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Chris Stafford Redefines Resilience on the Empire State Trail

Chris Stafford Redefines Resilience on the Empire State Trail

Written by Beth Rasin | Photos courtesy of Chris Stafford

Rush hour was approaching when Chris Stafford and Marci Kornegay caught their first sight of the Manhattan skyline. They were biking beside the Hudson River, on their 11th day of pedaling, and they’d nearly reached their destination at the southern terminus of New York’s Empire State Trail. But for Stafford, of Middleburg, Virginia, the journey began more than three decades earlier. 

At the age of 19, Stafford had hip surgery to address the first of numerous catastrophic injuries incurred while riding horses in her native England. 

“I was hospitalized for extended periods of time and had to stop doing all the sports I loved,” she says.

She went on to herniate three discs, required four surgeries on her knee and an eventual knee replacement, suffered a broken neck and three concussions involving hospitalization, tore both rotator cuffs, and broke an ankle.

“I lost 30 years when I couldn’t get on a horse or a bike,” she says.

But about 10 years ago, a friend recommended she try Pilates. “It changed my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here without it.”

After a year of Pilates classes she experienced a breakthrough. “My back finally let me do [a move I’ve been working toward],” she says. “It’s like it said that it wasn’t going to let me down again; all this work was going to pay off. My body was strong enough to support me now.”

That milestone not only allowed her to return to the sports she loved, it also gave her back her identity as an athlete. 

Now, she works with trainer Juliet Hagan — practicing boxing, core work, TRX, and resistance training — to prepare for adventures like her bike journey. Stafford, who also does the Middleburg podcast, met Kornegay via WISP, her podcast about women in sports. Kornegay, a golf coach and endurance athlete, has solo hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.

“I would trust her with my life,” says Stafford. “She’s intrepid, brave, courageous.”

With Kornegay, who is based in New Jersey, Stafford completed 450 miles of the Potomac Heritage Trail last spring.

This year, they embarked on the Empire State Trail, which runs from Buffalo to Albany, down the Hudson Valley and into Battery Park in New York City. Adding a detour to Niagara Falls, the journey would be 11 days and more than 650 miles.

She had to overcome her fear of heights to cross the nearly 1.5-mile Kingston Rhinecliff Bridge, more than 150 feet above the Hudson River, and endured plenty of rain and cold during the first week.

Stafford says the experience taught her how to stay in the moment. “You don’t look at where you’re going to be; right now you’re here,” she says. “Like any big adventure, it teaches you about yourself, about your mental strength and basic survival. It simplifies life so much.

“When you’re on the bike, you’re going somewhere you’ve never been, and you literally don’t know what’s around the corner,” she adds. “You don’t know until you get to that bridge or mountain; it’s a slow, steady climb, and you don’t know where it’s ending. These are real messages for life. It was a really satisfying achievement.” 

Back home in June, she used her training rides, on gravel roads outside of town, to log 100 miles, raising money for The Middleburg Museum. Last year she raised more than $2,000 for Ukrainian refugees.

As she approaches her 72nd birthday, Stafford wants people to realize they don’t need to give in to the aging process. “If you have the mindset, if you’re driven in some way, you’ve got to have a certain mental strength, and I’ve always been stubborn. You don’t need to lose the strength, but you have to put the work in.” ML

Posted on: July 3, 2023

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