Pain, Press & Going Fast

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Pain, Press & Going Fast

It’s been a long time since my last blog. While I started writing a number of times, it was nothing I wanted to post. I’ve been very preoccupied trying to manage my neuropathic pain and I didn’t want to depress anyone with where my head was at. I’m having a bad year (I think it’s the unsettled weather and decrease in training), but I’m trying hard to stay positive. These past couple of weeks at the cottage have been better.

A few months ago a doctor of mine who specializes in neuroplasticity recommended a book called Dissolving Pain, by Dr. Les Fehmi. I eagerly read it and put the guidance into practice. It’s essentially guided meditation that I did every day for over a month. I was hopeful that my next blog post would be “I’ve figured out this nerve pain”, but unfortunately, it hasn’t helped. Feeling like I’ve exhausted all of the alternatives, I finally made the decision to try medicinal cannabis. After meeting with my GP and a doctor specializing in medicinal marijuana, two different kinds of cannabis oils that I can ingest were prescribed.

It’s been 6 weeks and I’ve tried the daytime and nighttime oils at increasing dosages, but so far the most significant effects of this medicine is a guaranteed evacuation of my bowels, and the last time I up’d the dosage, blurred vision and a headache the following day.  The blurred vision was so worrisome that I actually looked up the symptoms of having a stroke.  This is not the outcome I was hoping for.  I know there are many strains of cannabis and I’ll have to experiment. But I’m only able to do so when my pain levels are significant and my schedule is free. I can’t try a medicine if I need to drive somewhere or meet with someone that day, so it limits the opportunities. Wish me luck as I try to figure this out.

While all the press is great, this is even better...  The last boys' weekend they surprised me with RockTheChair shirts.  I love these guys  :)

On to some exciting news. Working with a long-time colleague and friend, Sharon Lassman (PR expert and founder of Purpose Ink http://purposeink.com/), I finally got added to a premier speakers’ bureau.  Keynote Speakers Canada will be recommending me for corporations and organizations looking for an inspiring keynote speaker. I’m very excited and look forward to getting in front of some new audiences. 

In terms of press, it’s been a few busy months (also thanks to Sharon). In February, Brandie Weikle, host of The New Family, interviewed me for a Pod Cast. . In June, Toronto Life shared my story, and just before the August long-weekend, Today’s Parent (with 2.5 million twitter followers) focused on how my expectations and experiences of parenting changed after my accident.  Last week, Mark Sutcliffe from 1310 NEWS in Ottawa interviewed me for his radio program, and yesterday, Susan Hay ran the interview we did a couple of weeks ago for Global News

I assume that friends and family are tired of hearing my story. I understand -- I’m actually a little tired of it too. However, the idea of inspiring someone new to be more active and appreciative really does excite me. I want the world to value the abilities they have, and then to use them. Time doesn’t lessen my difficulty encountering people who are too lazy to go for a walk and would rather complain about little things that aren’t perfect. The idea of going for a walk on the beach or through the forest with my girls, throwing my leg over a motorcycle, or even something as simple as walking onto a boat, makes me miss the ability to walk and the ease with which I used to do those things. But I try not to dwell on it, and rather focus on what I can still do.  Oh… funny story.  You should have seen me cutting sheets of plywood with a skill saw the other day. I had to stop every 3 feet to move my chair forward and put the brakes back on, but with a little help from my girls I did it!

It's been 6 years since I last raced around Calabogie. I was scared and slow to start, but by the end of the day the pace started picking up. My good friend, Glenn, made it possible -- thanks buddy!

One last positive update to leave you with. Now that I’m not training for an Ironman, I’ve made a point of getting to the race track this year.  So far I’ve gotten out for one track day in my car and two on my motorbike. Just enough speed, danger, fear and exhilaration to feel alive. The track is still my happy place. Before the season is out I’m hoping to get in a few ATV days in my side by side and maybe another motorcycle track day.  Lots of other stuff on the go though, but that will be discussed in my next blog.  Till then, take care (and go for a walk or a roll).  :) Thanks for reading!  Rob

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The Tat

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The Tat

It’s really tempting to go into some ‘deep-thoughts’ writing on the inspiration and significance of my tattoo, but the truth is really simple. I wanted to permanently record for myself a reminder of what I can accomplish, and the incredible experience of Hawaii with my girls and racing the Ironman World Championships. If others like it, that’s great. If not, that’s totally fine too. This is for me, but I’m happy to share with those who are interested in the ink.

If you google “m-dot ironman tattoo” you’ll see all sorts of different versions of the m-dot that athletes have created. After completing the Ironman in Louisville in 2013 I thought about getting the tat, but couldn’t come to terms with branding my body exclusively with a corporate trademark image (regardless of what it signified). The road to Kona however, was so difficult to navigate, that once we got there and began to experience the people, culture, history, island, and overall mystique of the World Championships, I fell in love with all of it. Seeing and learning about the Polynesian (Samoan and Maori) tattoos and their meanings (http://www.apolynesiantattoo.com/) opened my mind up to doing a little something more.

In my discussions with the artist I started with the idea of an armband, within which the M-dot could be centred. After around 6 hours of design, with all of the elements I wanted to cram into my little armband, I ended up with half a sleeve. In the M-dot, you can see the swim, handcycle and racing chair (my swim, bike, run). Around the M-dot there is a Manta Ray, Turtle and Shark. We did a night swim with Manta Rays, swam with sea turtles at the neighbourhood beach, and got in the ocean with the dolphins. We didn’t swim with the sharks, but they are undoubtedly cooler than dolphins so I was totally fine with the artistic license in design. Also within the tattoo are the initials for Sabrina, Chloe and Zara, and the number 16.

Many people have asked if it hurt. While it was definitely uncomfortable, it was actually empowering to know that I was in control of this experience. My nerve pain has been especially bad the last couple of months, so I figured that if I’m going to be experiencing pain, I might as well have something cool to show for it.  

Thanks to my girls for their design input, and my good friends Leah and Carole, and sister, Doralyn, who all have very beautiful ink going on and gave me great advice and the needed encouragement to take the plunge.

rob

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Commitments... Balance... Whatever...

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Commitments... Balance... Whatever...

