Skip to main content

8.5 Miles Per Hour, on a Road With No Limits

Ian Mackay was paralyzed 14 years ago in a bike accident, but he’s come to see there’s happiness in finding new ways to experience old loves. In his case, that meant getting back on the road, in a record-setting way.

Long into the year’s shortest night, muted light plays tricks on heavy eyes, and repetition can deceive a tired mind. Six times this group has completed the 12.29-mile counterclockwise loop: always south alongside the Willamette River, east past the pumpkin patch, north along the Columbia River before curling west near Sturgeon Lake and running south by the dairy farm and the cabbage patch, across the Gilbert River, and then, finally, back to base camp at the Sauvie Island Community Church parking lot.

By 4 a.m., the entire endeavor feels positively Sisyphean. Ian Mackay leads the procession, a small headlight secured to each side of his rig. For hours he’s been flanked by his girlfriend, one of his former professors and a rotating cavalcade of friends and family on wheels. Mackay’s father drives a trail car, dragging an arrow board, directing cars to pass on the left.

These riders form an unlikely constellation: educators, construction workers, salespeople and speech therapists wearing cycling jerseys, tutus and everything in between. They’ve been drawn to this island at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette, just north of Portland, by the gravitational pull of a 40-year-old wearing checkered Vans and a gray beanie, with a goatee and floor-length dreadlocks that are now braided in pigtails to keep from dragging. Fourteen years ago a bicycle accident left Mackay in a wheelchair. Now he and his co-riders—Mackay in an Invacare TDX SP2, the rest on bikes—embarked on these loops at 8 p.m. on June 21, the summer solstice, and they plan to keep circling at 8.5 mph, the fastest Mackay’s ride can manage, until he sets the record for the greatest distance covered in 24 hours by a motorized wheelchair.

dCOVmckay_V

Mackay drives his sip-and-puff-powered chair with a straw that extends from above his right armrest: A hard puff starts him forward, a soft puff turns him to the right and a soft sip sends him left. On top of the challenge of executing these maneuvers while fatigued, Mackay can no longer regulate his body heat. If his temperature falls too far or climbs too high, it could be fatal. And then there’s the risk of spasms, sores or infections from the long ride. (Since his incident, he hasn’t sat for more than 12 consecutive hours.)

That, and there’s the mental grind of it all. Dawn approaches, and Mackay struggles to keep his eyes on the monotonous road. As Camus wrote: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” By now Mackay’s smile has faded. Still he rolls on.

As the sun seems to resist rising over the peak of Mount Hood, to the east, the resolve of those few people who’ve agreed to bike alongside Mackay for all 24 hours also begins to fade. In 2017, South Korea’s Chang-Hyun Choi, who is paralyzed from the neck down, covered an unprecedented 173.98 miles in one day, in a mouth-controlled motorized wheelchair. To top Choi, and to put his own name in the Guinness Book of World Records, Mackay knows he must keep moving. To complete his goal of 15 laps around the island, to break the record and then some, he’ll run up against that proverbial wall again and again. So, he defies that unceasing inner voice that says it’s time to stop.

The campus of UC Santa Cruz is nestled in the woods on Ben Lomond Mountain, overlooking the small Californian beach town. And where the tree cover opens, near the music center, there’s a steep route down, called the Great Meadow Bike Path.

On June 4, 2008, Mackay—then a 26-year-old undergrad who’d already been through two community colleges before landing at Santa Cruz—headed home from his job as an assistant at the school’s botany lab and started his descent. Each afternoon, on his commute, he kept an eye on his bike’s speedometer, hoping to set a new personal record. “Forty-two [mph] was the fastest I could ever go—but I wanted to go a little faster every time,” says Mackay, who would pedal over the lip and then go “full tuck,” his hands gripping the seat post, “banzai-ing down that hill.”

On this particular day, Mackay saw his readout hit 38 mph as he sped past a student housing cluster in the campus’s lower quarry—and then his front wheel skidded on a patch of sand, sending him headfirst over the handlebars, into a tree. On impact, his helmet cracked and his C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae fractured. “I remember the sand. I remember leaving the bike and going towards the tree,” Mackay says. “And then—it felt like seconds later—I remember lying underneath that tree, looking up and noticing I couldn’t move or feel much of my body.” A woman approached, and Mackay asked her to call an ambulance. EMTs arrived, put Mackay in a cervical collar and carted him to a helicopter that flew 30 miles to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

One year before his accident, Ian (with his mother, Teena) was chipping away at school, planning a career as a community college professor.

