Former marathon runner changes gears for Million Dollar Challenge ride
Brain disease ended running for Michelle Pinard of Encinitas, but she’ll pedal 220 miles to raise money for athletes with disabilities
From the age of 7, Michelle Pinard loved to run. The veteran of five marathons and 50 half-marathons described the sport as “my best friend, my sidekick and my release.”
But during a marathon six years ago this month, something felt “off” to the 51-year-old married mother of two from Encinitas. She couldn’t maintain a steady running gait and she started tripping and falling.
It would take five years of unsuccessful visits with doctors and specialists before Pinard finally received a diagnosis last year at the Mayo Clinic Arizona: Cerebellar ataxia, a rare genetic disease that causes the brain’s cerebellum to shrink, affecting muscle movement, coordination and balance, particularly in the arms and legs. The disease is progressive and there is no cure at this time.
Pinard has not run a marathon in six years. In fact, she can’t run at all. She now walks with the assistance of a walker and is looking into getting a wheelchair. Even simple things like carrying a laundry basket can cause a fall. But Pinard has a big adventure coming up in a few weeks. With the help of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, she will be among a handful of cyclists with physical challenges who will take part in the 220-mile Santa Barbara-to-San Diego leg of CAF’s 15th Million Dollar Challenge fundraising ride.
In August, CAF lent Pinard a recumbent road-racing bike that she has been pedaling up to 50 miles a day on training rides around North County to prepare for the three-day mid-October event. With her husband, Mike Pinard, she has also raised more than $10,000 in donations that will go toward CAF’s mission of providing grants to challenged athletes for adaptive sports equipment, training and competition fees.
Pinard said returning to active long-distance sports again and becoming involved in CAF has been a life-changing experience: “I never thought I’d be active in that fashion again and I’ve never been a part of a more beautiful community.”
Pinard gave up her career in pharmaceutical sales a few years ago and now works full time as a writer and mom to her children, 17-year-old daughter, Avery, and 14-year-old son, Cole. After her diagnosis last year, she started writing a novel, which is a thinly veiled version of her own life, running and health journey. On Oct. 22 — the day she completes her Million Dollar Challenge ride — her 145-page book, “When the Worst Day of Your Life Didn’t Kill You, The Next Morning,” will go on sale on Amazon.com. Signed copies can be purchased by emailing Pinard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pinard said the book ends with her fictional alter-ego, Molly, getting her confidence and competitive spirit back with a loaner bike from Challenged Athletes. She plans to write a second book that will include Molly’s Million Dollar Challenge ride experience.
“I have a story of survival,” she said, “but it’s a guide to somebody else going through a struggle and about listening to your gut and not giving up and uncovering the answers that you know are there.”
CAF Million Dollar Challenge chairman Dean Roeper said hearing stories like Pinard’s is why he joined CAF’s board and has co-chaired the MDC event for the past 12 years. A San Diego real estate attorney who cycles about 4,000 miles a year, Roeper said he signed up for his first MDC ride in 2008 to rebuild his strength and endurance after a knee replacement. Instead, he fell in love with the CAF mission.
During that first seven-day ride from San Francisco to San Diego, Roeper rode alongside a veteran Army Ranger who lost a leg in the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq. He was pedaling the 640-mile trek with a prosthetic limb.
“When you meet people who get a grant for a running leg and it opens them up to a whole new world of possibilities, there’s nothing quite as tangible as watching that result,” Roeper said. “Sports shouldn’t be a luxury item. It’s something we should all be able to access as part of our humanity.”
Over the years, Roeper said the MDC has faced its share of challenges. There were two years when it rained all seven days on the riders, and two years when wildfires forced changes in the route. In 2020, the event was canceled altogether because of the pandemic. But because of that year off, this year’s ride has the most riders ever and a record amount of money raised.
“People are so hungry to be back in community with one another,” Roeper said.
The full MDC ride — which will include 160 cyclists, of which 20 are physically challenged — begins Oct. 15 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. When the peloton of cyclists arrives at Bonita Cove on Mission Bay on Oct. 22, it will kick off three days of events, including an open water swim, children’s adaptive surf event and clinics for running, mobility, wheelchair tennis and swimming. The weekend finale will be the 28th San Diego Triathlon Challenge, which includes a one-mile swim, 44-mile bike ride and 10-minute run. About 200 challenged athletes will be among the 800 participants. Through these and other events, CAF has raised more than $130 million and awarded nearly 32,000 grants to athletes since 1994.
That’s not bad for an organization that was initially created by three San Diego friends — Bob Babbitt, Jeffrey Essakow and Rick Kozlowski — who were only looking to do a one-time favor for a friend.
In 1992, below-the-knee amputee Jim MacLaren made headlines by finishing the Ironman World Championship in 10 hours, 42 minutes. But a year later, he was rendered quadriplegic when a car struck his bike during an Orange County triathlon. MacLaren needed $25,000 for a hand-controlled van, so the trio organized the 1994 Tri Challenge to raise it.
At the time, Babbitt was the publisher of Competitor Magazine, Essakow was an accountant for triathlete Scott Tinley’s sportswear company, and Kozlowski had started his now-long-established special events firm Koz Events. The first Tri Challenge raised $49,000 and attracted both able-bodied athletes like Tinley and a handful of women amputees who had been inspired to compete by MacLaren. But after an article and photos of the event ran in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Essakow said his phone started “ringing off the hook.”
“People were calling and asking for help. And a friend of mine, who I didn’t know at the time, told me, ‘you’ve got a tiger by the tail. I want to underwrite you hiring someone to run this organization for the first year,” said Essakow, now a La Jolla real estate investor and developer who is CAF’s president and chairman of the board.
Within a year, the nonprofit CAF was established and it has been growing and expanding ever since. One of the organization’s early growing pains was finding permanent office space. To solve that problem, the Million Dollar Challenge was created 16 years ago to raise enough cash to buy a building that Essakow said could be CAF’s home “forever and ever, amen.”
With the roughly $3 million in proceeds from the first three rides, Essakow bought CAF’s headquarters building in Sorrento Mesa for just $1.6 million cash in a court auction. The rest of the money was used to renovate the building. The headquarters at 9591 Waples St. has an adaptive sports gym, indoor wheelchair basketball half-court, educational classrooms, offices and more.
Over the past 15 years, the Million Dollar Challenge has raised $20 million and hosted close to 1,000 individual riders who have, collectively, cycled more than 18 million miles.
Essakow said that the Million Dollar Challenge is not a race, but an introduction to a new “family” and way of thinking. One of Essakow’s friends who has taken part in the ride once told him: “I came for a bike ride and I’m leaving with an attitude adjustment to life.”
“People are very moved by the event,” said Essakow, who was born and raised in South Africa. “There’s an African word, ‘ubuntu,’ which means I am because of who you are and you are because of who I am.’ It’s a symbiotic relationship. That’s what MDC is all about. It’s a humbling experience riding down the coast of California with someone riding next to you lying on his back and pedaling with his hands.”
Essakow said that besides serving its clientele — which includes elite athletes who have competed in the Paralympic Games and non-athletes who simply want to improve their lives through sport — CAF has worked to change cultural attitudes about people with limb loss, paralysis or other disabilities. On the wall of his office, Essakow has hung a drawing by his young son that shows several stick figures running a race. The winner of the race is a figure with a prosthetic leg.
“When we started, there was such a stigma associated with people who were physically challenged, but today nobody really notices someone without an arm or a leg,” he said. “My son’s drawing represents to me everything I’ve stood for over the past 26 years. He doesn’t see the difference, which tells me we’ve accomplished our goals.”
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