It’s been just over 4 months since completing the Ironman in Hawaii. Coming down from two of the most special weeks of my life could be a recipe for disaster, but fortunately I had a number of strategies on hand to keep me distracted while I recovered and set the next batch of goals.

The acknowledgment and congratulations from everyone helped ease the return to normal and the Kona celebration on November 8th was amazing. Thanks again to Corinne, Pete and Sabrina for organizing the night and to everyone who hauled ass to Oakville or sent me their congratulations.

It took me a couple of months to start feeling like myself again, and three full months for my bicep tendons to stop screaming at me, but I’m happy to report that the stress of racing Kona didn’t result in a permanent injury.

Back home from Hawaii to start my recovery, I now had over 20+ hours of ‘free time’ every week.  This is a mixed blessing. Knowing I can commit to some new challenges is exciting. The challenge is to not bite off more than I can chew. When I’m feeling well, I tend to forget that my first job is always going to be dealing with the shitty realities of a spinal cord injury. The mistake I keep making though, is taking on too many things when I’m feeling good. Commitments that when they ramp up and become stressful, ignite my neuropathic pain and make even the simplest tasks, like sleeping, extremely difficult. The less my life is simple and balanced, the greater the odds and degrees of pain I experience. It’s a real bitch, especially when I love the thrill and challenge of something complex and extremely demanding.

My internal dialogue that debates the merit of accepting new goals typically ends with my type A Personality delivering the knockout punch. After some back and forth, invariably the last thought goes something like... “Fuck it!  You’re 46 and have the potential to do some worthwhile shit… get busy and figure out the pain later.” Perhaps I need to include Sabrina more often in these dialogues.

Whenever I commit to doing something I put a lot of pressure on myself to follow through, and do it as well as I can. There’s no doubt I shouldn’t be quite so serious about everything, but because this approach has served me well all my life, it’s a tough thing to change.

Here are a few things that I’ve put on my plate for 2017. I’ll blog about the highlights throughout the year.

First off, even if I’m not doing a full Ironman this year, I learned over the last few years that if I don’t stay fit, my body seizes up and I feel like shit. So, in an effort to dial things back a little, I’ve decided to focus on racing two Olympic distance triathlons and potentially a Half Ironman in September. An Olympic distance triathlon (1.5k swim / 40 bike / 10 run) is the first triathlon distance I ever raced, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how much I’ve improved since 2010, and also being able to race with fellow LPC athletes and a few close friends who are taking up tri. The bonus is that I should be able to get by with around 10 hours of training a week, and I should be able to participate in a couple of handcycle races this year as well.

Wasaga Olympic Triathlon, September 2010. My first tri!  Not sure if I 'rocked the chair', but I certainly had fun chasing down Peter Carson on the run.

Wasaga Olympic Triathlon, September 2010. My first tri!  Not sure if I 'rocked the chair', but I certainly had fun chasing down Peter Carson on the run.

The second thing I’ve committed to working on, is growing my motivational speaking career. I’m always happy to share my story in the hopes that I can inspire someone to get outside and use whatever abilities they have, and if I can bring in some income in the process, it’s a win-win. This past Fall I spent an afternoon with students from the Chiropractic College, and more recently I enjoyed connecting with some of Oakville’s finest, keynoting an Oakville Rotarians awards dinner. In March I’ll be opening up for Dr. Vonda Wright, and the keynote, Peter Diamandis at a YPO (www.YPO.org) event in California. Here’s a link to a video about the event https://player.vimeo.com/video/197642250 .  This is a big deal and I’m very excited (thanks to Amir for the invitation). I’ve also been working with a couple of friends/colleagues to break into the Canadian Speaker Bureaus. It’s a tough nut to crack, but I’m hopeful to be listed by at least two of the big firms by the summer.

The third thing that I’ve been investing my time in, is a Director position on the Board of Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, formally known as the CPA (Canadian Paraplegic Association). SCI Ontario played a big role in my recovery when I broke my back in 2008, and I’m hoping to add some value to help grow this very important organization. www.sciontario.org.

The last big thing that I’m working to launch in the summer, is a national, non-profit mentoring association. There’s a great deal of work to be done, but the excitement that is building amongst colleagues, partners and my board of directors is electric. I can’t wait to share more about this with you in the near future. If this is something that is piquing your interest and you’d like to get involved before launch, please drop me a line and we’ll chat.

Tomorrow I’m loading up the Sequoia and venturing down to the States for 6 weeks. It’ll be a mix of family holiday, training, working and speaking. I’ve been grateful for the gentle winter in Ontario that we’ve had so far, but the opportunity to spend time in the sun is too good to turn down. Last year in Florida I had the greatest number of pain free days since my accident. It’s something about the sun and the climate that seems to calm my neuropathic pain. Hopefully this year will be even better.

So there you have it… my little update that once again was way too long for a blog post. But, if you’ve made it to the end, thanks for reading, and I’ll share with you one last commitment I’ve made since Hawaii.  I got the tat! Torn between wanting to get the Ironman M-Dot tattoo, and not wanting to brand myself only with a corporate trade-mark, I came up with the perfect solution (for me). Starting in December and just finishing this past Tuesday, over three visits and 15 hours, I got a half-sleeve tattoo of the customized M-Dot and mix of Polynesian symbols and hidden elements that mean the most to me, and that will serve as a reminder for the rest of my life of how lucky I am, and what I can accomplish.  It’s still healing, so I don’t have a great picture of the entire thing, but here’s a little snapshot.

Thanks everyone!
Rob

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Race Recap -- Ironman World Championships 2016

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Race Recap -- Ironman World Championships 2016

After 20 hours of travelling we arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii late on September 30th, giving us a week to organize and acclimatize before the race. Jason, one of the other wheelchair athletes, recommended the Keauhou Surf and Racquet Club, it’s around 15 minutes South of Kona just past the turn around on the run course. I think we found the last two bedroom with a view of the ocean that was close to Kona and wheelchair accessible enough.

During our first week we did a ‘swim with dolphins and snorkel’ charter and I dropped the girls off at Hapuna Beach one afternoon while I drove the bike course up to Hawi, but mostly we took it easy. Sabrina discovered a couple of different beaches with the girls while I assembled and tested my equipment and tried hard to rest and build my energy. On Wednesday I did a short practice swim at the pier, testing what it felt like in the salt water with my wetsuit jacket on, and with it off. It felt faster and cooler without it on, so I decided that’s how I would race. The condo doesn’t have air conditioning, just lots of fans. So with the average daily temperatures in the 30’s and feeling like the 40’s, we all embraced the heat as part of the experience.

