On Memorial Day, many folks will be headed to the beach. Ashley Crandall, 28, has a different destination in mind. The Glen Burnie, Md., resident will be getting on her bicycle in Washington and setting off on a six-day, 325-mile journey to Virginia Beach for the Ride2Recovery Memorial Challenge presented by UnitedHealthcare.
The event is one of several organized nationwide to raise money for cycling programs designed to help injured veterans — like Crandall. The former helicopter repairwoman, who retired from the U.S. Army in January, developed post-traumatic stress disorder overseas.
“The most difficult part is being around people again,” Crandall says. When she started treatment at Walter Reed in 2009, one-on-one chats were unbearable. But she soon recognized that socializing while bike riding was more comfortable. “On a ride, you’re next to someone,” she says. “And you can just talk.”
Her therapist wrote cycling into her treatment plan, and Crandall began training seriously to join the Ride2Recovery Challenge that year. The following year, she had built up enough confidence that she and a friend were able to help guide a group of beginning riders. “It’s nice to have that glimpse and see that maybe I can be the person I used to be again,” she says.
Maybe she can be even better. This is a tough route, Crandall says, and although she spends hours each week training with a group in Bethesda, going mile after mile against punishing headwinds wears her out. “It’s easy to just give up. But no one does,” she says.
That’s more remarkable when you consider who makes up Crandall’s company — vets with every conceivable injury, including brain damage, amputated limbs and blindness. Innovations in bike design make it possible for all of them to take part in the ride. “No matter what excuse you can come up with, there’s a way around it,” Crandall says.
Being a part of the group gives injured service members a sense of belonging that’s often elusive, she says. “And when they get on a bicycle, they look normal. Nothing makes them stand out,” she adds.
That’s part of her pitch to other wounded vets when she tries to convince them that riding a bike can be part of their recovery process, too. She tailors her approach to the individual. So when a woman with PTSD was scared of people passing her, Crandall offered to ride directly behind her to make her feel safe. When it’s someone who’s worried about his or her weight, Crandall brags that she dropped 30 pounds in one season by riding.
Crandall also enjoys visiting the gym, swimming and kayaking. “Those are wonderful, but they’re more individual,” she says. “Cycling is the only social interaction I get during the week. For me, it’s not just training.”
And this isn’t just a ride to Virginia Beach. It’s a symbol of the distance Crandall and so many of her fellow service members have traveled.
The Ride2Recovery Challenge is just one of several events the program runs to support cycling for wounded veterans. Find out about single-day rides as well as Spinning Nation, an indoor cycling fundraiser held by participating health clubs, at Ride2recovery.com.