Next challenge for Challenged Athletes: Smoke and Fire 400

Challenged Idaho Foundation athletes (from left): Willie Stewart, Andre Kajlich, Mohamed Lana and Lucas Onan at a recent training session. They will compete in the Idaho Smoke and Fire 400 beginning Wednesday.

Andre Kajlich doesn't have any recollection of what happened. He remembers having breakfast with his friends and then getting on the subway train. Three weeks later, he woke up.

It was December 2003 and Kajlich was going to school in the Czech Republic when a night out partying changed his life forever. He had breakfast before getting on the subway for the trip home, but fell asleep during the ride.

"I woke up three weeks later in the hospital," Kajlich said.

He apparently stumbled off the train and missed a step, falling down into the tracks, he said, "and the whole train ran over me."

"I was in the ICU for two months," Kajlich said. "I lost both my legs, had a lacerated liver, broke all my ribs on the right side, punctured my lung, was on a ventilator and a breathing tube and was in a coma for three weeks. It was a pretty close call."

Kajlich survived with a new outlook on life, choosing to do all he could with what he had. Despite one leg requiring amputation at the hip and the other above the knee, he immediately sought to challenge himself in whatever way possible.

That quest continues this week when Kajlich and three other athletes from the Challenged Athletes Foundation attempt to finish the Idaho Smoke 'n' Fire 400, a grueling 400-plus mile self-supported mountain bike route through the Idaho wilderness.

The race started early Wednesday from Hyde Park in Boise, and competitors will finish at the same spot sometime between Friday and Sunday.

"We're always looking for things to train and to extend our range and capabilities and something off road and on bikes is something none of us really have a ton of experience with," said. "We're certainly up to the endurance challenge that is involved, but it's new terrain and that got us excited about it."

Mohamed Lana (single leg amputation due to a pelvis, hop and femur disorder), Lucas Onan (underdeveloped left arm due to anthrogryposis) and "One Arm Willie" Stewart (lost an arm in a construction accident) will compete alongside Kajlich. The four will ride as a group and attempt to make history together.

Other competitors in the race don't face the same challenges as the four from CAF and many of them still struggle to finish the course. Kajlich faces the toughest road due to his 3-wheeled hand cycle.

"There's not a good vehicle for me for off road and that much climbing and that much distance," said. "On a hand cycle, the 'hike a bike' section where people get off and walk their bikes will present a big challenge. I'll definitely lean on my team for that. The steep dirt will also make it hard to get traction because a hand cycle has front wheel drive as opposed to a regular bike that has rear wheel drive and better traction going up."

An adaptive athlete has never even attempted the race, let alone finish it. The course is 90-percent off road on either fire roads or single track paths. It's all self-supported, meaning every racer will bring with them what they need in terms of food and water and supplies. They have just five days to ride more than 400 miles.

"It far exceeds perseverance," the foundation's Idaho director Jenn Skeesick said. "The fascinating thing about our athletes is what they've already pushed through in their life and do on a daily basis; it really kind of prepares them for the mental piece of trying to take on something like this.

"Whatever success looks like, whether it's doing it in five days like the race says or just showing up at the starting line and giving it a good shot, it's the same for everybody," Skeesick said. "They are all trying to finish it, but the mental tenacity that is ingrained in our athletes, they've done hard. They do hard every day. And this is something they love doing."

The course must be completed in five days, but the group hopes to make it in as little as three days. That will mean rest stops of less than two hours to eat and nap.

"We want to really see how quickly we can do this," Kajlich said. "We want to push 24 hours off the front, maybe lay down for 90 minutes, get up and do it again, and see if we can squeeze this into three days. The 'hike a bike' sections are just going to be slow. We're just going to face what we face and get out there and figure out. The plan is when we hit those sections Mohamed and Lucas will take their bikes across and then come back for my bike and I'll just start my crawl. I'm not worried about the terrain, it's more about the speed that we can pull it off. Some parts will be slow."

The Challenged Athletes Foundation provides support for those with physical limitations through a grant program that provides the equipment, coaching and travel expenses to make it to the starting line. The rest is up to them.

CAF partnered with Mission 43 for this year's race. Mission 43 is based out of Idaho and focuses on empowering veterans as they transition from military to civilian life. Two active members of the Idaho National Guard will tackle the race with the CAF athletes and be there to assist if needed during hard parts of the course such as a boulder pass or the "hike a bike" section.

"They will only help if its needed, but otherwise its on every person to get themselves through the race," Skeesick said. "It's the first time for all six of them. None of them have ever attempted this race before so there's a lot of unknowns out there. I'm really excited for them and to hear the stories about it when they get back."

Kajlich has done similar challenges in the past. In 2017 he rode 3,100 miles across the country in 12 days, taking just a few short hours off at a time. He also did a 62-hour straight off-road race in Brazil in an off-road wheelchair that included a 33,000-foot elevation climb in just 135 miles.

He's in the middle of a journey to become the first person to cross every continent from the lowest to highest points of elevation.

It's all part of his goal to make the most of things and not let his physical limitations hold him back.

"I'm just trying to maximize the ability I still have," Kajlich said. "The accident taught me that I'm capable of so much more and seeing the unknown and the fear and the uncertainty of the situation and coming out the other side left me with some important life lessons and really a better understanding of myself and how my mind works.

"This won't be easy. It's difficult. But if me being out there rubs off on anyone else then that's great. I think by living your life to the fullest that's the best way to set an example."

Kajlich and the CAF team are hoping to reach the finish line at Hyde Park Saturday evening, but they have until Sunday to complete the course. Their progress can be tracked at trackleaders.com/smokenfire20.

“It far exceeds perseverance. The fascinating thing about our athletes is what they’ve already pushed through in their life and do on a daily basis; it really kind of prepares them for the mental piece of trying to take on something like this.”

Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Idaho director Jenn Skeesick

Recommended for you