Race Morning

Up at 3:10 we were all out the door by 4:20. Sabrina dropped the girls and me off near transition and went to park the car up Palani Road, away from those roads and intersections that would soon be closed. This way she and the girls could go back to the condo for a nap while I was out on the bike course. I dropped off my special needs bags and kissed Chloe and Zara goodbye at the entrance to body-marking. This opens at 4:45 and I was one of the first to be there. At the World Championships, everyone gets a temporary tattoo of their number. As I put my forearms out in front of me for the woman to apply the tats, I saw her Garmin watch and my heart sank.  FUCK!   I forgot my watch!   For those who don’t know, my watch doesn’t just tell the time, it also tells me how much power I’m putting into the handcycle, my current speed, the average power every 5km lap, the average speed, heart rate, etc. etc.   I need my watch to ensure I have the best race possible. I asked the volunteer if I could please use her phone to call Sabrina. She was more than happy to do whatever she could. She even offered me her watch for the race.  So while she applied my numbers I feverishly called Sabrina’s cell and my cell (Chloe had it).  No one answered!   It was so early in the morning, the phones were in their do not disturb modes.   NOOOO!   I tried texting and that didn’t work.   UGH.   Okay, take a deep breath and get to your bike. 

Once at my bike I started to get things ready. I was the first handcyclist there, so I put my equipment on the other side of the curtain to give myself a little more room. A guy I met a couple of nights ago at a Luau saw me and said hello. I asked to borrow his phone and started calling Sabrina again. I finally got through and told her what was up. Her race was now on. Chloe, Zara and Sabrina high-tailed it back to the truck on top of the hill and back to the condo to get my watch before the race started. Over the next 50 minutes I finished all the prep on my equipment, tried to focus on what was just about to happen, got my watch from Sabrina and wished fellow Canadian Lionel Sanders good luck.  It was about to happen.

SWIM  1:35:22

Boom went the cannon to start the race and the pro men were off. A few minutes later the pro women started. At 6:55 the age-group men began their day and the rest of us (PC – Physically Challenged, Handcyclists and age-group women) got in the water. At 7:10, my race was on.  Following the advice of many, I found a spot towards the left of the start line where I hoped that I could have a clean and uneventful swim (i.e. not being swam over, kicked or punched). The age-group women were great to swim with. Enough of them swam a similar pace to me, they swam straight, and I was able to follow their draft quite easily in the clear water.  This was the first time I’d ever swam 3.8km in the ocean and the experience was pretty good. The water was crystal clear so you could see everyone around you, including coral and the tropical fish. The water wasn’t as calm as I was hoping it would be, so you had to sight on top of the waves, but not so bad that you had trouble breathing. My coach Mark had me ready to expect this, so I was prepared.

I looked at my watch at the first turn and it read 41:41. I was happy with that and hoped that I’d be a little faster coming back. After the second turn and on the way back everyone around me seemed to be slowing a little and it was harder to sight the buoys and see the exit. I tried to pass a few people that I was swimming around, but they eventually caught me again, so I figured I’d tuck in behind them and save energy.  This resulted in a swim slightly slower than I hoped, but I was still feeling pretty fresh when they pulled me out of the water, and I was very jazzed that I had just completed the toughest swim of my life.

T1 5:24

My handlers were great. Bob and Jimmie had helped PC athletes over the last 13 years, including Alex Zanardi and Jason (who was racing today for his 5th Kona IM). They took me through the showers so I could wash the salt off my body and my tri-kit, and brought me to my day chair.  I took my time to towel off, re-apply sunscreen and body glide, get all my stuff on and sorted, and I was off.

BIKE: 8:15:19

I expected to start the bike in third or fourth position, so I wasn’t disappointed to see that this was where I currently ranked. My goal for the bike was to maintain 80 to 90 watts throughout the entire 180kms. As one pro said to a group of Canadian athletes earlier in the week: “Race the first half of the race with your head, and the second half with your heart”. Even though I could go much harder in the beginning, especially with all of the spectators cheering like crazy, I held back and did my thing. Around 8kms into the bike on the first out and back section, in town, I saw that Jason, Scot and Minda were all ahead of me by around 20 to 10 minutes.  I was feeling great and just kept things in check and enjoyed the experience.  My goal for the race was to do my best. I wasn’t in a ‘win-it or bin-it’ frame of mind – I had to finish with nothing left in the tank and I would be happy, regardless of how I placed.

Going up Palani Road at 12 kms, Robert from Australia passed me on the bike. I let him go and by 25 kms into the bike on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway he was behind me again.  Soon after, I passed Minda and just kept executing the pace and nutrition plans.  As we hit the lava fields the winds picked up and the heat they absorbed off the lava fields was incredible. It felt like I just opened the oven door after baking a cake and got 350 degree heat in my face, but it was never ending. I thought to myself “so this is what everyone was warning me about”. The heat, the wind and the hills were relentless.  I slowed and at times had to stop on an uphill for each aid station to get a bottle of water. I’d drink half of it and pour the rest of it over my body. This helped a little, but didn’t last long.  Overall I felt great, I just wondered where all my ‘racing speed’ went.  Unlike training, I had on my race wheels, no flags, shaved arms and legs, tri kit and aero helmet, but holding my target power I was still only around 22.3 km/hour, and I still had to climb up to Hawi.

I hoped to get to Hawi and the turnaround within 4 hours, but the cross-winds were really brutal and around every corner there was another climb. I didn’t stress it, but kept my power consistent and stayed focused, I felt pretty good that I’d get a lot of my time back on the way down.  35 min away from Hawi one of the handcyclists flew down the mountain. RESPECT. I waited to see the other guy (Scot or Jason), but I never did. It turns out that Scot crashed in town and his day ended early. That really sucks because he would have given Jason an epic fight for the win.

