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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published April 30 2010

Going the distance: Wheelchair team sets goal for Fargo Marathon

Rory Eidsness and Rollie Johnson will tackle the Fargo Marathon as a two-man team with a silent partner.

Eidsness, a former Fargo fire captain who suffered a stroke four years ago and has very limited movement, will ride in a customized racing wheelchair while Johnson pushes.

The two 50-year-olds completed the half marathon two years ago after Johnson came up with the idea as a way to challenge himself physically and give Eidsness a chance to get out.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him in terms of what I can do and what he’s not able to do,” said Johnson, director of contemporary ministries at Fargo’s First Lutheran Church.

This year, they decided to attempt the full 26.2 miles but first enlisted the help of North Dakota State College of Science welding students to design a wheelchair that would fit their needs.

And this isn’t any ordinary wheelchair.

The three-wheeler is designed to look like a dragster car and is customized just for them.

The car is aluminum with carbon fiber wheels and weighs less than 50 pounds. It has hand brakes for going downhill and is insulated to keep Eidsness warm.

The hood detaches so Eidsness can be lifted inside, where he fits snugly in foam and padding.

Eidsness primarily communicates by nodding or looking up with his eyes. A mirror will be mounted on the windshield so Johnson can communicate with Eidsness without stopping.

“They really nailed the design,” Johnson said. “It is really a smooth-pushing machine.”

Welding instructor Lee Larson and his students at the lab in the Skills & Training Technology Center didn’t forget the cool factor.

In recognition of Eidsness’ 19 years with the Fargo Fire Department, the wheelchair is painted fire-engine red and will feature his badge No. 344, flame decals and his helmet mounted on the front.

On Thursday, as Eidsness was trying out the car in the NDSCS Fargo welding lab, Johnson asked, “Whoa, doesn’t that look cool?” and Eidsness nodded and looked up with his eyes to signal yes.

Eidsness suffered a stroke while training with Johnson and other members of a church group to climb Devils Tower in Wyoming.

Kari Eidsness said it means a lot to her husband to participate in the marathon.

“He used to be so active, and it allows him to get out and be part of things that he’s not been able to be a part of,” she said.

Eidsness is in physical therapy to work on his core strength with the goal of being able to sit independently. He’s also in aqua therapy.

Johnson said Eidsness has a lot more neck and torso strength than he did two years ago.

“He’s just a walking testimony to courage,” Johnson said.

But Eidsness, who has a special computer that he controls with his eyes, said through an e-mail interview that his partner deserves the credit.

“I have the easy job with the marathon,” Eidsness said. “I just sit there. Rollie does all the work.”

Johnson is training to not only run his first marathon but run it while pushing his 230-pound friend.

He’s always been active, but Johnson wasn’t a runner before deciding to take on the half marathon in 2008.

Johnson has been doing practice runs with the new wheelchair, sometimes with Eidsness and sometimes with his children and some sandbags to add weight.

Johnson said his motivation is faith-based.

“I believe that when God gets involved, we’re able to do so much more than what we’re physically or emotionally capable of,” he said.

In 2008, the cheers and prayers from the crowd helped them finish the half marathon in two hours, 20 minutes.

“The effect of the crowd and the cheering and the stimulation of that, the adrenaline, was beyond anything I could have ever predicted,” Johnson said.

Eidsness said the highlight for him was running into the Fargodome and seeing their pictures on the big screen.

That year, they used a modified wheelchair, but not one that was custom built or had safety features.

They expect the full marathon may take them four to five hours.

Kari Eidsness will bike alongside them in case they need anything during the race.

“I need to get ready, too,” she said.

Johnson said he doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to run the whole 26.2 miles, but if he has to walk after mile 18 or 20, it won’t be the end of the world.

“I’m really confident that this is a vision born spiritually of God, and if he wants it to happen, it’ll happen,” Johnson said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590