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Marathon route road to recovery

Of the more than an estimated 13,000 participants that will traverse the streets of Fargo and Moorhead on Saturday, Rollie Johnson and Rory Eidsness will be joined by more than just Johnson's hands on Eidsness' wheelchair.

Rollie Johnson

Of the more than an estimated 13,000 participants that will traverse the streets of Fargo and Moorhead on Saturday, Rollie Johnson and Rory Eidsness will be joined by more than just Johnson's hands on Eidsness' wheelchair.

They will be connected in spirit.

"I think he'll inspire a lot of people on Saturday," Johnson said.

Inspiration comes in a lot of ways at the Fargo Marathon. The fourth annual begins at 8 a.m. in five divisions: the marathon, half marathon, marathon relay, 5K and youth run.

There's one other unannounced event: the Team Rory Challenge.


Johnson is the youth director at First Lutheran Church in Fargo. Two years ago, he was part of a church group of 30 training to climb Devils Tower in Wyoming when one of the members, Eidsness, suffered a stroke.

The road to recovery has been slow and tough. Eidsness, a Fargo fire captain who spent 19 years with the department, endured six months in a Denver hospital just trying to stay alive. He was transferred back to Fargo a year ago February. By last August, he was off tube-feeding.

"A lot of it is his determination," said Kari Eidsness, his wife. "Research is showing that stroke victims with intense therapy can continue to make progress. Rory has always been a risk taker and we're not going to keep him in a box."

On Saturday, he'll be in a wheelchair that was retrofitted by Larry Skagen, the shop manager at Island Park Cycles in Fargo. He constructed a device that would hold a single front wheel, thus making for a faster ride.

"A four-wheel chair is fine for walking speed," Skagen said, "but not for running."

Running has not been part of Johnson's repertoire. He's always worked out to stay in shape for backpacking or elk hunting trips, he said, but he's never run a race. And he's not exactly taking the easy way out, either.

Instead of a 5K, he's going to wheel Eidsness 13.1 miles.

"Most people start with a 5K," said Al Kraft, an exercise physiologist at MeritCare Southpointe and Johnson's personal trainer. "It's pretty ambitious."


Kraft and Johnson began a program in February. There was a bout with shin splits, but Johnson forged on. Kraft put his student through strength training to help with pushing the wheelchair. Two weeks ago, the two ran 13 miles.

"He's a great guy who has a big heart," Kraft said. "He just wants to do something for him."

Last week, Johnson and Eidsness got their first run-through with the new chair, a four-mile jaunt in north Fargo. Because Eidsness can only communicate with his eyes, Johnson has a game plan of questions so the two are constantly on the same page.

Eidsness answers them with eyes up for "yes" or down for "no." The stroke may have damaged his ability to walk and talk, but it did not take his mind.

"He wants to get back into life," Kari said. "Physically, he wants to get out. He feels like his old self except his body doesn't move."

Progress lately has been remarkable, something Johnson said he's noticed even in the past two weeks. He's able to say most of the letters of the alphabet. He can spell words.

"He will regain his speech," Kari said.

He's also working on regaining his movement. Johnson said Eidsness' goal is to lift his thumb as they cross the finish line at the Fargodome.


"I don't think there's a day that goes by where I don't think about Rory being trapped inside his body and still have his mind," Johnson said. "The race is all unknown. He's never done it. I've never done it. We think we can finish."

Think? Kraft said he knows better.

"He'll finish no matter what," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack's NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com

Rollie Johnson

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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