Turning around in Hawi I got my 3 litre Camelbak from special needs and started back to town. Coming down the mountain was fast (over 50km/h on most of the downhills), but also scary.  The gusts of wind could push you across the road in an instant.  I was actually surprised a couple of times, and reminded myself not to end my day in a crumpled up ball of flesh and carbon fiber. At the bottom of the Hawi descent, around 128 kms in, there was another really long climb. This time, however, the land formed a protected bowl and there was no wind until close to the top of the ascent to cool me down or dry off my sweat. Pretty soon the salt and sunscreen started dripping into my eyes behind my sunglasses, causing them to burn like crazy. A lot like those times when you accidentally rub your eyes after chopping hot peppers. You can’t escape the burn, and you as sure as hell don’t want to rub them again to try and make them feel better.  So, rather than let it disrupt me too much, I tried to embrace the stinging and started doing the math on my bike split to see if I could salvage a sub 8 hour bike split, all the while, climbing and climbing.

At 6:30 into the bike with 40 kms to go, I thought I could do it. I was doing a good job on the rolling hills and felt fine.  What I forgot, however, was all of those hills I had come down on the way out I now had to climb to get home, and as I was warned by a previous handcycling champ, “the last 40km back into Kona are a real bitch”.  The cross winds turn into headwinds, and while they are slightly cooling, speed suffers and time ticks by.  At this point, I had to work harder to keep my power from dropping below 80 watts. The hardest part of the bike was on, but I reminded myself that this is what I trained for. I was a little disappointed that my bike was not in the 7 hour range, but I was happy that I didn’t need to worry about the bike cut off, I felt good, and I was racing in the World Championship Ironman. What an experience!

As I came down Palani, through the “hot corner” to the screams of my girls and the crowd, and into the bike chute, I took a second to enjoy the accomplishment and to remind myself that I’m in that special place that you see on TV while watching the Ironman, where athletes throw their bikes at volunteers and try to summon their running legs, while others are told they didn’t make the bike cut off and that their day is over. Fortunately, unlike Minda, Robert and Scot (the other 3 handcyclists), I’d get the chance to do the run today.

Training Peaks: http://tpks.ws/rYfwq

T2 7:32

I told my handlers not to worry about rushing. I parked the bike and rested for a few seconds (trying to keep the tears away with all the emotions welling up inside me). A wipe with an icy cold towel helped to freshen me up. Bob and Jimmie put me into my racing chair and I was off.

RUN 3:26:09

Sabrina, Chloe and Zara were right at the run exit with their sign and cow bell as I started on the first shorter incline of Palani. At the light I turned right and started my first out and back section that runs along Ali’i Drive. The crowds were amazing cheering me on, especially the Aussie girl who walked up the first hill beside me, yelling my name, telling me that I could crush this fucking hill, and that after the race we would go for beers together.  :)  I didn’t have the energy to pick my head up and look at her, but am convinced that she was the hottest Aussie woman ever and with that accent alone could get a man to do anything.

After the turn around I saw the sun dropping down towards the horizon. I went around 70% effort to climb each hill and coasted down the other side, sitting up in my chair and cooling down a little. The racing part was now over, the last 33kms was all about soaking up the experience.

Unlike the bike course, which was very much like a training ride for me because I was alone for most of the 8 hours, the run course was full of athletes, and I was passing all of them. Mark, my coach, estimated that I passed over 350 athletes on the run. Sweet!

Back in town I turned right to climb the steepest and longest part of the run – Palani Road.  My girls walked beside me the entire hill cheering me on, it was incredible!  Everyone was yelling at me: “Get up that hill! You’ve got this!  You own this!” I told the guy that I also own a car. That would’ve made a lot more sense.  Cresting the hill I turned left back onto the Queen K Highway. It was pitch black now, interrupted only by the glow sticks that runners were wearing around their necks, the lights of the aid stations in the distance, and the reflection of my headlight off of the pylons.

Approaching the Energy Lab, I stayed close to the edge of the shoulder and tuffs of grass growing out of the lava rock. I had little strength to lift my head, so I steered by looking down at the road beside me and making sure I kept around 12 inches between my wheel and the edge of the pavement.  I’d occasionally look up to make sure there were no runners in my path.  Around the 20km mark, I hit something out of the dark and was tipped over onto the left rear wheel. WHOA!  It turns out that some volunteers had stacked around 8 folding tables at the side of the road, sticking onto the pavement just a foot or so. When I hit them with my right rear wheel they fanned out like a deck of cards and turned into a miniature ramp for my racing chair.  Somehow I caught my balance and saved it. DAMN!  That was a surprise.  Okay, new change of plans… stay in the middle of the road.

346_m-100739739-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1369_098968-4461592.JPG

I held the brake down the hill to the bottom of the Energy Lab, stopped for some Red Bull and pushed my way out of it for the last stretch. I felt like I was coming home and while exhausted, was so happy. Turning down Palani for the last time I kept the speed down and soaked up the crowds and the sounds of Mike Reilly announcing the athletes as they crossed the line. Coming into the finish chute the crowds went insane and I high-fived everyone I could without coming to a stop. Climbing the platform I heard my name, stopped to pump the sky a few times (after all this I wanted a good finish picture), was told that “I WAS AN IRONMAN”, and rolled down into the finish area.  I did it. Holy shit. After many years, thousands of miles, gallons of sweat and a little blood and tears, I qualified for and completed the Ironman World Championships in 13 hours, 30 minutes and 26 seconds.  Boom.  Mic Drop.

Training Peaks: http://tpks.ws/1Evaa

Post Race

Following the race I was feeling a little dehydrated, so Ironman officials escorted me to the medical tent for an IV. In anticipation of the IV I didn’t start drinking the copious amounts of after-race fluids that I normally would.  After 40 minutes, the medic in charge decided I didn’t warrant an IV, but instead he wanted me to hang around and drink Gatorade. I wanted to see my family so I told him I was fine (I mostly was), and was released. I finally got to hug my girls and thank them, take a few pics, get my medal and pack up my stuff from transition.  As we waited for Sabrina to get the truck, I started feeling like I was going to faint. I bent over in my chair so I’d have less distance to fall and then the sweat started pouring out of me. My incredible handler, Dr. Bob, who was still helping me long after the race, rushed me back to the medical tent where I now not only qualified for two bags of IV, but they were going to send me to the hospital for the night. FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC. 

