The weeklong bike ride through Minnesota has been a summer tradition for Jeri Lake and her family, part of their lives since 1996. They have all ridden the Habitat 500 Bike Ride — a seven-day, 500-mile ride to raise money for Habitat for Humanity — at least once, and they’ve also volunteered as part of the ride’s support crew.
Lake is riding it this week, along with a daughter, and other family members are volunteering. The ride has been particularly special to Lake in the last few years. Getting back on a bike and riding it represents freedom to her. Because at one time she thought she’d never do the ride again.
Lake has always been an active person and an enthusiastic cyclist. The Champaign woman got away from cycling for a while, busy with her career as a midwife and family nurse practitioner and with raising four children.
But when her oldest child, her only son, was in seventh grade, he wanted to participate in a summer bike camp that was a fundraiser for Cunningham Children’s Home. Lake returned to cycling to help him train for the weeklong ride. A few years later, she learned the ride organizer was doing a Habitat for Humanity ride from Louisville, Ky., to Atlanta, in celebration of the organization’s 20th anniversary. Lake decided she wanted to do the ride as well and invited a friend.
The ride moved to Minnesota, and her son rode with her the next year. Her son and oldest daughter rode the following year. Her third child rode when she reached 13, the minimum age to participate. And Lake and her husband, Steve Rayburn, rode together one year on a tandem bike.
Lake also got to know many of the Habitat riders who return year after year to ride together for a week.
“It’s like a family reunion in Minnesota every summer,” she said.
Before her youngest child got her chance to do the ride with mom, though, Lake was in an accident. She was cycling to her job at Carle in February 2005 when a car turned in front of her. She braked hard to avoid hitting the car and fell, hitting the right side of her head, just under her helmet, on the ground. She suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to work and affected her speech, short-term memory, balance and gait.
The inability to be active added to the stress of Lake’s injury and its consequences.
“I love cycling so much. Probably one of the hardest things for me about the brain injury was everything I did prior to that was active,” Lake said. “My job was intense. To relax, I ran or biked or did something active. The way to wind down was to get on my bike and ride 40 miles to relax.”
Just walking was difficult for her after the accident because she had problems with spatial issues and depth perception. She also had a lot of anxiety, and she was sensitive to noise. The sound of a bus or truck or motorcycle coming down the street would have her fleeing in a panic.
But a year after her accident, she began cycling again on a three-wheeled recumbent bike. She and Rayburn would ride together, but it wasn’t easy. Lake had to concentrate hard on her balance, on traffic, on every detail of riding.
“I felt unsure I was stable. I felt really nervous about vehicle traffic. I was still dealing with visual issues. It was not as relaxing as (it) had been before. It would exhaust me to ride,” she said.
She and her family returned to the Habitat ride to volunteer, but Lake had trouble dealing with the stimulation of being in a large group.
“I didn’t think I’d ever go back again,” she said. “It was just too hard to even be there, not doing anything.”
In the fall of 2010, Lake was accepted into a clinical trial for a device called a Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator, which has helped improve her balance, speech, memory and energy level. Shortly after she began using the device, she “snuck out and tried a bike again.”
She rode her old commuter bike across the grass in her backyard until she was sure she could balance it. Then she began taking trips around the block.
“I was so afraid one of the neighbors would see me and tell on me,” she said.
Lake had a setback when she was in a car accident on her way to Madison, Wis., to see the doctors running the clinical trial. But several months later, she was back on her bike again.
“I know I can’t afford another head injury,” she said. “I have always been a safe biker. I’m a cautious biker now.”
But, she added, “If you want to live, you’ve got to do it in a way that’s joyful for you. I ride, and my husband worries. We’ve got it all worked out.”
She volunteered at the ride in 2011 but asked to ride the last day with friends she’d cycled with over the years. As they neared the finish of the ride, her friends all dropped back to let Lake lead them across the finish line.
Lake decided to ride again in 2012, in memory of her father who had recently died. He was a retired builder and longtime supporter of Habitat for Humanity. She rode her “comeback year” ride with her son and youngest daughter, in tears of joy for a good part of the first day’s miles. Lake rode a little more than 300 miles in 2012, then more than 400 miles last year. This year, she plans to ride less. Her energy has been low this summer, and she hasn’t trained as much as usual.
“I’m learning to believe that traumatic brain injury is a chronic condition, and you really have to deal with what you’ve got day by day,” she said.
She plans to ride every day for half the day, then stop and either volunteer or rest. The amount of mileage won’t matter a bit to her friends at the ride, Lake’s husband said.
“There are people who have done this ride for years and people look forward to seeing them, and Jeri is one of those people,” Rayburn said. “If Jeri came and just did 20 miles, everybody would be thrilled just to have her there.”
Lake feels that cycling has given her back her freedom.
“To be given the gift of getting back some of that beloved, familiar life from before, that’s not something most people get after a serious illness or injury,” she said.
“This ride is a treasure,” Lake continued. “Maybe it just represents all the things I love: cycling, community, Habitat and the good they are doing for folks. It’s all those things that were really important and special to me. Getting it back is such an unbelievable and unexpected gift.”
Photo: Jeri Lake carries her bike out of her Champaign home. Lake, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2005, is riding in a Habitat for Humanity bike ride this week in Minnesota. Photo by John Dixon/The News-Gazette.