Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 34
From coast to coastA Nipomo firefighter makes a marathon bike ride to fund his sister's specialized vehicle
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
John Byrne, a Nipomo firefighting engineer, was tired and yawned heavily during an interview with the Sun. But it’s not his job that’s making it hard for him to stay awake.
Byrne, a native of Newark, Calif., recently returned from a 36-day marathon bike ride from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge. The 3,500-mile journey had a unique purpose and a tremendous response; the money he raised from the ride will be put toward a specialty vehicle for Byrne’s younger sister, estimated at $50,000.
Seven years ago, Lauren Byrne suffered a spinal cord injury after jumping into the family pool. The incident put Lauren in a wheelchair, unable to walk without assistance and with limited mobility in her arms. Despite this change in circumstances, Lauren has fought back. Her determination has allowed her to go to college, play wheelchair rugby, and, most recently, walk with the assistance of electrical stimulation.
However, Byrne said the one thing still holding his sister back is a lack of transportation—but not for much longer.
“Lauren has been battling for independence,” Byrne said. “Everything changed; she can’t just go out and do something. She has to figure out how she is going to get there.”
A member of the local Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization, Byrne had a revelation: He could be doing more to help his own sister. The avid cyclist, who’s competed and placed in triathlons, decided to employ his cycling talents to raise money for Lauren.
But first, Byrne wanted to make sure he was up for the voyage. He challenged himself with a three-day ride from Nipomo to the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite having bike issues and being rained on, Byrne said he felt confident. With the idea in mind, he reached out to Facebook friends and colleagues at work for advice.
Weighing the pros and cons of this journey with his captain, Mike Delio, Byrne decided he wanted to do it for his sister. Byrne said his parents, friends, and colleagues were all very supportive and excited; Lauren, though, was apprehensive—at first.
“Originally, she was scared for me and didn’t want people to feel bad for her,” Byrne said.
Lauren remembers when her brother first shared his plans for a cross-country trip, and his reasons behind it.
“I was just very moved that he would do that for me,” Lauren said. “After my accident, we developed a deep love for each other.”
Lauren eventually came around to the idea, and Byrne said that once he made the decision, things started happening fast. In just one day, there was a website anonymously created and dedicated to “Lauren’s Ride,” the name given to Byrne’s cross-country trip. Byrne would post blog entries to the site along the way. Visitors to the site could also make donations, track the ride, and see photos as he made his way across the United States.
Only a couple weeks after he first came up with the idea, Byrne found himself standing at the Golden Gate Bridge, snapping a family photo before his departure. Thanks to a busy fire season, Byrne said he didn’t get a lot of training in, but he still managed to ride eight hours or more every day. However, the journey didn’t come without its challenges.
“The first week, I was running on no sleep, the maps were incorrect, and I got a cold going through the Rockies,” Byrne said.
Kansas and Missouri were a painful part of the ride, with high winds and a 17,000-foot climb. Byrne said he also endured two days of rain in Maryland—not to mention a lot of sore muscles. Nutrients for the trip were supplied by Fluid of San Luis Obispo and Powerbar.
Byrne admitted that there were times when it was hard to keep going. During those longer stretches, he would think about his sister.
“I only had to be in pain for 36 days,” Byrne said. “Lauren’s been in pain for seven years.”
Other times during the ride, Byrne would talk to family or friends, or read posts on the Lauren’s Ride Facebook page to keep himself motivated. But his driving force came from his sister.
“If you’ve ever met Lauren, her positivity is infectious,” Byrne said.
Lauren, a dedicated rugby player and student, has her sights set on San Francisco State or Cal Poly and pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a junior high teacher. Being able to transport herself would open up new opportunities for the ambitious 22 year old.
“I could manage my own time better,” she said. “It would mean a whole new world for me.”
Bubbling with life, Lauren said she doesn’t remember having time to be sad about her injury. She endeavors to smile—rather than frown—about her situation.
“I’ve always been a positive kid,” she said. “People that are negative and don’t try hard don’t get better.”
Her effervescent personality, determination for independence, and upbeat attitude not only inspired her brother, but a wave of people from coast to coast. Byrne had originally hoped for 3,000 people to donate $10 each to Lauren’s Ride, but $30,000 had come in before the ride even began. As of Oct. 22, Byrne had raised nearly $60,000.
While her brother was busy cycling, Lauren kept busy studying for her driving test and updating photos on the Lauren’s Ride website.
Byrne said that if there’s any money left after tax deductions and getting Lauren situated, they’d like to donate the rest to people in a similar situation.
According to Byrne, the most amazing part of the journey was seeing people come together for a cause, not to mention the outpouring of support.
“It showed that if everyone does a little part, they can help make a dream come true,” Byrne said.
During his marathon ride, Byrne stayed at more than 30 houses and was amazed by the powerful fraternity of firefighters across the country. People from all over California e-mailed him, he said, asking how they could help. Daryl Sales, a firefighter in Santa Clara, took it upon himself to coordinate where Byrne would be staying along the way. In Kern County, firefighters organized a pizza fundraiser, donating 20 percent of the funds to Lauren’s Ride. Tony Hernandez, a firefighting captain in San Diego, became a permanent member of Byrne’s team. Hernandez carried supplies, took photos, and kept Byrne company to make sure the cyclist was safe.
“I was inspired by so many acts of kindness; support came from everywhere,” Byrne said.
Lauren’s Ride also saw support from the Elks Club, who organized a banquet dinner. The F.D.N.Y. and N.Y.P.D. escorted Byrne to the Brooklyn Bridge once he arrived in the Big Apple. Byrne also had the privilege of experiencing a ceremonial sweat lodge while traveling through the Navajo nation.
Similar to Forrest Gump running across America, Byrne found people who heard about what he was doing joining him for part of his ride. His captain, Mike Delio, flew out to ride alongside him on the last six days of the journey.
“The further east I went, the more people were amazed by my cause,” Byrne said.
On his journey, Byrne said he met the best people in the world and shared a lot of stories. Although the ride was physically demanding, he learned about America, its people, and himself.
“The ride changed my views; we ourselves are our biggest limiting factor,” Byrne said. “I found things that were challenging suddenly became easier.”
Byrne’s 36-day journey ended on Oct. 12. The hardest part of his trip, he said, was the return home. The next step, he said, will be dealing with the paperwork. In the meantime, Lauren will continue studying and playing rugby while Byrne is getting back to work and reflecting on his journey.
“I found that the hardest part of a journey is the first step,” Byrne said. “I’m thankful for all the fire departments and people that showed their support. It was an amazing experience.”
Staff Writer Kristina Sewell believes in the power of people. Contact her at email@example.com.