The ambulance and hospital staff were amazing!  And as a bonus they had AC in the hospital :). After one night of more IV, lots of tests, threats of being flown to another island if my heart numbers weren’t good enough and being introduced to the condition of “Rhabdo”, I was out the next day after lunch and feeling like an Ironman should – properly sore, exhausted, but on top of the world.

Awards Banquet

On Sunday I was happy to be able to make it on stage and accept my 2nd place trophy-bowl alongside of Jason, the champ. As we were waiting to go onstage, we chatted with the top women finishers in the 55-59 category. A couple of them had raced Kona 9 years in a row, and commented that the bike course on Saturday was the toughest they can remember. Because of the wind, running similar power numbers to previous years, they took longer to complete the bike.  That’s both a consolation for me, and makes me wonder what I could do on a second lap of the island ;).  Hmmm.

Final Thoughts

It’s been a long road to get here and I’m in no rush to wrap up what this all means to me, I’ll let it marinate for a little while. One thing I am sure of, though, is that I’m incredibly grateful for the ability and opportunity to train and race triathlon -- the wonderful people in the sport and my incredible family and friends that support me. I’m a lucky guy.

Best Pit Crew Ever!  Thank you girls for making this day epic.

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Kupa'a - Redefining October 5th

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Kupa'a - Redefining October 5th

In three days this water will be a washing machine of 2401 athletes.  (pictures by Sabrina)

In three days this water will be a washing machine of 2401 athletes.  (pictures by Sabrina)

I don’t normally care to acknowledge the anniversary of breaking my back. It’s a day that I wish never happened. But today’s a little different. Whereas 8 years ago I was being carried out of the woods on a stretcher, this morning I was carried into Kailua Bay in Kona, Hawaii, for a practice swim at the Ironman World Championship. How fucking cool is that?  :)

The theme for this year's championship is "kūpa'a", which means steadfast, firm and immovable, to believe in and be loyal to yourself, and to your surroundings. I like this a lot, and there's a good chance that the next time you see me I'll be wearing a piece of clothing that has this word on it #boughtwaytoomuchattheironmanstore.

A few years ago I asked my daughters if I should focus on trying to qualify for the Paralympics, or the Ironman World Championships (Kona). They thought about it for a bit, and Chloe said “I think you should go for Kona, everyone who finishes gets a medal”.  Pretty good advice from a 9 year old.

So this Saturday, if you’re watching my progress online (I’m number 164), don’t concern yourself with the place that I’m in amongst my competitors, as long as I’m moving forward towards the finish just be happy for me that I’m getting the chance to do something really special, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Thanks to everyone who has helped me to get here (far too many to list you all).

My race wave starts at 12:55 EST. Go to www.Ironman.com and look for the “Athlete Tracker” link.

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Race Recap - Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3

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Race Recap - Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3

Transition at 5am - dark, but cool (only 22 degrees Celsius) and calm. There's a buzz in the air.

Transition at 5am - dark, but cool (only 22 degrees Celsius) and calm. There's a buzz in the air.

Up at 3:30am, the goal was to arrive at the race by 5:00 to set up transition. As we drove to Buffalo Springs Lake, lightning broke through the darkness and rain started to fall. Really? Is that how this day is going to start? I was now glad that I didn’t set up my bike and racing chair the night before, and thought back to the Defi Sportif race I did in 2014. It rained so hard that most of the fast guys skipped the race and I got 3rd place. I didn’t think that would happen today, but I reminded myself that I can take whatever is thrown at me. “Fine, bring on the rain, show me what you’ve got,” I said to myself. Fortunately, mother-nature backed down and cooperated. From 5:30 on it was clear and a little cooler than normal.

My nephew, Callum, and my good friend’s brother-in-law, Anthony, who lives in Lubbock, helped me get everything ready and we did a practice transition. Wet suit on and I was in the water at 6:25. I did some sculling to ‘feel the water’, like Beth told me to, burped up some of my breakfast, and then we were off.

During the swim I stuck to my plan and what I had practiced. Stay relaxed, swim straight, and draft whenever you can. 42 minutes of swimming without a break gives the mind a lot of time to wander. I didn’t think I was doing that well and my brain started questioning why the hell I’m swimming in a lake in Texas at 6:45 in the morning, and why on earth I’d want to do twice the distance in the ocean in Kona. I kept trying to bring my focus back to the plan and not stress. I was surprised when they picked me up out of the water and told me I was the third handcyclist and only a few minutes behind the leaders.

All the PC (Physically Challenged) athletes start first.

All the PC (Physically Challenged) athletes start first.

Leaving the transition area for the 90km bike, you start climbing right away. There are two reasonable climbs before you leave the park. As I topped the second bigger hill and started on the first flat portion, I hit my lap button on my watch so that I could have a clean lap to measure my average power. Because my watch was in AutoSport mode for race day (not a mode that I practice using), hitting LAP put the watch into ‘transition’ mode.  FUCK.  Okay… lap, lap, lap, reset, select bike 1, start…. watch was now measuring my data and I was just passed by another handcycle. No problem. With a light morning wind at my back, I was soon averaging over 33 km/h and took back third place. As I turned with the wind hitting me from the side, I was still at 31 km/h. Awesome.

Just over an hour into the bike is the first turn around. I checked my watch just as Scot and then Zach passed me from the other direction. I was down 7 minutes on Scot and 4 on Zach.  40 minutes later, after the second big climb, I reached the second turn around.  Scot’s lead was down to 4 minutes and Zach’s to 2. Game on.  Before turning the corner to attack the last big climb outside of the park, I passed Zach and he gave me the thumbs up. Zach is a strong, young guy, who excels at shorter sprint distance races. I was trusting that the added mileage had to be hurting him by now.

As we climbed I held my target power, wanting to save something for the last hour or 35km. Looking in my mirror as we crested the hill I saw that Zach was still there. I was pumped and started chanting in my head with every push and pull of the crank… MUST…. CATCH… SCOT… He had to be tired after winning Ironman Luxembourg 70.3 last week, flying home to the USA, and driving from Atlanta. By now the heat and the winds picked up and heading back into them was tough. Trying to not let my power fade, I reminded myself of all the training I’ve done since November. Reminding and convincing my brain that I’ve trained my body to go harder and harder throughout the ride. As we turned into the park I made sure to top up on another gel and to drink lots in prep for the run. By this time, the really bumpy roads had taken their toll on my head and my handbike. It started making a funny sound and I wondered if something was going to fall off my bike and end my day. That would suck so badly. Fortunately, the bike was fine and as I approached the bottom of the last hill of the course, I saw Scot spinning up it. He was in my sights.