One year before his accident, Ian (with his mother, Teena) was chipping away at school, planning a career as a community college professor.

Mackay recalls lying in a hospital bed, staff repeatedly sticking him with a safety pin, starting just above his navel and slowly moving up his body to see when he felt the prick. When he did, they’d stop and draw a line across his skin. The first was on his chest, right below the nipples—but they repeated the process every 15 minutes, and each time the line moved higher. Mackay now understands that his spinal cord was swelling, pushing paralysis farther up his body. “We have to intubate you,” doctors told him, “because very soon your diaphragm will be paralyzed, and you’ll no longer be able to breathe.” Mackay closes his eyes as he returns to that day.

“It’s weird to say, but there was a peacefulness. A serenity,” he says. Why hadn’t panic or shock overtaken him? “It felt so out of [my] control that worry or concern or stress or anger just didn’t make sense at the time. It seemed big. It seemed significant. . . . But I knew on that day, I wasn’t going to be able to change anything.”

He wants to make this clear, however: That serenity didn’t last. “With the realization of things—dealing with nurses and doctors, the lack of sleep, the pain and the f------ change of losing everything,” Mackay says, tearing up—“that inner peace went away.”

With his first call from the hospital, Mackay asked his roommate to feed his dog. Then he rang his mother, Teena Woodward, in Santa Barbara, a four-hour drive away. “I’m pretty hurt,” he told her as a nurse held the phone to his ear. “You better get up here.” Teena, then 45, frantically filled a suitcase and left in a blur.

Arriving a bit before dawn, she walked into what she calls “the freakiest, most out-of-this-world” scene. The room was dark, lit sparingly by the colored lights of all the machines. Her son lay splayed out, in a gown, with a ventilator tube in his throat. With his arms and legs strapped down at 45-degree angles, he evoked the Vitruvian Man.

Teena ran from one side of him to the other and back. “Tears were rolling down his eyes. Tears were rolling down my eyes,” she says. Finally, she took a breath and composed herself. She understood then and there that her life was forever changed.

For the next three months, Teena spent every possible minute at her son’s side, sleeping in a chair beside his bed. For the subsequent 14 years, she’s been only a few steps away—or close enough to reach him with a phone call’s notice. “I never left,” she says.

DC promo May 2022

Eventually that hospital room grew full, the air thick with frantic energy, love and sorrow. Waves of visitors—family, hippies, a poet, science professors from Santa Cruz—would roll in and out. All except one: Teena. She was always there, always locked on the eyes of her oldest son—“our only way to communicate,” she says, “with our eyes.” The boy she’d watched run and swim and bike could no longer move or breathe on his own. But he was still alive. Teena knew that more than anyone. More than Ian himself. She refused to look away.

Underneath a pop-up tent in the church parking lot, two timekeepers on folding chairs record the exact time each lap starts, and every hour they log Mackay’s mileage, radioed in from another rider. As the cavalcade turns the corner of Northwest Reeder Road and arrives at the church, the dark has paled into that sideways light of a rumored dawn. The biggest concern throughout the night, beyond Mackay dozing off and losing control, has been that his temperature might drop below 94°. Teena, waiting in the parking lot, has been heating tube socks full of rice in the church microwave, tucking them onto her son’s lap for warmth; and Mackay’s girlfriend, Celina Smith, long ago wrestled a fleece and a puffer jacket over his long-sleeve shirt. Earlier in the evening, his stepfather, Russ, tightened a seatbelt around Mackay while Teena took his temperature, which at the time registered 98°.

As Mackay completes his sixth lap, at 5:03 a.m., however, the thermometer shows 95.3°. In the church parking lot Teena tries to talk him into a 10-minute break; she has turned the heater all the way up in her white converted van and has the ramp down, ready for him to roll in. But Mackay, by now slightly punch-drunk, believes it’s beyond fixing. The cold is in his bones, he says, and he must power through. Teena, just as stubborn as her son, holds back tears of frustration and concern. Finally, she tells him, “Talk to Dr. B.”—Josh Blaustein, an old chemistry professor turned pal of Mackay’s, along for the ride—“and your crew, because I’m not getting through,” and she walks off.

Ian and Teena are strikingly close—“best friends,” as Teena’s mom, 81-year-old Bev Dawson, explains. After the crash, Ian came home with the physical capacities of a 6-month-old. That regressive state brought mother and son tighter than ever. It also returned to Teena something akin to that universal fear of a new parent. She had to retrain herself to trust that her son would be safe outside of her line of sight. And that took years.

The goal for Ian and his wheeled friends: 15 times around a 12.29-mile course in 24 hours.

