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Correction to This Article
The MisFits column included a photograph in which the subjects were cropped out because of a production error. The photo is reprinted in the July 22 Local Living.

Sea to Shining Sea's cross-country bike trip raises money and awareness

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, July 15, 2010

We in the media are routinely guilty of tossing around military analogies, especially when the topic is athletic endeavor. From "epic battles" to "long marches," the language of warfare provides an easy way to dramatize sport and the effort involved.

I've always felt a little uneasy about this. Not having served in the military, I have no idea what combat is like, but I can't imagine that even the most grueling triathlon or brutal rugby game can approximate its physical and emotional demands.

Then I had the opportunity to chat with Marc Esposito. A severely wounded veteran of combat in Afghanistan, Esposito is bicycling 4,000 miles across the United States with a group of disabled people to raise money and awareness for anyone who has lost physical function in war and accidents, or to disease.

"This ride is essentially another battlefield," said Esposito, 26, who lives in Cameron, N.C. "It's a hurdle that needs to be overcome. Just like a battlefield in a war zone, there are going to be obstacles you have to overcome. Except this is a friendly battlefield.

"Teamwork is a must," he said. "You have to have teamwork, just as you would in battle." He added: "It's as physical as some of the things you would face in war."

Unlike me, Esposito is qualified to make such judgments. A member of an Air Force special tactics squadron, he was riding in the back of a Humvee in southeastern Afghanistan in May 2009, manning a machine gun, when the vehicle hit a roadside bomb. The blast blew him and four other troops out of the Humvee. When a medic reached him, Esposito had no pulse, wasn't breathing and was on fire. Everything below his knees was crushed. One leg was blown open. His back was broken.

It took about a year in two military rehab centers, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for Esposito to learn how to walk and function again, he said.

A former triathlete, Esposito said the rigorous fitness demands of his special forces training helped him survive the blast, and the mental toughness he developed helped him recover. Now he's leaning on every bit of that experience as he traverses the country with State Farm Sea to Shining Sea, along with other men and women who have lost limbs to cancer, been paralyzed in accidents or suffered permanent disability as a result of disease.

"The medical technology and physicians will take you so far . . . but you have to want to take the therapy, and you have to want to get better. . . . It's that mind-set, that positive motivation that's going to get you through," Esposito said. Though he still has some physical limitations, his recovery has been remarkable, he said.

The 17 members of the group have ridden every mile since they dipped their rear wheels in the Pacific Ocean near the Golden Gate Bridge on May 22, averaging about 50 miles a day, and covering as much as 137 miles on one segment.

"This is going to hopefully show any kind of disabled American you are still capable of doing amazing things," Esposito said, "and hopefully change the perception of what it means to be an athlete."

While Esposito's accomplishments are nothing short of mind-boggling, consider what Rory McCarthy, one of the few civilians on the ride, is doing right beside him. McCarthy, 56, whose legs have gradually atrophied over the course of his life, is making the trek on a low-riding, 27-speed recumbent hand cycle. That's right: He's taken himself up 11,300-foot Monarch Pass in the Colorado Rockies and across the Great Plains on the strength of his arms.

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