I'm missing the first 8 minutes because I had to reset my watch, but this gives you an idea of the course and elevation. Welcome to Ransom Canyon x 3.

I'm missing the first 8 minutes because I had to reset my watch, but this gives you an idea of the course and elevation. Welcome to Ransom Canyon x 3.

Scot got out of transition and on to the run a little before me. I was having trouble getting my feet into the racing chair properly. I said screw it and started to leave.  Still not feeling right, I pushed my body off the seat and tried to wiggle my feet down into the pocket. As I did this my front wheel started lifting up into the air. I almost went over backwards, but saved it. Not wanting to risk an accident, I headed out of transition.

Most of the run course was better than I expected. Some shade, good pavement, and a wide enough road to navigate around runners and a lot of local cottage traffic. I started the run at a comfortable pace that I knew I could sustain, and hoped that I would be faster than, or at least just as fast as, the guy behind me. This run course has a stupid steep and long hill that is demoralizing. I climbed the first quarter of it forwards, then turned around and hauled up backwards until my biceps started to protest. Then I turned around again and grinded up the rest of the way. As I crested the hill, Scot was just starting to come down it. A few minutes later on my way down, I saw Zach climbing half way up.

Just before lap two of 21.1km run, I saw Zach again on an out and back section. The gap seemed to be the same. Now, do I chase down Scot for first place and risk blowing up, or stay the course and achieve my goal?  I opted for the latter. My goal was to get the Kona slot, and as long as I was first or second after Scot, who already has a Kona slot, I’m good. This entire last lap I maintained my pace as best I could. I monitored the gap with Zach, and reminded myself of some advice my friend, Greg, gave me before the Ironman in 2013…“don’t write the race report until after the race.” I kept telling myself, stay focused, stay safe, finish the race.” By now, it’s so difficult to lift my head and look where I’m going in the racing chair, but I can’t afford to have a wreck, and I don’t want to hit anyone. Staying on course becomes like sighting on the swim: glance up, find an open spot, aim the chair and push, push, push, push, rest for a second and repeat. 

Thanks again Anthony and Callum! You made the day fun and transitions were fast.

Thanks again Anthony and Callum! You made the day fun and transitions were fast.

As I pulled into the finishing chute, I felt a little overwhelmed. In 2008, while lying in bed and recovering from breaking my back, I saw Ricky James featured as he completed the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I was inspired, but didn’t know if that could be me someday. Now, almost 8 years later, and after two years of very focused training and racing, I’ve finally earned my spot to what some triathletes call ‘The Big Dance’. I’ll be one of four male handcyclists (and the first Canadian wheelchair athlete) to race around the big Island of Hawaii. And these are serious athletes whom I’m thrilled to be racing with. Today, my goal for Kona is to finish and enjoy it, but I what an honour it will be to have seasoned professionals to chase.  I'll enjoy trying to rise to their level.

At the awards ceremony Sunday night, they dropped the news that there was actually only one male handcycle slot, as originally planned. They were not allowed to give the unused female spot to the men. I felt really badly for Zach, but grateful that I went all out, and that luck worked in my favour this time with Scot and his friend Jason winning slots in Luxembourg (there were 2 slots up for grabs there this year).

Thank you all for supporting and encouraging me along the way. Many have said that they knew I could do it, but honestly, it was never a certain thing for me. I knew I could do the training, but there was also a bit of luck that things came together the way they did for me on race day. Special thanks to Sabrina and my girls for the love and confidence. Coach Mark, Beth, Petrina and Jeff. Jean and Val for swimming with me these last two weeks. Oakville Cyclepath. Alex, Joey and Mark. Anthony and Callum. Carlos. And on and on…

Congratulations to all the PC athletes - what a great group of guys. In the picture, from right to left, 1st to 4th place. Scot, me, Zach and Daniel. Missing are Travis, Edwin, Mark, Sean and Hector.

Congratulations to all the PC athletes - what a great group of guys.
In the picture, from right to left, 1st to 4th place. Scot, me, Zach and Daniel. Missing are Travis, Edwin, Mark, Sean and Hector.

Four weeks ago at the end of a tough 3 week training session, I was exhausted, frustrated, and questioned whether or not I should bother coming down to Texas. After a few days of recovering, I started to feel better and a little more optimistic about my chances. Then my nephew Callum agreed to come with me on the trip, and it made a world of difference. I hate being alone, and I have some pretty awesome nephews, so knowing that one could take the time off to join me was just the best. Last year, my nephew Zoey and his girlfriend Nina helped me in Luxembourg. This year it is Cal. He’s such a great kid and I’m such a proud Uncle. Thanks to my sister, Doralyn, for lending him out :).

As I write this, it’s 2am and I can't sleep. We're stuck in Dallas overnight as we missed our American Airlines connection (yet again). I’m looking forward to getting home and relaxing for a few days before the training starts for Kona. If anyone reading this wants to go for a bike ride or swim with me this summer, say the word. I’ll be up at the cottage training around the Kawartha lakes, getting ready for the World Championships and would LOVE the company.

Race Bling :)

Race Bling :)

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Crunch Time

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Crunch Time

The last three months have been a mixed bag. My number one priority has been training for the Buffalo Springs Lake Half Ironman on June 26th. This race prep has demanded more out of me physically and mentally than any other Half Ironman I’ve done before. Along with some great workouts, I’ve found some of the long bikes and runs to be very lonely and daunting. Fortunately, with less than 3 weeks to go, I’m in the best shape of my life and starting to actually look forward to the race.

When I do motivational speaking, I often talk about family, friends and strangers who help me to achieve my goals (this is one of my favourite parts of my story). The last few weeks have been extra good thanks to:

  • Beth Primrose, who has been a great swim partner all season long (with some coaching thrown in)

  • Trily, who came out of retirement to craft me some new wetsuit pants

  • Cyclepath Oakville, they hooked me up with some new gear, which I’m excited to race with

  • Rich, who lent me his racing wheelchair and wheels to experiment with different hardware

  • Some of Canada’s top handcyclists who have given me some pointers to go faster

  • The LPC Triathlon Team and Coach Mark, who have been brilliant (great camp, clinic and open water swimming)

  • My nephew Callum, who is coming with me to Texas – Road Trip!

