Tales from the Trail: The Moment That Changed My Life

By Lindsey Runkel

Editor's note: This post is reprinted with permission from the author from The Paraplegic's Guide to Adventure. Lindsey is a spontaneous adventurer who loves the outdoors. She was injured in a downhill mountain bike accident, but doesn't let that stop her from adaptive mountain biking, skiing, and having a good time, no matter what. She's unapologetically herself and is excited to share her story.

 

It’s crazy to think that my accident occurred more than a year ago. Time flies when you’re having fun and believe me, I haven’t stopped just because I’ve lost sensory and motor function in my lower body.

If you had met me one year ago, you would have probably described me as adventurous, passionate, fiercely determined, driven, fearless, and some of you might go as far as to say I was a little bit crazy. What can I say, I love a good adrenaline rush. My rush came from mountain biking and more recently, downhill mountain biking. To my parents, downhill mountain biking was going as fast as I could down a mountain with jumps and rocks and roots. They always thought I was nuts for it and they weren’t necessarily wrong. 

Among my group of riding friends, I was known as the girl who was willing to go down any trail and try anything once. It was rare enough that I was a girl on a downhill bike but to be a girl with such fearlessness was the equivalent to seeing Sasquatch. My attitude revolved around a “what’s the worst that could happen” mantra. 

My brain was going through possible outcomes..a broken leg, a broken arm…all things that could be healed by next season.

At heart, I’m still a kid and as a kid, I had an invincibility complex. I would do anything and bounce right back from it. This meant trying things that were outside of my comfort zone, like a rock drop that I had been looking at all summer.  

This particular drop was about 10 ft high and 5 ft out, although if you ask my paramedics, they would say 15, so for the sake of making me sound way cooler than I am, we’ll go with 15. I had a fear of drops ever since I broke my collarbone on one when I first started riding. I spent the summer of 2014 working my way up from 2 foot drops to 8 foot drops so this “15 foot drop” was going to be nothing! Or so I thought. What I didn’t account for was the run up to it. It was full of jagged rocks and roots that could easily grab my speed and cause a detrimental outcome. But I was invincible, remember? So after an awesome day of riding with my friends, I decided it was time. 

My good friend told me I was looking flawless on all the other drops. My form was perfect. I was ready. We stood at the top of the drop for about 20 minutes, thinking long and hard about what I was about to do. My brain was going through possible outcomes..a broken leg, a broken arm…all things that could be healed by next season. It was go time. I followed my friend off and felt amazing soaring through the air. I had finally reached my summer goal and hit my nemesis drop! It was an incredible feeling. 

That was of course, until my wheels touched the ground. Within a second's time, I was on the ground. A rut had grabbed my front tire and thrown me over the bars. Still invincible, I went to take off my helmet, tried to sit up, brush the dirt off, and try again but a flood of screams around me said no. That was when I realized, this was bad. I looked down to see my legs sprawled to the side of me. I could have SWORN that they were laid out straight.

This wasn’t right. I reached down from my laying position to touch them and there was nothing. Tell me I’m not paralyzed, I screamed at my friends around me. There was NO way my back was broken, it didn’t hurt so how could it be broken? I waited for the paramedics to arrive and put me on a backboard at which point shock had set in and I was shaking violently. TELL ME I AM NOT PARALYZED I screamed again. It was as if I was not there. In all the hustle around me, nobody seemed to notice me my screaming request. In that moment, my invincibility was reduced to a hollow shell of fear. I remember telling myself, if I am paralyzed, I am just going to kill myself – I can’t live like this. 

I was med-flighted off the mountain to the closest hospital where I was rushed into emergency surgery. Everything from the moment I got in the helicopter to the moment I woke up from surgery is a blur. People asking tons of questions, cold rooms, test after test, MRIs, CT scans, people asking me more questions, but nobody answering the one question I had – was this permanent. 

How dare this man that I didn’t know come in and tell me what I was capable of? How dare ANYONE tell me what I could and could not do?

