It wasn’t Lindsey Runkel’s first fall. There had been the fractured hand riding singletrack around Arizona. Then there was the broken collarbone at Phoenix’s South Mountain and the excruciating 5-mile hike out, bike in tow.
But this one felt different. More specifically, it felt like—nothing. After tumbling through the landing of a 15-foot drop at New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park, the 23-year-old wiped the dust off her goggles and started to take off her helmet. Surprisingly, she wasn’t in pain. But when she looked down at her legs that she had sworn were laid out to one side, they were popped out straight. Before her brain could catch up, Runkel’s bike partners started screaming. As if on command, her teeth began chattering uncontrollably. No. Don’t tell me I’m paralyzed.
The next hours faded in and out. Helicopters, morphine, emergency surgery. When Runkel finally came to in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, there was a long scar on her back where doctors had fused her spine back together. Runkel says one medical resident told her she would never walk again.
With Runkel still woozy from pain meds, it was that comment that cut through the haze.
“It was an immediate, ‘I’m going to [bike] again,’” she remembers. “It suddenly became more of a ‘when and how.’”
One year after her 2014 crash, Runkel made good on that promise. Loading into a low-riding, three-wheel adaptive mountain bike known as an “adaptive trike,” she made her return to dirt at Thunder Mountain Bike Park in Massachusetts. Since then, she has dedicated herself to pushing the limits of adaptive mountain biking—riding/launching downhill jumps, and even making a pair of trips to Whistler’s Crankworx (she didn’t compete, but did film a short video from her first trip). And, while the road to recovery has forced Runkel to adapt to life as a paraplegic, she says she has found a sense of normalcy in the sport that changed it all forever.
“I get to leave my wheelchair at the bottom,” says Runkel. “[When I’m biking] I hop on the chairlift and ride down over and over again. It’s a freeing feeling. I am completely independent.”
Runkel has never been one to sit still. A multisport athlete in high school in Connecticut, she discovered road biking while in college in Arizona and, thanks to a stint at a local bike shop, quickly fell in love with its off-road alternative. After returning to New England, she joined the adrenaline-infused downhill bike community at Highland, the Northeast’s mecca of downhill.
But just as the young biker was starting to earn her stripes in the East Coast downhill world, everything changed. She had been scoping the 15-foot drop at Highland for a while, and had completed a series of smaller drops earlier in the day. Fatigued, she wanted one go at the drop, but without enough speed, she dug her front tire in on the landing and was sent flying. Runkel fractured her T5 and T6 vertebrae in the fall, initiating a cosmic shift from bike seat to hospital bed, where she discovered that she had been paralyzed from the waist down.
Right after surgery, she says, the itch to get back on a bike started again.
“When I got hurt, my first thought wasn’t if I was going to walk again,” says the now 27-year-old. “It was how was I going to do my things again, how was I going to be active?”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an easy sell in her new environment. Despite a vast offering of adaptive sports and activities, Runkel found that action sports, at least on the surface, remained taboo in the adaptive world.
“These are high-risk sports, and so for people to get back into something like that after a spinal injury, most people don’t think it’s worth it,” says Runkel.
Still, Runkel remained optimistic, due in large part to the biking friends who took turns visiting her nearly every day during eight weeks of intensive recovery at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Eventually she persuaded her trainers to get her on a hand cycle. While adapting to casting her back support and relearning how to shower and use the bathroom, she spent her free time researching adaptive mountain bikes.
It was around that time that Runkel linked up with High Fives Foundation, a Tahoe-based nonprofit that specializes in providing services to action sports athletes with traumatic spinal and brain injuries. Through the help of a series of High Fives grants, Runkel was able to purchase her first adaptive mountain bike, an $11,000, low-riding three-wheel bike known as the Sport-On X3. Specially equipped for people who are paralyzed from the waist down, the bike featured a hand crank and assist motor, so Runkel could pedal with her arms instead of her legs.
Her first day back on a bike came less than a year after the accident. After connecting with fellow adaptive rider Tyler Ryan through a mutual friend, Runkel met up with Ryan for the first time at Thunder Mountain Bike Park. In addition to never having ridden an adaptive bike and having just met Ryan, she was almost frozen by the intense lingering fear of dropping back into the sport that had nearly killed her.
But after loading into her adaptive bike for the first time, those fears washed away, and Runkel found the transition freakishly natural. Even though she was propped up in a kneeling position, her upper body was still over the handlebars, active throughout the downhill sections. For a moment, it was like she was back on two wheels.
“Imagine having something stripped away from you, and then being able to do it again,” says Runkel. “It’s one of those rad things that I thought I’d never be able to do, but now it’s one of the reasons I stay positive and can deal with everyday life in a chair.”
When bike season rolls around, Runkel spends nearly every free moment riding her home mountain, Highland. After learning to drive a specially equipped pickup truck, Runkel commutes the nearly four hours from her parents’ Connecticut home to Highland every weekend, where she meets her friends to “ride like nobody’s paralyzed.” Highland, in turn, has worked with Runkel to make some of its trails more adaptive-friendly, including widening some sections of trail and removing narrow bridges to accommodate an adaptive bike’s wider wheelbase. While other bike parks like those at Whistler and Crested Butte usually include wide flow tracks and detachable lifts to accommodate a wide range of adaptive athletes, Runkel says Highland has helped her feel at home throughout her recovery.
Highland “sees that I’m coming back, so they do a lot to help me,” says Runkel. “The park is great, but it’s the people that keep me here.”
Even though her riding community has stayed constant, Runkel admits her personal approach to the sport has changed. She still flies into berms and navigates rollovers and uneven terrain, but she says she is more self-aware and has learned to curb her competitive nature. Kneeling in the bucket seat, Runkel’s physical exertion is akin to doing pushups all day long. Instead of riding through the fatigue, she says she is much more comfortable calling it a day than in the past.
“Maybe it’s an age thing,” she jokes.
Through her foray into adaptive mountain biking, Runkel has also expanded her adaptive sport repertoire. In addition to mono-skiing and surfing, she is also part of a national championship sled hockey team based out of Wallingford, Connecticut. She even began competing in Spartan Races, helped by a team of friends to navigate the grueling, long-distance obstacle course.
After one event, she was approached by a woman and her daughter in a wheelchair. The woman was in tears.
“She couldn’t believe I had just done [the Spartan Race] and that’s when I realized I could be inspiring too,” she says. “You can really change somebody’s mind just be showing them that there is still so much out there” for adaptive athletes.
When asked about her plans for the upcoming year, she takes a second, and laughs. A friend challenged her to an Ironman in 2019. She, in character, has already accepted.
“There’s no better feeling than realizing your potential even though you thought it might be limited,” explains Runkel. “I have an opportunity to do it, so why not try? Even if it sucks and I fail, I haven’t failed myself in trying. Not trying is failure, so why not push it?”