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The unlikely pilgrimage of Patrick Reilly


March 2014

Planes, trains and automobiles — who needs ’em?

For some people, a pair of running shoes or a bicycle is what it takes to see America.

Patrick Reilly of Waukesha recently joined the elite ranks of those who have used their legs to travel across the country. He rode his bike from Seattle to the Georgia coast, a journey that only the most extreme endurance athletes truly understand.

"I think you need to be a dreamer and a person who likes an element of challenge mixed in with the sense of adventure," says Abe Clark, who’s traveled the United States both on foot and by bicycle.

"To complete the adventure, you need to have that burning mentality inside you where nothing will stop you. You need to find purpose in what you do."

To find his purpose, Reilly, 34, needed to look no further than Bryon Riesch. Their friendship goes back decades. They attended St. Mary’s Elementary School and Catholic Memorial High School together in Waukesha.

They went to college just a few miles apart, Riesch at Marquette University and Reilly at UW-Milwaukee. And one spring day in 1998, the two were attending parties across the street from one another. Reilly was enjoying time with his rugby team buddies; Riesch’s day would bring tragedy — a bruised spinal cord due to an accident on a plastic waterslide.

After extensive therapy, Riesch was able to use a wheelchair and regain some of his independence. He resumed college classes just four months after the accident, graduated and even holds an honorary degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin. His Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation has awarded nearly $1.5 million in research grants to MCW and other schools, and provides adaptive equipment and scholarships to others with paralysis.

"The dude’s an inspiration," says Reilly. "I thrive around people like that. I’ve seen what his foundation has done for other people. I knew if I was going to help somebody out, I wanted it to be Bryon and his foundation."

Reilly had spent much of his 20s in a frustrating search for happiness. He held a series of jobs, even working for Riesch’s family business — R&R Insurance Services Inc. — for a while. He abused alcohol and other drugs, and was in trouble with the law.

He got clean and began racing triathlons about five years ago. "I substituted one addiction for another," he deadpans. And he started hearing about people who did months-long rides.

Until last summer, such feats were "something cool that other people did," says Reilly. One July day, he suddenly decided to cycle cross-country; within days he quit his warehouse job in Oconomowoc and was asking Riesch how he could raise money for Riesch’s Foundation.

The foundation set up a fundraising website for Reilly, and he got on a train to Seattle to begin his 11-state ride.

"Before I started, I was a pretty cynical guy," says Reilly. "I learned there are a lot of really good people out there. If you’re doing something good, they’ll do whatever they can to help."

And Reilly needed help. He hadn’t done any special training for his ride, and started it so late in the summer (Aug. 22) that by the time he reached the Plains and Midwest, weather became a real problem. He got stopped in his tracks for four days by an early December snowstorm in Pilot Knob, Mo.; his brother Paul drove from Wisconsin to ferry him to Mississippi to resume the ride. (Earlier, Paul had joined the ride for about 200 miles in Nevada.)

Originally, he planned to ride four or five days and then rest for one day. "That went right out the window," says Reilly. "I listened to my body a lot. When I needed to rest, I rested. When I felt good, I rode as hard as I could."

He got sick a couple times from dehydration, and of course developed saddle sores. Along the California coast, he got sideswiped by an RV — its side-view mirror smacked him in the left shoulder and sent him into the ditch. He sustained only minor cuts and scrapes.

Mentally, Kansas proved to be Reilly’s biggest test because of the wind-swept, monotonous terrain.

"You can see 20 or 30 miles ahead, but every mile you ride you see another mile of nothing," he says. "That’s when I would get lonely or start to question myself. But then you wake up the next morning and you get another shot at the title. That’s what sobriety taught me, that it’s just one day at a time."

Reilly downloaded maps, but refused to look more than one day ahead. He slept most nights in the tent he carried in his saddlebag. On other nights, people he’d met along the roads offered food and shelter.

Supporters donated more than $8,200 to the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation on Reilly’s behalf and flooded his phone and Facebook page with encouraging messages.

"He reached over 2 million people with different tweets, with other individuals relaying his story," says an astonished Riesch. "The awareness for the foundation and individuals who are paralyzed, you can’t pay for that."

Once Reilly got to Jackson, Miss., he rode 16 consecutive days, dipping his front tire in the Atlantic Ocean at Tybee Island, Ga., on Dec. 21. The ride totaled 4,267 miles.

"Even after four months, that last 100 miles I was still sore," he says. "It was a chore."

Reilly is working on his certification to become a personal trainer and is "looking for the next adventure."

"I would leave tomorrow if I could," he says. To donate visit

Still Thirsting for Adventure

Abe Clark continues to meet endurance challenges head-on, four years after a 2,960-mile solo run across the country.

His latest feat was living "off the grid" in the San Francisco mountain range for five months over the winter of 2012-13. His home was a small hand-built hut known as a yurt, with only a small propane heater for warmth. "The challenge was staying in one place and making it work vs. waking up every morning and trying to make it to a new place."

Clark’s cross-country run collected $90,000 for Living Water International, an organization that aided Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. More money was raised for the effort in 2011, when Clark joined four people from Texas for a 9,000-plus-mile bicycle ride around the perimeter of the United States.

In 2012 he traveled to Haiti with a church group from his hometown of Gillett for a "very rewarding and humbling experience" as they installed a hand pump well.

Clark and his wife, Kate, have moved from Milwaukee to Union, Wash., where they manage a small resort of 13 cottages. They welcomed baby Jonah Louis Gregory Clark to their family last fall, and already are introducing him to the outdoors.

Clark’s connection to Wisconsin remains strong. In 2012, he helped create the Drip Drop Trail Run, an eight-hour solo or relay event at Pike Lake State Park near Hartford. It is a benefit for Living Water International.

As for his own running, Clark, 27, considers himself to be in "normal shape" now. "A good five-miler would do me in for the day," he says.

Passing the Baton

Ashley Kumlein ran about a marathon a day, six days a week, in crossing the country in 2010. Not that it was easy, but the only injuries for the then-26-year-old were two blisters. The payoff was $37,000 raised for her then-new organization, MS Run the US.

Last year, Kumlein found 15 other hearty souls to join her for a four-month cross-country relay event. It raised $234,000 for the National MS Society and Kumlein’s Brookfield-based charity, which she founded in honor of her mother, Jill, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years.

Each relay participant ran six consecutive days, totaling 140 to 200 miles, before handing off to the next person. There are 18 relay slots this year. Many more people will participate in 5K run/walk MS benefit events in three cities on the route, beginning with Santa Monica, Calif., where the relay kicks off on April 13.

"I could have never orchestrated the success of our 2013 relay without the sponsors, supporters and team that came together and continued to believe that this event was worth fighting for, even when it seemed impossible financially or logistically," Kumlein says.

Operating the foundation and organizing the runs is a full-time job for Kumlein, who also works full-time as a personal trainer and nutritional consultant.

"The (solo) event was certainly something I feel nostalgic about, but I have different responsibilities now," says Kumlein. "I enjoy my daily running on a lower hour-per-day basis while helping other runners prepare for their own event of a lifetime."


This story ran in the March 2014 issue of: