Illinois Man with ALS Survives 'Perfect Storm' Crash, Finishing Cross-Country Bike Ride and Raising More Than $50,000 for ALS Research
"I thought I would never ride a bike again," Ray Spooner tells PEOPLE of the moments after his crash in Scottsdale, Arizona
When 56-year-old Ray Spooner completed his 3,074-mile bike ride across the United States on Thursday, his first thought was: I want to turn around and do it again.
“To be quite honest, I would be quite happy to turn around and ride that bit that I missed,” he tells PEOPLE from his finish point in St. Augustine, Florida.
“But, I think [my wife] would have something to say about that,” says the father of three from Urbana, Illinois. “So I should probably quit while I’m married. And still alive.”
By “that bit that I missed,” Ray means the 10 days he spent recovering from a crash in Scottsdale, Arizona, that left him with a broken arm, three fractured vertebrae, three fractured ribs, a partially collapsed lung and a concussion.
A testament to his almost superhuman determination, Ray walked out of the hospital the next day and was back to cycling – this time in a recumbent position – just 10 days later.
Completing the ride while he’s still alive has been a chief preoccupation for Ray, who was diagnosed in January with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing weakness and eventually paralysis of all voluntary muscles.
Upon receiving this crushing diagnosis, the avid cyclist says a plan occurred to him “almost immediately”: He would ride across the country to raise awareness and funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association‘s ALS research and support services.
“An extreme diagnosis called for an extreme response,” he told PEOPLE at the beginning of his ride in October. “It had to be coast to coast – it’s the only thing that could possibly match the magnitude of the diagnosis.”
On Oct. 18, Ray dipped the back wheel of his bicycle in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, California, and set off on his “little ride,” with the goal of logging 3,074 miles and raising $50,000.
Five days later, in Arizona, his front wheel hit a curb, sending him careening over his handlebars and straight into a patch of rocks, in what he calls a “perfect storm of bike crash conditions.”
“I thought I would never ride a bike again,” he says of the moment when the paramedics lifted him into the back of an ambulance, minutes after the crash. “I felt like I had let down the people who were counting on me.”
Ray’s injuries were staggering.
In one fall, he had broken his arm, three vertebrae, and three ribs, partially collapsed his lung and sustained a concussion.
Had ALS not taken the use of his left arm months before, Ray’s injuries would have been even more grave: When most people suffer this kind of fall, they attempt to use their arm to brace themselves, often resulting in a broken collarbone.
Ray’s wife, Rae, was driving the minivan full of supplies to meet her husband when she got the call that he had been in an accident.
“I knew going into this that there was a possibility that I would be coming home alone,” Rae tells PEOPLE. “There was always that dread but when I got the call. I really thought this could be it.”
“Then when I saw him in the hospital it was almost a relief, not that he had broken seven bones but that he even knew who I was,” she continues. “He wasn’t a bloody mess. He was broken, but he was breathing, and I knew he was going to be okay.”
One day after his accident, Ray walked out of the hospital. In order to make up the miles he would inevitably miss, he asked friends, family and cycling enthusiasts to donate miles by logging them online and sending in videos.
“Initially, my hope was that people would ride the 2,000 or so miles that I would be unable to,” Ray says. “But it got out of hand pretty quick.”
To date, more than 37,000 miles have been ridden in Ray’s honor. People from all over the world logged hundreds of miles – even children that Ray had delivered during his decades-long career as a midwife donated miles on their scooters.
Crushed not to be riding, Ray put all of his energy into compiling and editing all of the footage and photos that riders were sending in around the clock, into videos he shared on his blog.
“It became such a fabulous distraction for the two of us,” Rae says. “Ray had given himself something else to do, collecting these miles and presenting them to the world. That was his job and that was what he looked forward to.”
Just 10 days after his accident, Ray got back to his “little ride,” this time on a recumbent tricycle specially modified to allow him to shift gears and brake with one arm.
On Nov. 19, Ray and his team rode into St. Augustine, Florida – a triumphant finish that quickly turned bittersweet.
“It was incredibly powerful but as happy as I was there was also a lot of sadness, because now we have to focus on the fact that he has ALS and this was kind of a distraction,” Rae says.
“Even the accident helped to distract us from the ALS, because those injuries were something we could fix,” she continues. “With ALS, we don’t have that luxury. So in a weird way it was a positive distraction.”
But Ray can now focus on another positive distraction, with his epic ride behind him: surrounding himself with family, all of whom gathered to meet him at the finish line.
“I hadn’t seen my kids for over a month,” he says of his last miles alone. “As I was pedaling, I kept looking ahead hoping to capture a glimpse of them at the finish. And when I did, after all those miles, it was like an apparition.
“All the people who mean the most to me in the world were there to meet me.”