When I awoke after surgery, I finally got my answer. One of the hospital’s residents met me face to face to deliver my prognosis. “You're never going to walk again,” he said, just a few inches from my face.

Being a fearless, invincible - and somewhat stubborn - girl, I told him to leave my room and that I didn’t wish to hear anything more from him. How dare this man that I didn’t know come in and tell me what I was capable of? How dare ANYONE tell me what I could and could not do? How dare he even come into my room? He didn’t know me. He had no idea what I was capable of. 

But thank goodness for him. I thank the universe every day for that resident because he ignited a fire in me. There was no way that man was going to tell me what I was capable of and get away with it. He wasn’t allowed to define my life. And he hasn’t. 

Almost a year and a half later, people still describe me as adventurous, passionate, fiercely determined, driven, fearless, somewhat crazy, and -the most rewarding one of all - inspiring.

I have used my injury as a way of appreciating every aspect of my life that I once took for granted. I have used it as a platform for experiencing new things. Since my accident, I have raced my handcycle 25 miles for cancer. I have learned how to surf and will be going to Maui in a few weeks for a surf trip. I have gotten back onto a downhill bike and back onto the trails that once had me thinking twice. I've filmed a GoPro edit that had me going bigger on my adaptive bike than I had ever gone on my regular bike. I've raced multiple Spartan races -- most recently, a 15 mile uphill course with 34 obstacles to overcome that took me 12+ hours to complete. I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
 

I have accomplished more in this past year and a half than I have in my other 24 years. And every second, every race, every learning experience has been worth it. I have removed the word CAN’T from my vocabulary because it’s not really a word, it’s a decision. Every time you say you can’t do something, you are deciding that you are not really going to try because it seems impossible. You are giving up before you even start. 
 

I have removed the word CAN’T from my vocabulary because it’s not really a word, it’s a decision.

I had a choice when I first got injured, the same choice that everyone has to make at some point in their lives. One road is marked by sadness, sorrow, self-pity, and CAN’Ts. The other is a journey towards self-discovery filled with positivity, a willingness to try, and CANs. Every day is a challenge for me but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I falter, I am given a chance to grow and learn. Every day, I get to learn something new about myself and I am given the best opportunity of all: to inspire others to push their limits. Every day, I am given a chance to prove that resident wrong and prove to myself that limits are meant to be pushed.  

The strangest part of this whole journey is that I am not sure that I would take it back. If given the choice, I am not sure I would go back to that day and not attempt the drop. I am not sure I would take back all those days of painful rehab and breakdowns caused by the slightest things. Would I give anything to walk again now? Absolutely. But would I give anything to take away the journey that has led me to this point? Absolutely not. Injuries like mine come at a price but also come with reward if you choose the right mindset.

I have more support than I would have ever known was out there for me. I have experienced things that I never would have tried had I not been injured. I have met some of the most incredible people along my journey. I have stumbled, I have fallen, I have faltered, and I have gained so much insight. I have found myself in the absence of my lower half all because I’ve pushed myself through the lows and I have given it my all to get back to the top—all because I haven’t let can’t define my everyday life.  

I am not my disability. I am not disabled. 

The only true disability in life is self limitation. I don’t let my paralysis stop me from being fulfilled. I don’t let it define how my day goes. And I certainly don’t let it stop me from doing what I want.

 

Want to meet Lindsey in Person? Join her at our Enjoy the GRIT Outdoors! Summer Series kickoff at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on Thursday May 19 from 4 pm - 7 pm. We'll bring the Freedom Chairs, you bring the fun! 


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The GRIT Freedom Chair is the most versatile chair on the market, designed from the ground up to handle any terrain. From trails to grass to snow, the Freedom Chair is built for you to push yourself. Born out of research at MIT, the Freedom Chair's patented easy-push levers reduce shoulder strain and put you in control of your mobility. Learn more about the GRIT Freedom Chair at www.gogrit.us