Three years ago, he almost lost his life during an extreme sports accident above Missoula’s Mount Jumbo. Despite paralysis from the chest down, he refused to give up his outdoor adventuring and climbed the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on a three-wheeled, hand-propelled cycle just one year later.
Now Joe Stone has an even more ambitious target in his sights: Becoming the first wheelchair-bound quadriplegic to complete an Ironman triathlon race.
“The cool thing about being disabled is there’s a lot of opportunity in becoming the first at something,” said Stone, 28, a Missoulian by way of Minnesota.
Stone moved to Montana for its surplus of playgrounds aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. In August 2010, his canopy collapsed while soaring hundreds of feet above the ground while speed flying, crashing back into the mountain at about 40 mph. He spent nearly a month in an induced coma after fracturing seven vertebrae, four ribs and damaging his right lung, liver and spinal cord.
Stone is now considered an incomplete C7 quadriplegic, meaning he still has partial motor function and sensation below the neck.
Marathons and triathlons were never really in Stone’s realm of consideration. Before the accident, the 25-year-old had been a maintenance worker at a Missoula property company who wanted to work as little as possible to be able to sneak off and escape into the Montana wilderness for hikes or mountain bike rides.
It wasn’t until this March that he started training for this new venture. And if he wanted to be the first, there was no time to waste.
“I kind of like the fear factor side of it, the whole unknown,” Stone said. “I’ve never done a triathlon, I’ve never done a marathon. I’ve never done any of that stuff – able-bodied or disabled.”
He chose the Ironman Florida race, scheduled for Nov. 2 in Panama City Beach, after carefully considering the course’s layout: 2.4 miles of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, 112 miles of biking with just 900 feet of elevation climb, 26.2 miles of “running.”
Stone, of course, will not be running that last section, instead competing in his racing wheelchair.
Eric Belker, owner of the Frenchtown Fitness Center, has been Stone’s training partner for the event. Belker, also entered in the Florida race, is on his ninth such event and will act as much as a safety net for his friend as a racer himself.
“I’m not even sure I’ll be finishing the race,” Belker said. “I’m in a support role for him, especially on the swim. I’ll be playing the eyes for him on that one.”
Along with only partial use of his left hand because of the injury, Stone cannot lift his head out of the water while swimming with his upper body alone and is unable see where he’s going. Belker will act as a guideline, swimming along Stone’s left side to keep him on path for the two-plus miles in the water.
“I’m never really going to know where I’m at on the course, but I’ll know I’m at least going straight based on where he’s going,” Stone said.
Blind swimming is far from Stone’s only obstacle at the Ironman. The damage to his heart from the speed gliding accident has left it unable to reach rates above 120 or 130 beats per minute, far below the average runner’s rate during marathon times.
Stone’s body no longer sweats. He’ll carry extra water – meaning extra weight – on his racing wheelchair and handcycle during those legs of the race to keep himself cool. Applying water to his body – acting as manufactured sweat – will keep him from suffering heat-related issues.
That’s another reason the Florida race fit best, he said. It’s in November and temperatures won’t be as high as in the summer.
Then there’s the ever-present issues he’s already rectified. His left hand can’t grip the handlebar on his bike, a specially made $8,000 cycle that allows him to recline and use only his arms for propulsion. A problem he bypassed using a series of velcro strips during his Glacier pass trip has a better solution now. He uses a QuadGrip, a piece of equipment that helps lock a rider’s hand in place without threatening to cut off circulation.
There’s still the question of whether Stone can finish the race, though. Ironman events have a 17-hour time limit with individual check points set on each stage and are one of the most physically challenging races a person can enter.
“And to think he’s going to do the whole 140.6 (miles) with only arms,” Belker said. “... To see his passion and the fire in the belly for someone to even attempt an Ironman, it just really speaks to who Joe is and the spirit of Ironman. There’s so many unknowns out there.”
There’s more to Joe Stone than adrenaline, though.
Stone, who following the accident lived and rehabilitated back in Minnesota until returning to Montana a year ago, now makes motivational speeches. In fact, he’s leaving for Florida this week in order to make a handful of stops at rehabilitation facilities or radio stations along the 2,500-mile trip.
He’s talked to people on each side of the equation, recently disabled folks learning to deal with a life-altering change and their physical therapists, both professional and student.
Joe, along with his fianceé Amy Rosendahl and business mentor Kevin May, have started a non-profit called the Joe Stone Foundation, part of a larger Minnesota-based organization entitled A Better Society.
“What we’re trying to do in general is show people that it’s OK to push beyond the perceived limitations that we set on ourselves,” Stone said.
Stone hopes the foundation can provide information, resources and funding for people with spinal cord injuries to get back in the outdoors.
“What I want to see is to get more able-bodied companies (involved),” said Stone, using the biking world for example. “I want to see an able-bodied bike company start making handcycles on the charitable side of things where we can lower that cost.
“Basically in the end the idea with that is to help start merging the disabled world and able-bodied world. I don’t see a reason why they can’t come together.”
* For more information on Joe Stone’s journey to Ironman Florida or to get involved with the Joe Stone Foundation, visit meetjoestone.com