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Wounded veterans bike against the odds in endurance-testing race

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    Ken Butler of the 82nd Airborne, shown left, participates in the Leadville 100. (Fox News/Mike Tobin)

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     (Fox News/Mike Tobin)

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    Ken Butler is one of several wounded warriors who will take on the grueling 100-mile challenge.

Juan Carlos Hernandez was a crewmember on a Chinook helicopter with the 101st airborne in Afghanistan, and everyone on board knew they couldn't dodge danger indefinitely. 

“It wasn’t a matter of if it would happen, but when. Something was going to happen," he said. "You already knew that. We never let it keep us from what we were doing."

He was right. A rocket-propelled grenade hit his aircraft. It came up through the floor and damaged Hernandez’s foot so badly, a battlefield decision was made to remove most of his right leg below the knee. 

“I’m missing my foot, but I’m still alive." Hernandez said after waking up in Bagram. "I was able to see my friends. It could’ve been worse.”

“I’m missing my foot, but I’m still alive."

- Juan Carlos Hernandez, wounded in Afghanistan



Jim Penseyres was with 2nd battalion 3rd marines in Vietnam. He was hit by an artillery round and went back into combat. Then he stepped into a booby trap packed with just enough C4 to remove his left leg. 

“Because they could use less explosive, it was efficient,” he said. 

Ken Butler was with the 82nd airborne East of Baghdad when his vehicle was hit with a combination of 3 Explosively Formed Projectiles. 

“Everything looked fine because my arm was there, I just thought it was numb,” Butler said. 

Everything was not fine. He had severe injuries including a bilateral sucking chest wound. There was no medic with them. Paratroopers from his platoon dug into their emergency kits and stuffed Butler’s wounds to stop the bleeding.  

“If they didn’t do it the way they did, I’d be a goner,” he said. 

The next time he was conscious, Butler was in Bethesda and his arm was gone. 

“The first time I knew something was wrong was when I felt my shoulders were uneven,” he said.

This is a group of guys who honored a commitment to serve and paid a heavy price.  They have earned the option of self-pity, self-indulgence, depression even…dare I say…weakness.

They’ve opted otherwise.

On Saturday morning, at 6:30 a.m., these veterans joined nearly 2,000 athletes and took on a challenge that makes the Boston Marathon look brief and oxygen rich.  They were on a team of five wounded vets and two supporters that lined up for the Leadville 100, the highest altitude 100-mile mountain bike race in the world.  

The gruelling race through the Colorado Rockies starts at 10,000 feet. The course briefly dips down into the 8,000-foot range. Cyclists spend so much time pushing the bike uphill, they gain 13,000 feet of altitude before they cross the finish line. It all happens without the comfort of a hearty supply of oxygen.

The challenge is notorious among outdoor athletes. It has attracted the likes of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis. The race is so arduous; the sides of the course can be cluttered with strong men who have given up. It is not uncommon to see a grown man reduced to tears when he realizes, after all the suffering, he won’t finish before the 12-hour cutoff time. These are athletes with four working limbs.

Cycling as basis for recovery was introduced to these vets through a non-profit called Ride 2 Recovery. The organization outfits wounded vets with custom bicycles to accommodate their injuries, then gets them out riding.  

“It’s nice to be with an able bodied athlete and keeping pace," Butler said. "It makes me forget that I’m disabled when I’m on the bike."

It is no secret that combat and combat injuries take a heavy emotional toll.

“You go from doing things every day 100 miles an hour to laying in a hospital for weeks then doing therapy," Hernandez said. "You get depressed. I started biking and that kind of put me back in track. I like being outdoors. I like being competitive. I like that it was helping me with walking. I had a better gate.” 

Penseyres sees cycling, particularly mountain biking as a great benefit for vets suffering from the wounds you cannot see, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

“This keeps the mind so busy as they are riding, I think It’s a great application for healing,” he said.

It is not lost on Penseyres that people now create programs to help returning vets. It is different than when he came home form Vietnam. 

“They shoved us through the hospitals as fast as they could," he said. 

Hernandez and Penseyres will be riding standard bikes. They just put a cycling shoe on the end of their prosthetic leg and they are of and riding.  Butler has an arm made specially for cycling. It connects directly to the right of the handlebars with a fitting similar to the one on an air tool or a fire hose. His elbow is a shock absorber from a mountain bike.  Controls for the brakes and gear shifters have all been moved over to the left side so he can operate the bike with one hand.  Ride 2 Recovery mechanic Scotty Moro just field engineered an electronic shifter to simplify changing gears with one hand.  

“There are always tweaks to be made," Butler said. 

So, why take on a race in which uninjured people will quit because of the pain and they don’t have a prosthetic rubbing against their skin for 100 miles? 

“It just looked like an amazing challenge,” Butler said. “There is no way you can turn that opportunity down.” 

Hernandez echoes the idea that he was hungry for a challenge. 

“It gives me a reason to keep going," he said. "Everyone needs goals. The Leadville 100 and being in Afghanistan will be the highlights of my life over the last 10 years.”  

Penseyres -- who garnered the nickname “gramps” from his teammates -- has a different story. 

“I got talked into this," he said.

80 miles into the race, when exhausted muscles depleted of potassium, sodium and oxygen are telling their minds, 'just give up. No one can fault you. Pull off to the side and you can rest,' when prosthetics have been rubbing and bumping against raw skin for more than eight hours, each of them has a reason to keep going. 

Hernandez wants to make a statement to other wounded vets.

 “I tell them don’t feel sorry for yourself," he said.  

Penseyres is hoping vets with emotional wounds can take something from his effort. 

“Maybe they will see the tunnel isn’t so dark," he said. "There is a flicker of light."

Butler has a different motivator. He is riding for the guys who patched him up both in the field and in the hospital. 

“It’s an opportunity to thank the guys who don’t get the glory," he said. "All their efforts. I’m grateful. I’m here because of them.”

The team will include fellow wounded vets, Marc Hoffmiester and David Haines. Ride 2 Recovery staffers Bruce Gustafson and Scotty Moro will join them on the starting line. Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta will be part of the crew supporting the riders on Saturday.

Disclosure: Fox News Correspondent Mike Tobin is an active supporter of Ride 2 Recovery and hosts an annual fundraiser on behalf of the organization: www.honorridebarrington.com

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.