If you happen to be out near Roanoke this weekend you might want to drop in on the 35th Annual Randolph County Bike Hike and ask to hear the story of the event's most famous participant - Gene Gilham.
The event began in 1976 as a 25-mile competition open to bikers and folks on foot (today it is a one mile walk or ride). The aim was to raise funds for the Randolph County Association for the Learning Center rather than set any records.
Fewer than 300 entrants showed up on the rainy late-May morning of the event and one of them was the 16-year-old Gilham. It was hard to miss him since he was the only guy in a wheelchair.
Born with spinal bifida, an operation to correct a kidney disorder caused by his condition had left Gilham wheelchair bound. The situation didn't affect his determination one bit. When the Bike Hike was announced he decided to enter and collected $495 in pledges leading up to the race.
A daunting proposition under any circumstances, at the time it was almost an inconceivable feat since the era customized chairs to accommodate racers with disabilities was decades away. Most folks thought Gilham would finish a few miles at most and drop out. But he had other ideas.
Gilham set out with the rest of the field at 7:30 a.m. and fell behind the other contestants almost immediately but he kept going. He didn't drop out after a few miles but just paused every so often for a break and started going again. As the local radio station began running updates on his progress, donations began pouring in.
Eight hours and ten minutes after setting out, Gilham crossed the finish line amid a entourage of supporters who had joined him along the way. By that time he had worn through three pairs of gloves and the learning center had received more than $6,000 in donations in his name (a total of $27,000 was raised with the event).
The feat brought the teenager a brief bit of national recognition as news services picked the story up and accolades from Roanoke Mayor Frederick J. Cauthen, Alabama Governor George Wallace, and United States President Gerald Ford followed.
But as a diehard fan of Alabama football, the most important recognition Gilham received for his feat was a telegram from Crimson Tide Coach Paul W. Bryant himself:
"Your courage and perseverance are an inspiration to us all. Making the 25-mile course in a wheelchair makes playing football look easy."
Gilham passed away April 21 at the age of 50 - another testament to his perseverance since doctors didn't believe would live past the age of 12. He's remembered fondly in the Roanoke area as a devoted supporter of the Handley High School girls softball team as much as his famous ride.
We here in the Bama nation offer our condolences to all of Gilham's family and friends and a very respectful "Roll Tide!" to his memory.