Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eight men, seven legs and 3,051 miles: war-wounded British ex-servicemen race across America by bike (15pics)

A team of seriously-wounded British servicemen is about to complete one of the world's toughest endurance contests by cycling in the Race Across America.

The handover for Team Battle Back was seamless as Mark Allen sped into the pit-stop in a tiny Colorado farm town and Steve Arnold powered off towards the swirling dust-storm obscuring the horizon.

It was the latest stage in Race Across America, a coast-to-coast relay bicycle marathon through deserts, mountains and plains that is one of the most formidable endurance events in the world.

The contest would be tough enough for the fittest able-bodied competitor. But Sgt Allen was riding with a prosthetic leg. And Staff Sgt Arnold was pumping the pedals of a hand bicycle with his arms from his near-horizontal position just inches from the road, the stumps of his missing legs in front of him.

Supported by the charity Help for Heroes, the two men are members of a team of eight British war wounded with just seven legs - and a string of serious injuries - between them.

They paid a heavy physical price for their bravery and courage fighting for their country in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they are cycling 3,051 miles across America in just eight days in a remarkable demonstration of defiance, resilience and life beyond injury.

"I wanted to show everyone that life isn't over if you get injured, even serious injuries like this," said SSgt Arnold, 32, a Royal Engineer who lost both his legs when he stepped on a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan in April last year.

Other shared a similar motivation to inspire fellow war heroes and inform the public. "My hope is to prove that after injury there are no limitations and that you can get out of life what you put into it," said Joe Townsend, 24, a Royal Marine commando whose legs were blown off below the knee by an improvised explosive device (IED) on patrol in Afghanistan in 2008.

The Sunday Telegraph caught up with the team as they emerged from the gruelling climbs and dizzying descents of the Rockies and plunged into the seemingly never-ending expanses of the prairie in America's heartland.

The cauldron-like heat of the Californian desert and the 10,000ft climb through the mountains were behind them.

But the plains provided new challenges in the form of 50mph side winds, dust storms, temperatures soaring above 100F - and the monotony of landscape that offered no distractions from their travails.

The race is a major logistical operation for the team, who are both backed by and raising funds for Help for Heroes.

They ride in relay around the clock, one cyclist on the road at a time, followed by 18 support crew - physiotherapists, doctors, logistics staff, drivers and mechanics – in five vehicles.

The men have been training since last year under the guidance of race crew chief Jonpaul Nevin, the chief coach at Help for Heroes' Tedworth House recovery facility in Wiltshire.

Each rider, for whom cycling is part of their medical rehab, races several stretches a day, grabbing rest and sleep when they can in the accompanying transit vans and motor homes [RVs].

The team was averaging more than 17 miles an hour, putting them on schedule to complete the ride on Saturday evening at Annapolis in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay where some wives and girlfriends were waiting to greet them.

Each cyclist is followed by a support car, not least as a protective measure against other vehicles. It was in this race in 2010 that James Cracknell, the Olympic rowing gold medallist, was nearly killed when he was hit by a truck in Arizona.

Food is boil-in-the-bag meals of beef stew, chilli con carne, chicken curry and the like, supplemented with cereal bars and sweets. But even for servicemen accustomed to the military version of this monotonous fare on deployment, the occasional burger and chips grabbed at longer stops was a welcome treat.

The challenge for the support team is to persuade the men - their appetite lessened by heat and exhaustion - to eat the 4-6,000 calories that they are burning each day.

They also drink 750mls of fluid - well over a pint - every hour on the road. For the riders on hand bicycles, tubes over their shoulders run back to packs that are topped up with water or energy drinks before each stretch.

"These guys have the military ethos, they have served in Afghanistan, so they know the importance of re-hydrating," said Dr Philip Lucas, an RAF medic accompanying the team.

"They are performing beyond all expectations. They're a remarkable group. The attitude even of the double amputees is 'There's nothing wrong with me, I just happen to have no legs'."

He said the men were suffering from a mixture of blisters, chafing, heat, tiredness and lack of sleep -- just as any other competitors would be.

In their kits of red, white and blue, Team Battle Back are racing on four normal upright bicycles and, for the double leg amputees, four hand-cranked machines, each adapted to the injuries of their individual riders.

These have sponge seats for the riders as they lie almost flat, their eye line just above the chain, and propel themselves with their hands and arms using specially-modified gear and brake systems.

For Steve Richardson, there was an added challenge as he not only has no legs but has also lost all but four fingers - one on his right-hand and three on his left. Medics bound up his hands with tape as added protection beneath his cycling gloves, but the strain was still taking its toll.

"You do start questioning why you are here at times," said Pte Richardson, 22, an infantryman who lost his legs to an IED during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2010. "But it'll be worth it when we've finished."

The fourth double amputee is Sgt Simon Harmer, 34, who also lost both legs to a roadside bomb. "We're a team of injured guys with a new mission - to complete this thing in time to watch the England game with Italy on Sunday," he said after England's victory over Ukraine in Euro 2012.

"The heat, the gradients and the lack of sleep are all challenges. And the hand bikes are really hard work. But we'll get there."

Through the mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Appalachians, the riders on the regular bicycles take on the uphill stretches while the hand-cyclists tackle the descents. On one downhill run, SSgt Arnold hit 62mph, he noted with delight. "The adrenalin buzz was exhilarating," he said.

In this year's Race Across America, 49 solo riders and 51 teams set off from California's Pacific coast in staged departures. Reto Shoch, a Swiss first-time competitor, crossed the finishing line first in eight days, six hours and 29 minutes on Friday.

For Team Battle Back, finishing the contest is a victory in its own right. But they have also been involved in their own private contest with the Wounded Warrior Project, a team of injured US servicemen.

The Americans are on course to win that tussle, although the British racers point out that just one of the rival eight riders is a hand-cyclist.

SNR Denton, an UK-US international law firm and major backer of Help for Heroes, is the chief sponsor of both military teams. "These guys are achieving an incredible feat that is an inspiring and humbling lesson to all of us," said Alastair Young, a British partner in the firm who will host a reception for them in Washington his week.

"If they can do this, it makes the trials and tribulations of our lives seem small."

The four veterans on upright bicycles are Sgt Allen, 40, who lost a leg after a parachute accident during pre-deployment training; Don Maclean, 34, a Royal Marine reservist who suffered serious foot injuries from an IED; Jamie Hull, 36, a Paratrooper badly burned after a light aircraft caught fire; and Capt Rab Smedley, 33, a who sustained a broken neck and back in an Army skiing accident.

"This race would be a tough one, with or without a leg," said Sgt Allen. "Our injuries are a secondary thing. Yes, we have to adapt a bit because of them, but the real issues are the heat, sweat, blisters and chafing, like everyone would face.

"People ask why we're doing this. It's to show that our lives have changed, but they're not over, far from it. I only lost part of a leg. The double amputees just crack on."

Marine Maclean suffered the lightest injuries of the team - broken bones and a shattered heel that was rebuilt with grafts from his arm. "I was a lot luckier than some other blokes as the IED that I stood on only partially detonated," he said.

"By taking part in this race, we also want to raise awareness with the general public. We have had major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years and even if we are winding down that involvement, there is going to be a legacy of men with serious injuries for the rest of their lives. We want to make sure those guys are not forgotten.

"And for the war wounded, we want them to know that there is life after injury. Not everyone is going to do the Race Across America, but they can achieve other things. The point is what you can do, not what you cannot do."

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