On March 4, Dr. Bryon Solberg is aiming for a personal best when he competes in the 2nd annual Encinitas Half Marathon.
The 56-year-old physician hopes to complete the 13.1-mile course on a handcycle, less than 24 hours after finishing his first 100K foot race in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
That's a push for any athlete, but it's remarkable for a man who has defied all odds by simply surviving this long.
Solberg was born without a support bone in his upper neck called an odontoid. The toothlike bone keeps the C1 and C2 vertebrae from sliding apart and crushing the spine.
Most babies born without an odontoid die simply turning their head. The majority of the rest die in falls as toddlers. A precious few have survived into adulthood but suffer catastrophic events that end in death or quadriplegia.
Solberg is believed to be the nation's oldest survivor of this rare condition.
After his diagnosis on Valentine's Day 2000, Solberg was forced to close his anesthesiology practice. He moved his family to San Diego in 2001 so they could be close to family if he died. Then he retreated into a depression.
That changed in November 2002, when a friend from Challenged Athletes Foundation took him to see its annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge.
"They rolled me on to the course, and I saw all these people without arms and legs and I thought, 'What's my excuse?' I don't have an excuse. That's when I went from 'Why me?' to 'What's next?" he said.
The next morning, Solberg went back to La Jolla alone with the race course map and walked the entire half-marathon portion using two canes. It took him nearly eight hours, but it was an exhilarating accomplishment for a man who was expecting to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Bob Babbitt, the co-founder of Challenged Athletes Foundation, said he often meets people like Solberg when they're at their lowest ebb.
"Then we have the wonderful opportunity to witness that transformation go off and see them set and achieve their goals," Babbitt said. "I think for Bryon, knowing that he should be dead or a quad, has pushed him to get the most out of every single day. He's the best at making lemonade out of whatever he's dealt with a smile on his face."
In the years since, Solberg has completed 100 marathons on foot, more than a third of them in just the past year. Using canes and braces, he has developed a smooth racing style that alternates between walking and a fast shuffle. His fastest marathon time was under five hours.
He has done the Boston Marathon five times, several Rock 'n' Roll Marathons and the Chicago Marathon. But his favorite is the Carlsbad Marathon, where he ticked off his 100th finish on Jan. 14.
Solberg was born and raised in San Diego, but he spent summers milking cows on a family farm in North Dakota. He also spent part of his youth in northern California.
As a boy, he often had unexplained aches in his shoulders and neck. He couldn't swim a crawl stroke, and he had to give up playing the violin in grade school due to neck pain. Miraculously, he avoided catastrophe while playing football in high school.
In 1999, he was 38, running a successful medical practice in Corvallis, Oregon, and was in training for a 600-mile bike ride. Then he started losing hand dexterity and coordination and began dropping his instruments.
Over the next nine months, he visited a series of specialists who examined him for multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and cerebellar degeneration. Finally, an X-ray showed the gap where his odontoid should be and the C1 and C2 vertebrae twisting apart.
Two weeks later, he had the first of two risky surgeries that restabilized the two fragile bones with titanium brackets, pins and wire. The surgeries and resulting spinal shock caused permanent injuries, including tremors and limited mobility in his hands and up to a 90 percent loss of strength in his arms and legs.
Although he could no longer practice anesthesiology, Solberg found a new career in San Diego teaching medicine and doing medical and legal consulting.
He became an active volunteer for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Babbitt says Solberg is "part of the family, writing thank you letters and doing anything and everything he can to spread the message."
And 17 years ago, Solberg became a Scoutmaster for his two sons, Josh and Garrett (who are now 25 and 21, respectively). His work with Boy Scouts Troop No. 301 earned him an Outstanding Eagle Scout national award in 2017 and the San Diego-Imperial Council's 2015 Scoutmaster of the Year award.
Solberg and his wife, Bernadette, live in Scripps Ranch, where he tries to exercise daily, most often at Lake Miramar.
Lately, he's been training hard on the handcycle for the Encinitas Half Marathon, which is expected to draw 5,000 participants for a course that begins at Moonlight Beach. The race is a fundraiser for the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, which does ocean conservation work and provides improved ocean access to the disabled.
He decided to do the Encinitas race on the handcycle because he thinks his legs will be too tired after the 100K trail race in Cuyamaca March 2 and 3. If he's successful at accomplishing this feat, Solberg said his next goal will be a 100-mile race.
While he feels that racing is making his body stronger, age is beginning to take its toll, so he's not sure where his limits might be.
He says he keeps a positive attitude by reciting every day what he calls his "five Gs": gratitude, getting outside, giving back, believing in God and "Gu." That's the brand name for a quick-absorbing energy gel used by runners, but Solberg said it also represents the "goo," or problems, that we all face.
"There's bad stuff in life," he said. "Everyone has to deal with it. You can't let it beat you down."