For most people, running for six days straight seems superhuman. Questions like: When do you sleep? When do you eat? How do you keep running? are common. For the people who do these sorts of races, the preparation begins years before. They have already run marathons, double marathons, 100 k races, and even 100-mile races. While they don’t know exactly what to expect, they have done their homework.
For Bryon Solberg, the situation was totally different. You see, Bryon Solberg has only minimal use of one leg. In 1999, while on a bike ride in Corvallis, Oregon, Bryon started to feel weak in his legs. And then things got worse. He started dropping things. His hands started shaking. He knew something wasn’t right.
At the time, Solberg was working as an anesthesiologist. Dropping things was not an option. But he was also an experienced athlete. When things started to change, Solberg had already completed several marathons. In fact, he had plans to complete a 600-mile bike ride.
After seeing a neurologist, it was discovered that Solberg was missing an odontoid, and small bone that protects the C1 and C2 vertebrae. In most patients, the diagnosis often means dying at birth, or after a traumatic accident.
Solberg describes this as a “scary time”. He knew he was going to have to have surgery, but years working as an anesthesiologist had shown him just what can happen during surgery. As he says, “I didn’t know if I was going to survive the surgery.”
Solberg did survive, but he had to relearn how to walk. In the beginning, he retreated into what he calls, his “sad cave.” But then a friend dragged him to a Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) meeting and things began to change.
“I saw people with no arms and no legs. I thought to myself, ‘What’s my excuse?’” The very next morning, Solberg came back with two canes and completed a half marathon distance. While it may have taken him close to eight hours, it was a small step forward.
For Solberg, it was a beginning. He began spending hours in the pool, mimicking the movement of running with his arms and legs. He started walking every day, no matter the distance. And he changed how he looked at the situation.
“Every morning, I contemplate five things I am grateful for, and then I do it again in the evening. It gets my whole day started differently. It cascades beyond ten or twenty things at this point,” says Solberg.
Then Solberg began thinking about his goals before he was diagnosed. He had plans to keep running marathons and maybe, someday, move in ultramarathons. What began as a question: Can I do it? became a daily focus.
Slowly, Solberg gained strength. Walking became shuffling. The miles started adding up, and before long, he was ready to take on his first marathon as a challenged athlete. The race was successful and the fire was lit.
Solberg’s next goal became what is known as the “Grand Slam” of ultrarunning: the 50k, the double marathon, the 100k, and the 100-mile race. After notching off the first 3 in 24-hour races – where he was given 24 hours to complete the distance, Solberg knew he would need more time to complete 100 miles.
He recalls, “I knew how I felt after the double marathons, and the 100 K. My legs and back were so weak and tired. No way did I have it in me to do the rest of a 100 miler in the next 24 hours. That meant that a 48-hour wasn’t enough time for Solberg to know for sure, he could complete 100 miles.
Enter Icarus Florida Ultrafest. Icarus is a week-long ultrarunning event that hosts a six-day race, along with a 72-hour race, a 48-hour race, and 24-hour race, and a 12-hour race. When Solberg filled out the application form (yes there is an application for such an event), he was initially rejected.
The race director’s reply was, “We just can’t take the risk.” But that didn’t deter Solberg. He responded by explaining a little bit about himself, and that he and his coach already had a plan. “We had it broken down into 17 miles a day, to equal just over 100 miles in six days.”
When he sent in his appeal to the rejection, Solberg contended that 17 miles a day was doable for him, considering he had already completed a double marathon and 100 k distances in 24 hours. He was accepted into the race and the journey began.
Again, Solberg didn’t know what to expect. But after the first day, he realized that 100 miles was well within his grasp, and much earlier than he expected. In fact, he reached it within the 48-hour race, astonishing not just the race directors, but everyone in the race.
“Bryon’s story is one we will probably be telling for years to come,” recalls race director, Andrei Nana. Nana goes on to say that whenever anyone is struggling, or ready to quit a race (he is a big believer in never quitting), he tells them about Solberg. “To this day, after hearing that story, I don’t think anyone has ever quit.”
For challenged athletes and those with disabilities, it is a lesson in what is possible when we simply refuse to be held down by our circumstances.