refugee camp, and then her family immigrated to the United States when she was very young. Both Terri and her young daughter have the same eye condition. Terri sits on several national boards, including the board of the National Federation of the Blind. She has spent countless hours traveling the country speaking and motivating others.
One story that stood out to me is that when she travels through airports, many people offer help in well-intended but inappropriate ways. Some people talk excessively loudly as if she is deaf, or they bring a wheelchair to push her around. She will typically put her suitcase in the wheelchair and begin to walk toward the departure gate using her cane. She wants people to realize she can do almost anything. She has even run a hundred miler!
Terri and Aaron taught me that with or without sight you can enjoy life to the fullest. They camp, bike, run, and hike almost every month. She is teaching her daughter by example that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, and that you can have a great time along the way.
Gail Yarker and Tyler Fredsall met each other just a week or two before the ride. Gail currently lives in St. George and had only trained a few times with her seventy-four-year-old father on an e-bike, so we were a little nervous for her. Luckily, Tyler ran track in college and is in excellent shape, which made for a great pair. Gail is a kindhearted, softspoken person which I'm sure served her well as a nurse until her vision declined. One fun memory of the ride is seeing Gail's dog at the finish line. This dog loved Gail and had missed her over the past five days!
Tyler's story is inspiring as well. He moved to Utah from Connecticut seven years ago to learn how to ski. Most single guys seem to be more concerned about themselves, but Tyler is always looking for ways to serve others. He ran a race back East, where he was so inspired by an Achilles athlete that when he arrived in Utah, he went to the effort to look up the Achilles Utah chapter and reached out to see how he could help. He has been involved for four years now guiding runners around Sugarhouse Park most Saturdays. He is also very talented and funny; he entertained us with voice impressions of Yoda and Forest Gump among others.
Tyler must have learned his serving ways from his incredible parents. Ed and Rosalee Fredsall flew out all the way from Florida to help with the SAG team. They kept us hydrated along the road as well as providing help in fixing our flats. Over the course of five days, there were thirteen flats and three tires destroyed, so their help and tools were lifesavers.
What I learned from Tyler and his parents is that serving others is easy if you love it. I could tell serving brings them great joy. Gail taught me a little about faith and determination. With very little training, she trusted Tyler and did not back out like some others. She also never complained. In the end she wrote "My deepest gratitude to each and every one of you on this epic adventure. I enjoyed every moment from start to finish."
Steve and Becky Andrews were the veteran team of our group. They both have been riding tandems for many years and recently returned from a two hundred mile training ride across Missouri. However, when they were first learning to ride (with clip peddles) many years ago, their tandem fell over and Becky broke her arm. Not to be discouraged, a few weeks later she got back on and fell again, this time breaking the other arm! You would think one would see that as a bad omen and quit, but not Becky. She replaced the clip peddles with baskets and has been riding ever since.
Steve also inspired me as he was the oldest of the group at age sixty-three. I am not far behind him, so it gave me hope. Steve and Becky reminded me of the children's story "The Tortoise and the Hare." There were multiple times that Lexie and I passed them on a hill, only to be passed up when we were resting at the top. These guys never quit! They just kept plodding along until they reached their destination.
Steve and Becky have taught me that when you fall, you get back up. I also learned that sometimes "slow and steady wins the race." They seem to live their life this way and have accomplished a lot along the way. They both are successful business owners; Becky is a published author and they have successfully raised several kids (and guide dogs).
Ken Duke and Ben Alvord were the masterminds behind this event. Ken was the dreamer, but Ben was right behind him figuring out all the details and logistics. They made an excellent team both on and off the bike.
Ken has been inspiring me for over thirty years. We have run, skied, and climbed mountains together, but we have also laughed, mourned, and listened to each other's challenges for most of our adult lives. Ken is a true friend and has taught me a great deal about how to handle adversity. He is the reason why I have completed eighteen marathons; I have never run one without him. I would say he is my guide and mentor as he helps me see life through another's prospective.
Ken has told me several times that Ben is the true hero of this event. He mapped out the route, ordered the shirts, thought of the idea for the medals, and even spent a weekend with Ken driving the course a few months ago. Ben has sacrificed a lot to train with Ken over the past several years and has become a good friend to Ken and me.
What did I learn from Ken and Ben? I learned that some crazy ideas are worth pursuing, that hard work and planning pay off, and that we should not let anything like not having sight get in the way of our dreams.
Conclusion: Each morning Ken would lead us in a group cheer before we headed off on our seventy-mile ride. We would all follow Ken's lead as he yelled at the top of his lungs, "You got to want it!" We all laughed about it, but in reality, this has been Ken's motto his whole life. He sets his sights high and goes for it each day against all odds. He typically accomplishes his goals if he wants to badly enough.
I love the coincidence that the ride was 365 miles, since it is the same as the number of days in a year. To me, this ride seemed like a metaphor for life. We experienced rain, sun, hills, valleys, good times, and bad. When we hit a hill, I would tell Lexie, "What goes up, must come down." So it is with life. I am convinced we all have different challenges in life. Some are physical, like blindness, but others are emotional or mental. We just need to remember there is hope on the other side of the hill.
What did I learn from this ride and run? That not everything you think is impossible is. I thought there was absolutely no way I would be able to run a full marathon after riding my bike to St. George. I had not trained because of a foot injury and had not run over five miles in a year. Yet, Ken was gently persistent and got me registered and to the starting line. I had to do the running, but it took Ken to give me that little extra push and encouragement, and I am glad that he did.
I also learned once again that people with disabilities have a lot to add to this life. I was inspired by the attitude, tenacity, drive, and passion of each of the six riders who completed this journey. Hopefully, this is something they will remember the rest of their lives, and it will act as a springboard for other goals and aspirations they might have.
Finally, I learned that synergy is a real thing. Our little band of riders and support staff were greater than adding our number would indicate. We lifted each other up and became better people because of it. I am grateful that I was able to share this experience with these amazing individuals and be inspired by their example of not letting anything get in their way—not even a little 365-mile bike ride and marathon.