Karah Behrend is all about breaking down barriers. She’s an adaptive athlete who not only completed the grueling eight-day, off-road Rebelle Rally—her first time ever—but the medically retired Air Force veteran placed second. With Behrend behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, made accessible with hand controls to accommodate her, and her teammate Rachael Ridenour serving as navigator, the duo raced from Lake Tahoe to an endpoint near Mexico. With basic navigation tools and coordinates, they barreled through the wilderness, confronting dense forests, rugged scrublands and stark sand dunes. During the last section of the rally, Behrend met up with ABILITY to talk about her career as an adaptive athlete, her love of sports and her warrior’s spirit.
ABILITY: Since retiring from the Air Force what you do?
Karah Behrend: I play wheelchair rugby, and I travel the country playing sports and talking to people.
ABILITY: How long were you in the Air Force?
Behrend: Six years and four months. Not that I’m counting.
ABILITY: (laughs) You’ve always been an athlete?
Behrend: Before I joined the Air Force, I was a cheerleader. During the Air Force, I would do unit sports and play sports with my friends or whatever we could. And then after I was hurt, I found adaptive sports, and that was my new drive.
ABILITY: How’d you get into rugby?
Behrend: It kind of fell into my lap. I was in an event where they had me try it out, and I fell in love with it. I ended up contacting a team called Oscar Mike’s to see if I could play with them for the season and they had me try out. They took me last year, and I’ve been playing ever since.
ABILITY: Did you see the movie Murderball?
Behrend: No. Somebody got me into a rugby chair and had me hit somebody, and I was like, “Whoa! That’s an adrenaline rush I haven’t had in a while! How do I get that again?” As somebody with a quadriplegic function level, it’s difficult to feel free. It’s difficult to feel like you’re able to be as aggressive as you want, to be able to do the things you used to do and be empowered. Wheelchair rugby has given that back to me.
ABILITY: Will you try out for the Paralympics?
Behrend: I’ll try to. This is my second season now, so eventually, I’m hoping to be the first or second female on the Olympic rugby team.
ABILITY: I never thought about male-female when it came to rugby.
Behrend: The sport is four percent female.
ABILITY: So you said you’d be the second—
Behrend: I want to be the first or the second. There’s a girl who’s really close to making it, and I really, really hope she makes it.
ABILITY: Oh, not first and second in the sport, but in getting onto the team?
Behrend: For the country. We’ve never had a female on the Paralympic team.
ABILITY: Oh, that is what you were saying. But there are other females on other teams around the world?
Behrend: Yes. Australia has a female, and I believe Japan, Canada, and Britain each have one. I don’t know who else. But I know there are quite a few females playing.
ABILITY: What did you do in the Air Force?
Behrend: I was a communications signals intelligence analyst.
ABILITY: You had high-level clearance?
Behrend: (laughs) That’s literally all I can tell you.
ABILITY: Can you talk about how you got involved with the rally.
Behrend: It’s a really long, funny story. This guy broke up with me because, you know, things—
Behrend: Yeah, life. People aren’t always okay with the chair and whatever. So this guy broke up with me, and my friend was like, “Hey, let’s go mudding.”
ABILITY: Wait, what, mudding?
Behrend: Mudding. We took some ATVs out and we went mudding out at this park in Texas. We got really stuck. I was waist-deep in mud. If I had gotten out of the buggy, I would have been swimming to get out. So I took a really dumb video and I put it up on my Instagram, and my rally partner, Rachael Ridenour, saw it. She had been following the #adaptiveathlete for a little while. They had known that they wanted to find an adaptive athlete to do this race. And when she saw a sarcastic video of a quadriplegic stuck in mud, literally can’t get out to do anything, just making the best of it, she said, “That’s who I want my next partner to be.”
Behrend: (laughs) I don’t know how. That’s literally what happened.
ABILITY: So she was already doing rallies?
Behrend: This is her fourth. She’s an original Rebelle. She has done the rally every single year.
ABILITY: How was it with modifying the vehicle?
Behrend: It was awesome! A nonprofit called Control The Road stepped in and helped us find a person in California, where the Mitsubishi was, who would install hand controls and do all of that. I flew out on the first of October, a couple weeks ago, and same-day install. They hooked it up and made sure that everything was in there properly and made it so that it would be safe for the rally. It was all off-road, and the wear and tear on hand controls is kind of hard. They really did a great job.
