LEWISTON — Imagine hiking roughly 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine.
Now imagine accomplishing that same journey with a prosthetic leg. That’s exactly what “Bionic Woman” Niki Rellon is attempting to do in her quest to be the first female amputee to complete a solo trek of the Appalachian Trail.
If she does, she’ll have a Lewiston orthotics and prosthetics company to credit for quickly getting her back on the trail after unforeseen problems threatened her quest.
Originally from Germany, but now having dual citizenship, Rellon had built herself quite the resume before the Appalachian Trail called her. She was a professional boxer in Germany for some time, a ski instructor and part of a ski patrol team in Colorado. Trained as a paramedic, a chef and a triathlete, she also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans roughly 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, and took part in cross-country bicycle trips.
But Rellon accomplished all those challenges with two working legs.
Everything changed one day in November 2013 when she suffered a gruesome injury while rappelling down the side of Montezuma Canyon in Utah.
“It was a 100 feet rappel. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out. I was excited,” Rellon said.
“I clicked in (the harness) and I started going down super fast. I came 60 feet down and pulled the rope to come to a complete stop, to go slowly, like a controlled weight. As soon as I tried to let go a little, I heard a funny clicking sound. I screamed. Then I noticed I was free falling — like a skydiver without a parachute.”
She fell 40 feet, severely fracturing her pelvis, sternum and ribs on impact. Her lower left leg and foot shattered.
“The devil was too afraid to (take) me down under,” she said.
Because of the severe damage, her lower left leg was amputated.
Rellon returned to Germany, relying on medications and extensive physical therapy in the months that followed.
“I was living with my parents during this process and was on so many different pills I was starting to become depressed, so I knew I had to do something else. I’m too active a person and that’s just not how I wanted to live. Just so many pills.”
She came up with her own recovery plan, against the wishes and advice of her parents and doctors: Hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I had to get my leg strength back to about 40 percent before I was going to do any of the hiking, but once I did, I knew what I had to do.”
She is now attempting to be the first female amputee to hike the entire Appalachian Trail on her own.
She started in Georgia on March 9, but soon realized she would not be able to reach Maine’s Mount Katahdin before the trail was closed for the winter.
Although a fellow hiker gave her the trail name “Bionic Woman” and it stuck, Rellon was frustrated by her early pace — about 7 miles a day — and even now still jokingly calls herself “The Trail Snail.” She currently has a pace of 12 to 15 miles a day.
Given her slow progress early in the journey, she decided to “flip-flop” the hike: Come up to Maine and hike the rest of the trip north to south, ending where she left off in Virginia.
She started hiking Mount Katahdin on June 29, but after finishing that section and hiking the section to Andover, she realized the 25 pounds she lost during her trek meant her prosthetic leg was no longer fitting properly and she couldn’t go on.
That’s where orthotist Jami Morton, who works for Sound Limbs Orthotics & Prosthetics in Lewiston, came in.
Morton had hiked part of the trail last year, but the outing was cut short due to an injury. Even though she couldn’t hike it this year, she decided to follow the “Class of 2015 hikers” — which just happened to include Rellon — on social media.
It was there Morton found out that Rellon was in need of a new prosthesis; Rellon had just posted on Facebook that she was going to have to interrupt her journey to fly to Colorado for a new prosthesis.
Morton reached out to Rellon and offered her services. Sound Limbs owners Elizabeth and Roger Park agreed to sponsor a new prosthesis for Rellon.
On Monday, Rellon was fitted for and received her new prosthesis at Sound Limbs. As part of the procedure, WillowWood, an Ohio-based company specializing in prosthetic and orthotic products, gave Rellon a state-of-the-art liner for her stump to more comfortably fit the prosthesis. Meanwhile, another company, Boa Technology, provided her with a device called Click Medical, which creates a better closure and adjustment system for the prosthetic.
Rellon acknowledged Monday that such donations of products, services and money by a host of people and companies are what have allowed her to make her trek.
After a more than two-week break, Rellon said she is planning to be back on the trail Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. With about half of the trail behind her, she expects to finish in late October.
Asked if walking the Appalachian Trail is helping her recovery process as she had hoped, she responded, “Absolutely. I still can’t think of anything that would be better for myself in his process. I started out at 40 percent leg strength from what I once was, and I’m already up to 65 percent. And I’m a whole lot happier than I was back at home just sitting around doing PT.”
She will restart her hike in Andover, take on Mahoosuc Notch and then head into the White Mountains. Her final destination will be in Virginia, when she will be able to say she has met her goals.
After that, Rellon has already made some tentative plans for herself, including returning to ski instruction, becoming an adaptive ski instructor and competing on an adaptive snowboard team in Colorado.
But for now, Rellon said, “It’s all about the journey. Of course I’ll be happy once I’ve finished up, but I am enjoying myself along the way. The journey itself is more important than the actual destination, especially when it’s a form of recovery.”