Meet the Man Crossing the U.S.—In a Wheelchair

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Ryan Chalmers is a man among boys. The 23-year-old from Churchville, NY is training for a feat that few others would pretend to tackle, let alone actually want to: a 71-day journey next April called "Push Across America." He’ll navigate his wheelchair from Los Angeles to New York—something that's never been done before.

Chalmers has Spina Bifida, a developmental condition in which your spinal canal and backbone don’t close before birth. Although he can walk a bit with the help of crutches, it keeps him in a wheelchair for much of the time. But he has made the best of it: He began pushing 3 miles a day when he was 8 years old, and clocked his first marathon at about 2 hours and 10 minutes. He was 14.

Fast forward to today. He’s just competed in the Paralympics in London, he’s training for the push of his life backed by Stay-Focused, a SCUBA diving nonprofit for disabled children, and—oh yeah—he's competing in the Chicago Marathon this weekend. (Running a marathon yourself? Check out these musclemorphosis.com.)

So we met up with Chalmers to ask him why he agreed to all of this, and of course, to find out what keeps him moving forward at such a pace.

Men’s Health: We’re intrigued. Why push across America?

Ryan Chalmers: I always wanted to make a difference [in Stay-Focused, where he mentors kids with disabilities as they learn to SCUBA dive in the Cayman Islands]. I love to push and I love to wheelchair-race—I was able to mend those two together.

MH: But this is 3,500 miles. Mentally, how do you prepare for this one?

RC: It’s a much different mindset—I’m not going for peak potential. I’m working on my base and trying to get my endurance up as much as I possibly can. The entire process is going to be 5- or 6-hour days in my racing chair. The longest push that I’ve ever done has been 34 miles—I’ll be doing 60 a day. (Chalmers says his training routine will compare to the lead up to the Paralympics: over 6 or 7 days a week, mixing mid-distance races, sprints, and longer tracks with a heavy lifting schedule and a more monitored diet.)

MH: And what about your competition—how do you size the people you'll be up against?

RC: People who are smaller are going to be able to push up hills faster, so I’ll be able to go down hills faster. I know people who can't turn like I can because of their mobility. If you can’t feel from your chest down, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to turn. I have to know that and capitalize on that. That’s when I start to sprint around the turns.

MH: Any guy would be thrilled to complete even the tiniest fraction of what you’ve done, so we have to ask: You’re in great shape, but how confident are you that you’ll make it the whole way next April?

RC: Everybody asks me: ‘Do you think you can make it across the U.S. in a wheelchair? It’s never been done before.’ And, really, the only answer is, ‘I will make it. There’s not another option for me. My back is against the wall. I agreed to it and it’s either I make it or I die.’

MH: You’ve probably had to deal with a lot of people feeling bad for you throughout your life because of your disability—how do you handle that?

RC: You accept it. That’s okay; it’s their opinion. I’ve traveled all over the world where people look at you, and yeah, they feel bad. They’ll say, ‘Oh, and he does a sport, too,’ instead of, ‘Wow, look at this athlete. He puts his heart and soul into it six days a week, seven days a week.’ If you look at athletes as athletes first, you can start to learn. Everyone has an interesting story, and that’s kind of pushed to the wayside sometimes. I’m happy with my disability; I always will be. People always ask me about the ‘magic pill’—‘If you could take it, would you? You would be healed’—and my answer is always no. My disability has gotten me to so many places. I’m happy where my life is.

MH: So you’d rather be . . .

RC: An athlete first.

Tune in to watch Chalmers compete in the Chicago Marathon this weekend.

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