On the scale where you have a “couch potato” on the one end and Usain Bolt on the other, I am closer to the “couch potato”. Being in a wheelchair means that I can only use my upper body to exercise and there have not been many physical activities other than swimming that I was attracted to do. And then it all changed.
In 2012, I went to several London Olympics and Paralympics events. I was inspired by the courage, resilience and determination of the athletes who persevered, in spite of many challenges, to compete at the highest level. But it was not all about winning the medals - in fact, my favourite athletes were those who showed the spectators that taking part and doing your best is all that counts.
You too can do something extraordinary
Three years later, it was my turn to give it my best shot. At a friend’s birthday party where I met an American lady who told me about a Nike half-marathon in San Francisco. Not the easiest half-marathon in the world due to the many hills, but probably one of the most attractive ones for ladies, as the medal is not the usual chunky piece of metal on a ribbon you put away in a drawer, but a specially designed Tiffany’s necklace. This special medal combined with my admiration for athletes and desire to raise money for a cancer charity motivated me to sign up for my first half-marathon.
I would lie if I said this was easy. I was using my personal wheelchair, not a special racing one. This posed a number of challenges, especially going up hills and on uneven surfaces. The rain was also a problem, as it’s much harder to control the wheels when they are wet. Moreover, I had never even been to the gym, so did not know how to pace the training and did not know anything about warming up and cooling down. Fortunately, there is Google and I also had a running buddy - my friend’s twenty-year son (it was also his first half-marathon, so this was pretty much the case of “the blind leading the blind”).
After 6 months of perseverance and doing longer and longer wheelchair runs, I was ready for the big day. And it was not at all what I was expecting. It was much harder to keep a steady pace when running with a crowd. I had to be very careful when overtaking others so I would not accidentally injure them. Weaving between people meant that I actually covered a longer distance than the required 13.1 miles. Going up hills was difficult and going down hills was not easy either because I had to break really hard so as not to hit other runners. My running buddy helped me negotiate some of the steeper hills, but I pushed the wheels all the way to the finish line. Mile 9 was the hardest as I was getting very tired and was facing a mile long incline. What got me through this particularly challenging bit was focusing on the finish line and not thinking of having to negotiate this enormous hill. And before I knew it, the half-marathon was over. I did it! It was the hardest physical thing I have ever done, but I managed to get to the finish line in one piece, running alongside able-bodied runners. And I wasn’t last! The Tiffany’s necklace presented by firemen in Armani suits was just the icing on the cake!
Don't give up
Again, there was a one mile long hill (not as steep as the one in San Francisco, to be fair!), but this was not the biggest problem. The last two miles turned out to be an obstacle course as I had to go over soft mats covering a cobbled street and then negotiate tree branches, sand and gravel in the park. Several of my friends had cancer and I did a lot of fundraising for Macmillan for this half-marathon. So when I got to the hard part of the half-marathon, instead of focusing on the hardship, I thought of how much I would like to finish the half-marathon, so I could make my sponsors proud. And it was pretty much the case of let’s do another spin of the wheels and then another and another. I will never forget the elation of reaching the finish line. I immediately signed up for my next half-marathon, but chose one that would definitely be on a flat, even surface - Las Vegas!
It's never as hard as you think
The following year was very challenging for me as I had a couple operations on my elbows. I had signed up for the Las Vegas half-marathon before I had health issues, but I was determined to go ahead no matter what. My surgeon told me not to do any training t September. The half-marathon was in November. Needless to say, this did not leave me a lot of time for training. My determination got me through and by the end of October, I was ready for my next challenge. And then several days before flying out to Las Vegas, I contracted an inner ear infection which affected my balance, made me very light headed and generally unwell. I insisted on going ahead with the trip and before I knew it, once again, I was at the start line. This time surrounded by loud music, flashing lights and a massive crowd of spectators (not great when you have an inner ear infection!).
I loved the experience of running on the Las Vegas strip (the only time it’s closed to the traffic), but the ear infection made me very ill and there were many times, I wanted to stop and go back to the hotel. But I didn’t. My thoughts telling me to stop were just my thoughts, so instead of listening to them, I focused on being present in the moment, on spinning the wheels again and again and again. The finish line could not come soon enough! Yet again, I did it, in spite of all odds!
Stay focused on the right thing
A year ago, I found myself in Amsterdam at my fourth half-marathon. Again, I was told that Amsterdam would be flat, but my wheelchair thought otherwise and there were a few times when the wheelchair and I struggled. When I focused on the pain in my arms, the pain increased, when I focused on spinning the wheels again and again and again, the pain was not so noticeable, so needless to say, I focused on what I had to do to get to the finish line, not the pain and discomfort. And eventually, I reached the finish line and was surrounded by friends who came to support me.
Due to problems with my right wrist, I may not be able to do another half-marathon. But I will definitely give myself another challenge. The half-marathons showed me that I have what it takes to get to the finish line in spite of any obstacles that are in my way.