  • My good friend, Jim, who has connected me with his sister and her husband in Lubbock, Texas. It’s reassuring to know I have Callum and Anthony to drag my ass out of the water and help me in race transition.

Thanks for staying in touch and cheering me on. I’ll be back with a race report blog in early July and a bunch of Facebook updates between now and then.

Cheers,

Rob

My coach found this 8% grade hill for me to practice climbing in the racing chair.  On the first push up the hill I blew one of my tires, but I managed two more ascents before getting on the handbike. There's a hill like this in the race in Texas. Not exactly 'accessible', because you can easily flip over backwards, but definitely a challenge. 

My coach found this 8% grade hill for me to practice climbing in the racing chair.  On the first push up the hill I blew one of my tires, but I managed two more ascents before getting on the handbike. There's a hill like this in the race in Texas. Not exactly 'accessible', because you can easily flip over backwards, but definitely a challenge. 

 

 

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The Kona Goal

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The Kona Goal

If you Google “Road to Kona”, you’ll get thousands upon thousands of links to athlete blogs, telling their story of how they struggled and (hopefully) persevered to earn their spot and race the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.   Kona is the Mecca for any long-distance triathlete, and for me, it’s the goal that I’ve been seriously working towards for the last two years. I know that I can do the full Ironman distance (226 kms of swim, bike and run), but the idea of racing with the world’s best motivates (and at times frustrates) me to the extreme.  

Earning a spot to Kona is an obsession for many triathletes.  Doing so is tough, as it should be. For athletes with a disability who use a handcycle for the bike segment, and a racing wheelchair for the run (classified by Ironman as “handcyclists”), the road to Kona is more like a disabled parking spot that is already taken. The first title I had for this blog was “Road Blocks to Kona.” Theories abound as to why the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC - the business that owns and runs Ironman) makes it so difficult for us handcyclists, and I’ve written to the CEO of the corporation, Andrew Messick, asking him to make the process more equitable (link here).  His initial response was that they’d “look into it.”

For 2016, there continues to be only 4 handcycle qualifying spots available for male handcyclists at 3 Ironman events. One spot in Australia, two in Luxembourg, and one in Texas.   These are Half Ironman races in which the first handcyclist to cross the finish line (or a second place in Luxembourg will work, too) will earn the opportunity to race in Kona. All three races happen over three consecutive weekends in June. So realistically, handcyclists like me have one chance, once a year, to qualify. 

While it’s tempting to go on a rant about how it’s unfair and unnecessarily difficult to earn a Kona spot, I’m going to refrain.  I do hope that things will be more fair in the future and will work hard to help WTC make improvements, but at the end of the day I’m going to own the fact that it’s my decision and desire to pursue this goal, so I need to deal with the things I don’t like, and win according to their rules.  Instead of letting the difficulty of the logistics defeat me (it’s so tempting to become a casual athlete), I’m going to use my frustration with WTC to train harder to become the fastest paratriathlete I can be.  

Last June I raced in Luxembourg, trying my luck at winning the one Kona spot.  I put myself up against six of the world’s best and came in fourth. My time was very respectable (5:27:59) for the Half Iron distance, but I was simply out-matched by three better athletes and a few minutes on the clock.  While the trip to Europe with Sabrina was wonderful, getting a 4th place finish was not what I had worked so hard for, and it took me more than 3 months to get over my disappointment and refocus my sights on what the next goal should be.

When the girls went back to school in the Fall, I made the decision to continue my goal of getting to Kona. I started working with a new coach whom I met earlier in 2015 at a Florida Training Camp run by Loaring Personal Coaching. Coach Mark is awesome, and the 7 to 11 hours a week of swim, bike and run that he has me doing is producing results. In addition to all of the time training, trying to sort out my neurological pain, family, speaking, and some pretty big miscellaneous endeavours, my plate is probably a little too full, but really, I think that’s all part of the Kona challenge.

Looking at my Training Peaks account, I can see that I’ve logged over 100 hours in the last 90 days. And that’s just the time calculated when I push start and stop on my watch.  The ‘actual time’ that it takes to do this training, is much, much greater. Before my injury, to go for a run I’d put on my shorts and shoes and go. Now, there’s around a half hour of ‘stuff’ I need to take care of before I can start my run. Swimming is even more brutal.  Driving to the pool, changing, getting into my wetsuit bottoms, swimming, getting out of the pool, showering (after I wait for the dumb ass to get out of the only accessible shower stall because I can’t use the 9 other showers that are empty but inaccessible), drying off and getting dressed, and then heading home. The logistics truly are more work than actual swimming.

In terms of which race I’ll be doing this June, I’ve booked hotel rooms in Luxembourg and Texas. In May I’ll decide which race to do.   There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and neither one is easy to get to. 

To take my training to the next level and escape the Canadian winter, I drove down to Florida on February 10th to train outside in the heat. I’ll be here until April getting in as much swimming, cycling and running as possible. Next week I’ll be doing the LPC Triathlon Training Camp again and if I feel up for it, I’ll stay until mid-April and race the Haines City Half Ironman race on April 10th.  It’s just 30 minutes from me, so it seems to make sense to get a practice race under my belt before I head to a qualifier in June. I think it’s funny how Half Ironman races are becoming much less of a big deal. I respect the distance, but have no concerns about being able to complete the race. With four Half IMs behind me, it’s now about continually improving my time and performance.

Occasionally (usually when I’m run down) I question why the hell am I doing this to myself? The time, effort, costs, pain, isolation, and just general frustration is consuming. Spending thousands of dollars and countless days to try and earn a spot in a race that will subject my body to 226 kms of racing on a volcanic island, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The best answer I can come up with, is that I don’t want to live with the regret of not having really tried to do the improbable. I’m not getting any younger, so I need to make the most of what I have, while I still have it.  Kona gives me a reason to push myself and to discover the limits of what’s possible for me physically and mentally. Bouncing my needle off the rev-limiter forces me to be in tune with my body and to find my limits, hopefully without injuring myself. Like life, Ironman training is a balancing act. The big difference is that it’s a choice. Oddly enough, I need to remind myself of that.

