Hannah chats to Zack Rundell, the U.S. high school mountain biking success aiming to inspire others to let bikes change their lives.
While out in Idaho I attended a ‘Draft Meet Up’ – a community event combining beer and bikes, where locals and visitors get together and share ideas about how to improve cycling provision and uptake in their area. As the event also coincided with the US high-school bike racing organisation NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) conference, some of the speakers from the conference spoke to the meet up. One of them was 18 year old Zack Rundell, who spoke so passionately about how mountain biking had changed his life that I had to sit down for a chat.
A Tough Start
Zack discovered NICA having spotted a flyer at the ‘Tour of Scranton’, a local 47 mile race he’d entered on an old clunker of a mountain bike, with no athletic background. In fact, it’s his background that makes his story all the more remarkable, and all the more powerful:
‘I really want to share my passion and let people know that…well you know I’m a little bit different and you probably could tell that. I had a rough go of it, I was put into mental hospitals, kicked out of about ten schools, I heard voices in my head that told me to do honestly unspeakable things, I thought I was a werewolf once. I ran outside in the middle of winter, bare feet, short sleeves and shorts. It took my dad and brother 45 minutes to catch me. And this was all because of medication. So I had a rough time at school, and worse yet I had a speech delay. You probably notice this accent right here, just imagine it ten times worse. You could barely understand me. So, when people don’t understand me I just got mad. My parents took me to doctors and they gave me diagnoses of ADHD and bipolar and they really used the method ‘throw it to the wall and stick’. And it didn’t really stick to the wall, it came back and bit me. I had bad reactions, like the voices and all this other stuff.’
Zack credits mountain biking with giving him a future and making him feel accepted, whereas once people didn’t want to have anything to do with him. ‘Mountain biking has given me focus, structure, love, and it has brought me into this whole new world. When I was a kid, people said ‘you can’t be on my property’… But people like you and everybody else, show your passion, they wanted you there. It’s a community’.
Before he found this community, Zack was riding around his neighbourhood on his bike, just because he’d discovered it made him feel better – he liked it, so he kept at it:
‘It seemed like when I was having a bad day and stuff, I just got on a bike and I rode for two hours and when I got off it I just felt a lot better. It really improved my confidence from the second time on a bike all the way to fifth time on a bike.
I remember me just riding around my neighbourhood just doing laps upon laps and I had just this feeling when I got on a bike – words can’t express – going faster and faster up hills and down hills. And I did races – we kinda had like these kiddish races in our neighbourhood, and I just had a fun time with that. Not because I won everything!
Zack lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania, an area that he says is trying to grow the mountain bike scene:
‘They really have endorsed mountain biking and they really want to build a community because more trails connect communities and they’ve got about ten parks in the area…And there’s this nearby ski resort known as Montage Mountain which is going to be getting a whole new set of trails.’
Mountain biking is the fastest growing High School sport in the USA, so it’s likely the demand for trails will continue to grow. Plus, small towns are seeing there are economic benefits to having a great trail system – and if you’ve already got a built in uplift in the form of a ski resort chairlift or gondola, why not make that a year round attraction?
The growth in popularity of high school mountain biking is evident Zack’s local club membership, the Keystone Composite Coed MTB Team – ‘basically a composite of different schools together’ he explains. With 26 members when he joined, there are now 43. For him, it’s more than just a team ‘That team really took me in as one of their own. NICA is family to me and I live by that, it’s like a second family’. The significance of the team can’t be underestimated – having never been on a team before, in a world of high school where other team sports imbue a sense of cool, status and belonging, this was a big deal. This sense of belonging and opportunity is something that Zack hopes to convey to others:
‘I say… to those who are not different, I hope you will think before you dismiss those around you who are. For those who are different, and not good for other sports such as basketball, football, lacrosse or hockey, give NICA a go. I did, and look what happened. Nobody would ever have predicted this. My life has changed dramatically. I now have a focus and a reason. I will always be in some way part of cycling. So give NICA a try, it might just be for you.’
Zack rides because it makes him feel good, but he’s also good at it – he’s two-time Pennsylvania State Champion, and is now racing at international and national category one races.
‘I ride the mountain bike and race the mountain bike because I love it. When I hear ‘5-4-3-2-1’ I just have this feeling, I want to go, sprinting out with everybody.’
Like many a youngster, he dreams of being a professional mountain biker: ‘My dream in the cycling world is to really chase after my dreams and become a professional national and international mount bike racer. I really want to make it to the Olympics, I’m going to give it one hell of a shot.’
Beyond The Tape
But Zack recognises the power of his story, and his passion for bikes goes beyond the race tape:
‘I also have a passion for motivational speaking. I’ve been travelling all over the country to give presentations about me and my life story and about how mountain racing saved my life and gave me a very very bright future. I’ve given presentations at middle schools, learning disability schools, Temple University (Philadelphia), state wide conferences, medical conferences, an international conference down in New York City. And I’m here! At the National Interscholastic NICA Conference!’
It’s been quite a trip so far. He might have had a speech delay, but he has no difficulty in communicating his love of the sport. He speaks the same language as me, about how bikes build communities and confidence, and how bikes change lives if you let them. He’s super excited at being interviewed by a bike magazine journalist, but he moves me to near tears with his enthusiasm for bikes, and his recognition of their power:
‘If somebody told my parents [that he’d be here] when I was in that mental hospital… Doctors said I would have been nobody. They said “He’s done, he’s going to stay in these hospitals for the rest of his life”. There was no hope for me. If somebody told them I would be doing this many years form then, they wouldn’t have believed it. They’d have said “yeah sure!”.
‘I found the bike. When I first started to ride, I would have been lucky to last a whole trail ride without falling ten times. I really wouldn’t have imagined this ever happening, I really wouldn’t have imagined me getting in a local newspaper time and time again. Me giving presentations, giving motivational speeches, me racing and winning races, me having friends, meeting people like yourself, having this whole world… This happened in my dreams. Can you pinch me?!’
If you’d like to watch Zack’s presentation to NICA, you can do so here:
Hannah was exploring Idaho thanks to the Crank Tank Impact Sun Valley Media event, who covered travel and accommodation costs.