The goal for Ian and his wheeled friends: 15 times around a 12.29-mile course in 24 hours.

This morning, as her son’s temperature dangles on the edge of disaster, Mom ultimately gets her way. Smith and Blaustein convince Mackay to warm himself. “All right, I’ll take 10 minutes,” he says.

At 5:20, he rolls back out of the van, giving the weariest of smiles. The sun has crested past the mountains’ peaks as the riders set off, back down Northwest Reeder Road for a seventh time.

The first year after the crash was the worst of Mackay’s life. He’d been 12 months from finishing school, with plans to do research in the canopies of temperate forests before pursuing a career as a community college professor. The loss of that imagined future, along with his movement and his breath, was shattering. When Teena rushed to his side, she and Russ had just retired; most of their things were already boxed for a move to Port Angeles, Wash. After they all left the hospital, three months later, they went north, to that new home and a new life. Ian’s father, Zeke, quit his job in San Diego and came up with them, too. For the next five years, Teena, her husband, her son (sleeping in the adjacent room) and her ex (on a couch, or on a futon in Ian’s room) all lived together in a two-bedroom house in the woods.

Teena’s lasting image from those early days is of Ian sitting on the sofa in a robe or gown, buried beneath a blanket, illuminated by the light of the television, all of it soundtracked by the robotic beat of a ventilator—that vacuum inhale and then two thuds as the mechanical lung releases. For those first 12 months it was a chore to get a word out of Mackay. Doctors had implanted a breathing tube into his windpipe, and to speak was an uncomfortable ordeal: He had to deflate a cuff—a small balloon inside his throat that keeps air from escaping—then refill it with 7 ccs of water when he was done. Still, Teena knew it was more than just the cuff that kept him silent.

At the hospital, the mess of machines and nurses and visitors, and all the attendant planning, had kept the family in a fog. But now the solitude of rural Washington gave them the space to feel the weight of what they’d lost. “I remember talking about the fact that the grief was so bad, because it was as if he kept dying,” Teena says. “He was lost, and we just didn’t know where we were going.”

It didn’t help that Mackay was despondent and bitter. “I didn’t return the love I was being given,” he admits. “I was miserable.”

“A human being,” Sophocles wrote, “is only breath and shadow.” When Mackay’s breath deserted him, the only thing left had been a shadow. He’d spent his early 20s searching for a path, which he thought he’d finally found. He was confident and focused; everyone could see it. But then the crash dragged him home, into a haze of pain pills, grief and silence, his whole world reduced to a few rooms in the wilderness.

Finally, a year after the crash, a breakthrough: Rehabbing with an occupational therapist, Mackay thought he felt himself taking small breaths while working to raise his shoulders. One night, as a test, he asked Zeke to remove the ventilator and put a thumb over his throat, with the cuff deflated. When Mackay breathed on his own for more than a minute, “it gave me hope,” he says, and for the next month he experimented without the ventilator, until he no longer needed it during the day.

“A human being,” Sophocles wrote, “is only breath and shadow.” When MacKay’s breath deserted him, the only thing left had been a shadow.

“A human being,” Sophocles wrote, “is only breath and shadow.” When MacKay’s breath deserted him, the only thing left had been a shadow.

Doctors couldn’t explain it; it was and remains the only real gain Mackay has made since his injury. But once he got off the ventilator, his voice returned, and Teena could see the son she knew returning, too. During the voiceless year he would click his tongue to get Teena’s attention. “But now he’d yell, ‘Mom!’ and it was the most beautiful thing to hear,” she says. “When he started to talk, he started to come back to being Ian.”

As the fall of 2009 arrived, she noticed her son begin to turn from the TV to the living room’s tall windows. Mackay asked his parents to put a feeder on the sill, and he started to bird-watch—“that’s a dark-eyed junco . . . that’s a spotted towhee”—as he had in the days before his crash. Teena bought a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, and they worked together to identify every bird on their five acres. Now, Ian kept one eye on the world outside.

Before Apple introduced Siri, in 2010, with its voice- and gesture-based controls, the biggest challenge for a quadriplegic, typically, was a simple one: how to press a button. Teena remembers her son’s first stab at this, and how he practiced to perfection with a small headset that attached to a BlackBerry and allowed him to make a call with his sip-and-puff straw. And then: “His first adventure was to his grandparents’ house, across the street,” Teena says. “I called my mom three times to see if he was there yet. I was so, so worried.”

Teena was still nearby, but that third-of-a-mile journey was a revelation. Her son could leave home alone again.