The Kona goal demands daily focus and effort (even more mental than physical). And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself over the past few years it’s that I need to have goals like this to feel productive and stay positive. When I’m not moving forward I start sliding backwards, and that’s not good for anyone.  Unlike those things in life that happen or are done to you, this goal is mine, and figuring out how to overcome the multitude of challenges involved with qualifying for this race, even if they don’t result in a Kodak moment at the end of it, will keep me moving in the right direction.

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The Power of a Word

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The Power of a Word

Last Fall, around the anniversary of my accident, I thought that rather than recounting the things I’ve accomplished since breaking my back, which would basically be a rehashing of Facebook highlights, I’d go a little deeper and make a list of things that I’ve learned after 7 years as a paraplegic. I figured that if I could organize my thoughts into something meaningful, perhaps I’d feel like I’m still moving forward in life, as opposed to the feeling I often get; that I’m floating down some kind of river of forced retirement without a lot of purpose.

I started by scratching down anything that came to mind, and then narrowed down the list and put the ideas into some kind of order. The list turned out to be a little heavy, but I think that’s just representative of my mental state at the time. It also makes sense to me that it’s the tough stuff that I’m still working through that tends to clutter my mind; so hopefully getting it out of my head and into the blog will free up some space. My apologies if it comes across a little like “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey,” but this is my world.

While it might seem a little rudimentary, I realized that the first thing on my list that I needed to sort out for myself (and as I’m sharing this with the world it’s probably not a bad thing to get out of the way for you either), has to do with word ‘disabled’. Specifically, I’ve had to acknowledge the power that I’ve allowed this word to have over me. 

I’ve danced around the word ‘disabled’ since my accident, trying as much as possible to avoid using it as a way to define or classify myself. I always knew that I didn’t like it, but ‘being disabled’ was a requirement for things like insurance, a parking pass, or not being able to work full-time. Upon taking the time to really stop and think about it though, I realize that there is a direct correlation between the time when I allow myself to be defined as ‘disabled’ and the feelings of helplessness and depression that I struggle with. Words and labels are powerful. This isn’t news to most of us. But to go from the experience of benefiting from positive labels, to those that are harmful and full of baggage, is like getting a surprise punch to the gut.

Before my accident, I would have been happy describing myself as tall, blond, active, reasonably intelligent, hard-working and fun. All of those are either neutral or have a positive connotation; no big deal. Upon breaking my back, even though I was still blond, active, etc., a new master status was thrust upon me and constantly threatens to overshadow everything else, and that is, ‘disabled’. My classification is paraplegic and the most visually distinctive thing about me now is that I’m in a wheelchair. Damn.

I think it’s funny how my brain works.  Even just saying the words in my head “I’m disabled,” sucks the life out of me.  I lose all of my motivation to go and accomplish shit. I also laugh at myself because I realize that it’s my own baggage that’s bringing me down.  A lifetime of equating being disabled with being broken, and being less than able-bodied, is proving extremely difficult to redefine in my head, even though I know many people with disabilities who are incredible in countless ways, and even though I’m now one of those with the disability. 

Before my injury I never took the time to learn about the specific challenges that those with disabilities have. I was busy with my own life and concerns, so like many, I put everyone with a disability into the ‘disabled bucket’. It was easy. It was lazy. Now that I’m the guy with the disability, I’m forced to address this myopic view of the word, because it’s my personal well-being at stake. Through all this contemplation trying to figure out what makes me tick, I’ve concluded that I can’t think of myself as ‘disabled’, but rather, I need to think of myself as ‘having a disability’. I have a spinal cord injury. I have shit that I need to deal with on a daily basis, like watching the clock to manually manage my bladder and skin, or to pre-emptively figure out the logistics of the physical environment if I’m going somewhere new. It sucks, but I can handle it. These are challenges that I routinely have to overcome, but they are not me. The fact that I can deal with them and do other things makes my other achievements more meaningful. I’m not broken as a person, my day is just a little more difficult than most.

I was thinking about those who have a broken leg, or who are fighting cancer.   We don’t say “they are broken” or “they are cancer”, we acknowledge that these conditions are something that they ‘have’.   Yet society lumps everyone together into a ‘disabled’ category.  It’s tidy.  I understand why the ‘disabled’ check box is needed on forms and why we have disabled parking spots.  I just refuse to put myself in that bucket anymore. And, to the best of my ability, I won’t accept others putting me into that category.

Looking back, I’ve been feeling this way for a while. I remember putting the M-Dot (Ironman symbol) sticker on the back of my wheelchair the day after I completed Ironman Louisville. Inside my head I think that the sticker does a nice job of contradicting the appearance of the wheelchair. If anyone looks at me and thinks to themselves “poor disabled guy,” I hope they see the M-Dot and realize that I am a serious athlete.  If anyone is feeling sorry for me, I’ll challenge them to a day of swim, bike and run, and then we can decide who should be feeling sorry for whom. Maybe it’s a smart-ass and pompous way of thinking, but it does make me feel better.

So to wrap this up, one of the big things I’ve learned since breaking my back, is that words and symbols contain all the power that we give them. And that’s the key in all of this. I realize that it’s 100% up to me to determine what meaning I give to any word, regardless of what society or the world thinks or proclaims. I make that decision and I benefit or suffer from doing so. Even just reminding myself that I control this process is empowering, and this can dramatically improve the quality of my life. This blog will help me do that.

Allowing myself to slip into a group called ‘disabled’ by society might provide some relief of expectation and accountability from others for a time, but it ultimately leads me to being miserable. Yes, I still need that disabled parking pass.  But I refuse to be a victim of a spinal cord injury, I have to be a fighter. So in the same way that I will not adopt the label ‘disabled’, I’m hoping that people I care about in life will decide to see and refer to me as just another guy who is kind, smart, funny, athletic, etc., and if for some reason it’s important to the conversation, I can be referred to as having a spinal cord injury, as in…“he does all these things, oh, and by the way, he’s paraplegic”! If everyone can take the time and effort to at least question the buckets that they put people into, I think we’ll be making the world a better place. 

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