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Published on July 05, 2012

The Ride of His Life: Completing the Stephan Challenge

Recovering Spinal Cord Injury Patient Mark Stephan Finishes Monumental Bike Journey Across the Country to Benefit the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago  

    CHICAGO, IL—By the time Mark Stephan rode his bike into St. Augustine, Florida, on July 2, he had just about seen it all. In 78 days, he had pedaled 3,129 miles coast to coast, starting in San Diego on April 15, 2012. Along the way, there were steep rides up mountain slopes and sweet coasting through shady pecan orchards. There were surprise visits from police and the unexpected companionship of a 5-year-old on a tricycle. There were aching bones, tired muscles and a pressure sore that led him to the ER for treatment. There was even an accident and a tropical storm. But for Stephan, an avid cyclist who became a quadriplegic five years ago, it was the ride of his life – a chance to demonstrate Ability, and to raise awareness and funds for the new Research Hospital planned by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), the place where his recovery began.

    He called it the Stephan Challenge, an effort that has raised more than $600,000 to date.

    In 2007, Stephan was cycling near his home in suburban Chicago when his front wheel unexpectedly disengaged, catapulting him over the handlebars. His head hit the pavement at full force, fracturing the C2 and C3 vertebrae of his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the neck down. During his rehabilitation at RIC, Stephan learned to walk again. He also continually set and achieved very big goals for his recovery. Each of the past three years, Stephan has completed RIC’s annual SkyRise Chicago event, climbing 103 flights of stairs to the top of the Willis Tower. 

    When he decided to ride cross-country, his preparation for the ambitious journey began at RIC, where supportive physicians made sure Stephan’s body was strong enough to withstand the stress. In the days prior to the start of the Challenge, they were still treating him for a pressure sore, which “opens from the inside so when it breaks skin it is already through to the bone,” Stephan blogged. “The doctor’s opinion is still go, but keep an eye on it.”

    Feeling the Heat

    Stephan and his support team rode out of San Diego enjoying cool breezes that quickly disappeared in the desert. Temperatures reached over 120 degrees, and winds were hot. “It’s like having a blow dryer in your mouth,” Stephan wrote. By May, the group was rolling through shady orchards in Texas, watching small towns prepare for Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

    On June 2, the Stephan Challenge nearly came to an end in Texas ranch country when the driver of a pickup truck hit one of Stephan’s support vehicles that had been following the group. “I heard the sound of a car locking up brakes and skidding, then the explosion of contact,” Stephan wrote. Both cars were totaled, one of them skidding into Stephan’s recumbent bike. The impact destroyed the bike but left Stephan remarkably intact. His team used parts from two different bikes to rebuild a workable one so he could carry on. The next morning, Stephan recalled, “we did what everybody would do—we drove 30 minutes back to crash site, unloaded our bikes and headed east.”

    Stephan battled brutal temperatures successfully until he reached Austin, Texas, where dehydration overcame him after dinner one evening. Paramedics took him to the ER of a local hospital, where he spent the night. “I do not remember feeling that bad, ever,” he blogged later. After two rest days, Stephan was back on the road churning out the miles.

    Heat and wind were expected, but gravel roads were not. Near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, “what should have been a two-hour, flat, smooth ride at 8 mph turned into an eight-hour grind at 2-3 mph,” a friend blogged. Monsoon rains followed. On June 15, Stephan wrote, “The rain came. I mean epic. We were riding into a fire hose and had trouble keeping our eyes open.”

    Pressure Sores and Perseverance

    June 22, after a 50-mile day, Stephan again landed in the ER, this time at a hospital in Pensacola, Florida. “We had a great bike path at the end of day,” he wrote. “But the ride was very painful for me. My foot was killing me. To make a long story short, it was back to the ER for an IV of antibiotics and pain meds. The foot has an infected pressure sore. It has not broken the skin but it is delicate. The ER people were very nice. I have drugs to get in the morning and we will push on.”

    Two days later, Stephan was battling Tropical Storm Debby, which brought “nonstop rain and 25 mph headwinds. We pressed and pressed and knocked out a tough 50 [miles].” The next day was more of the same, but the group rode on. “It came down in sheets. We could hardly see at times. Add hills that were as steep as we have seen since San Diego and that was just the morning.” By June 27, Stephan was blogging, “Hope this old body hangs in there.”

    But he drew energy from unusual sources along the way. On June 29, he wrote, “We had the great pleasure of connecting with a young 5-year-old named Luke, who has a spinal cord injury. He has learned to ride a bike and wanted to ride with us. We rolled together for a block. He is my inspiration.”

    An Amazing Finish

    On July 2 with a motorcycle police escort, Stephan rolled into St. Augustine. “The pace was easy, single file,” he wrote. As they began the last five miles to the finish in the state park, “the police escort was great as we sailed through intersections. As we got closer, I rode as hard as I could.”

    Stephan completed the Challenge with a smile on his face and was welcomed by cheering family and friends. Showing their RIC spirit, he and his family wore specially made RIC cycling jerseys for the occasion. “There was a champagne shower, and a happy celebration on the Florida beach,” said Jennifer Bell, from RIC’s Office of Advancement. “It was a good day!”

    Of rolling across the finish line, Stephan wrote, “It was as free as I have felt in a long time.”

    Stephan’s incredible journey across the country was the subject of a terrific piece on the Today Show last week that not only spotlighted this remarkable accomplishment, it also highlighted the progress he’s made in recovery since first climbing the Willis Tower for SkyRise Chicago.

    Reporter Mike Leonard was clearly delighted to follow up his SkyRise coverage of Mark with this story. Follow this link to watch the video: http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/48146247

    About the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

    The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) is the nation’s #1-ranked provider of comprehensive physical medicine and rehabilitation care to patients from around the world. Ranked #1 by both U.S. News and World Report and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, RIC holds an unparalleled market distinction.

    With a record six multi-year, multi-million dollar federal research designations awarded and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education’s National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the areas of spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, neurological rehabilitation, outcomes research, bionic medicine/rehabilitation engineering research, and pediatric orthopedics, RIC operates the largest rehabilitation research enterprise in the world.

    RIC also operates its 182-bed, flagship hospital in downtown Chicago, as well as a network of more than 40 sites of care distributed throughout the Midwest, through which it delivers inpatient, day rehabilitation, and outpatient services.

    Founded in 1954, RIC has been designated the “#1 Rehabilitation Hospital in America” by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1991. RIC sets the standard of care in the post-acute market through its innovative applied research and discovery programs, particularly in the areas of neuroscience, bionic medicine, musculoskeletal medicine and technology transfer. For more information, go to www.ric.org.

    Journalists contact: mediarelations@ric.org, 312-238-4571.

    All others contact: webmaster@ric.org.