ABILITY: And so far it’s held up?
Behrend: We haven’t had a single issue. Knock on wood. It’s been awesome.
ABILITY: Let’s go back a bit. Tell me how the rally works and the rules It’s all women in the rally? There’s a whole story behind that.
Behrend: Sure. The Rebelle Rally is an all-female navigation rally. There is no GPS allowed. It’s straight compass and map navigation with lat-long coordinates you’re given. Sometimes you’re not even given coordinates, you’re given a degree from a certain point and you have to do all of the math and triangulate a specific meter point on the train you’re on.
ABILITY: All in longhand?
Behrend: Oh, yeah. Everything is compass, map, ruler—you’re literally calculating where on the map you are and then using terrain associations and headings to find where you are. You then click a tracker to click in and get your points.
ABILITY: If you get to a point early, do you get points taken away?
Behrend: It depends on what part of the rally you’re on. For the timed enduros, yes, you would get points taken away on that specific event. But during the checkpoints, you have a certain close-out time, and you have to hit your tracker on that point before that close-out time. Today we had some pretty aggressive close-out times. We had three points that closed within an hour and a half, five that closed within three hours, four that closed within seven, two within nine, two within ten, and four within eleven. You have to use time management throughout your whole day with everything and trying to think ahead of the terrain so that you can get where you need to be in time.
ABILITY: Do you have any idea other than knowing that you’re coming—did you even know you were coming to the end?
Behrend: I did know because it is traditionally the last day of the rally.
ABILITY: Other than that, do you know what type of terrain that you’re going to hit? Do you know if you’ll be in a rocky, muddy or sandy area?
Behrend: No, you have no idea where you are. They do a really, really good job of keeping it fair and making sure nobody has any idea of where we’ll be so no one can go and do their homework. On the morning the race starts, they’ll give you a piece of paper with your lat and long coordinates, your azimuths, whatever you need; and they’ll hand it to you two hours before you start. You have to clock all of these points on the map and plan a route and find the washes, these weird little roads. You have to literally read the map and figure out where you have to go.
ABILITY: Are you all doing the same thing, and that way you follow tracks?
Behrend: No. There are a few different routes. They make it so you can’t team up and—
ABILITY: —follow somebody?
Behrend: Yeah. You can’t do that.
ABILITY: So everyone’s on their own?
Behrend: For the most part everybody has their own stuff. We do collaborate when we have the chance, just because the whole point of the rally is female empowerment and empowering each other and making sure that we are able to accomplish our goals together. We’re not going to leave somebody behind, but we’re also not going to give them the answers. We make sure they do the work.
ABILITY: And there are different classes, different types of vehicles?
Behrend: There are two classes. There’s the 4×4 class. They have the different gears for control. We’re in the crossover class. We’re taking a normal stock street vehicle and—
ABILITY: Is that what “crossover” means?
Behrend: Yeah. It’s a straight street car, something you normally wouldn’t taking off-roading, and we take it off-road and race it.
ABILITY: What are you driving?
Behrend: We’re in a 2017 Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross.
ABILITY: What size engine?
Behrend: It’s 1.7 or 1.6, I believe.
ABILITY: So it’s four-wheel, automatic?
Behrend: This one is all-wheel drive, smart all-wheel control. There are three settings. One is auto, for your regular ground. One is gravel, for anything slippery. Rough terrain is rock. And then you have your snow setting for wet terrain—water and ice.
ABILITY: When you’re in the really sandy condition like the dunes, what do you use?
Behrend: It depends on what we’re doing. If we’re riding the dunes, I’d probably keep it on snow. But if we’re going to try to get ourselves unstuck, we’d stick it in gravel, just to get a little more torque on the wheels.
ABILITY: And what will you be doing with air pressure?
Behrend: We drop it down to 13. We have some really awesome tires and wheels on the Mitsubishi. We have Vision off-road wheels and BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires that we’re running, and they have been fantastic. We’ve had multiple competitors pop tire after tire after tire and we haven’t.
ABILITY: Is that because you’re shooting their tires out? (laughs)
Behrend: No. That’s because I’m picking my lines and my tires are amazing.
ABILITY: That’s really cool. So you had some prior driving experience in the sense of doing this type of race, or is this brand-new to you?
Behrend: It’s a mix of both. I’ve done off-roading, that’s normally just the cars that I run. You just take them off-road if you can. But other than that, I haven’t had a whole lot of actual off-road racing experience. This is my first off-road race.
ABILITY: Tell me about the chair you’re using. Do you know the history of these things?
Behrend: I’m in the GRIT Freedom Chair. I love this thing. It uses a bike—a ratcheting system so you can propel yourself forward through really rocky, rough terrain. I can get up over hills and embankments and stuff like that without—
ABILITY: Using your upper body muscles?
Behrend: Exactly. You just do kind of a push-up motion and it propels you forward.
ABILITY: Do you know its history and who invented it?
Behrend: I do not. I could find out.
ABILITY: They were PhD students who came out of MIT. We did a story on them. They went to Africa to test off-roading.
Behrend: I’m testing this for off-road stuff for them too, like where the best mounting points would be and what we need to do to keep it stable and safe. We strapped it down wrong, and the weight of off-roading and bouncing it around bent some things. We got that fixed, and we’ve figured out how to keep it stable.
ABILITY: I think they chose Kenya. They wanted to make something like this that had torque and to go off-road on terrain, but also be able to have materials that could be fixed in a bicycle shop.
Behrend: Exactly. Which is perfect. A lot of us don’t have many options for wheelchair repair either, so even just having the option of going to a bike shop for this rally for one of my tires—we didn’t have tubes or anything, we’d be in trouble.
ABILITY: I was surprised to see you in this chair. I think it’s a great idea.
Behrend: I love it. It’s a little rough.
ABILITY: You have to have some body conditioning.
Behrend: You do have to be in condition, but that’s true of anything you’re doing. It’s not something you just jump into. It’s something you need to work on.
ABILITY: Where do you live?
Behrend: I live in Houston, Texas.
ABILITY: So most of your time is spent doing sports now?
Behrend: Yeah, and the Wounded Warrior Games. Anything I can get my hands on I try to do.
ABILITY: Tell me about some of the tattoos. You mentioned an owl earlier.
Behrend: I have a bunch of tattoos. This is one actually about my disease.
ABILITY: Tell me about the disease.
Behrend: It’s called reflux sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). It’s a malfunction between your brain and your limbs that causes the signals to be messed up, I guess. Normally it just causes a lot of pain. For some reason it paralyzed me. We’re not really sure why, but here we are.
ABILITY: That tattoo is an image is what?
Behrend: It’s a ribbon of fire. That’s normally what you feel with RSD; you feel like you’re on fire. The original ribbon is this orange ribbon with a fist with flames coming out of it. I had it made more personal to me.
ABILITY: The owl you were mentioning, for wisdom?
Behrend: Yeah, I have an owl on my arm to remind me to listen to the wisdom of those who have come before me.
ABILITY: What other ones do you have?
Behrend: Those are two of my buddies who passed away. The nickname for my disease is the “suicide disease.”
ABILITY: I didn’t know that. I’ve heard of the disease, but I’ve never heard the nickname.
Behrend: Yeah. The last study I read said that four out of five people end up taking their life. That’s something I try to fight against.
ABILITY: Is that partly—
Behrend: —the pain.
ABILITY: —also connected to depression?
Behrend: Probably. Any major change in your life that takes away something you thought you were going to do can cause depression and anxiety. I can see how that would drive people to that. Unfortunately, it’s a really rough road. But it’s a disease that’s not very well known. There’s barely any research going into it. There’s no treatment. What else am I supposed to do? I chose sports. Other people, unfortunately, haven’t gone that way.
ABILITY: They need an owl on their arm. Any other tattoos?
Behrend: I have a tattoo on my ankle that says, “I heard you care about me.” My little brother is autistic and he was in Hawaii and he wrote a note on the window of the car hoping I would see it. My mom put a piece of paper up to it and took a picture of it and sent it to me and I went and got it tattooed on me. (laughs) It’s his handwriting.
ABILITY: Did he get to see it?
Behrend: Oh, yeah.
ABILITY: Does he understand it’s his handwriting?
Behrend: Yeah. He’s high-functioning. He’s ridiculously smart. He’s just a little socially awkward. He loves it. He thinks it’s the coolest thing ever.
ABILITY: That’s great.
Behrend: Thank you. And on my ribs, it says in French “Into your own life you bring the sunshine.” It’s to remind me to bring my own light to life.