Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I'm Still an Athlete - No, Really!

From my earliest memories, I knew I was an athlete. I loved to run everywhere, and race any of the kids in our neighborhood, boys or girls, and I nearly always won. I played every sport imaginable, and hated the fact that – in that era of the 60’s – girls couldn't play organized football, and we had to play softball instead of baseball. And, of course, there were no school teams for girls in grade school or junior high. Still, I played with the neighborhood kids, and on the playground, and I considered myself an athlete – in particular, a runner. Finally in 9th grade I got to be on a real school team (track and cross country) and I threw myself into those sports with gusto.  I competed in these sports all through high school, enjoying the feeling of running fast, as well as the camaraderie of being on a team.

I parlayed this love of running into a track scholarship at Flathead Valley Community College, the #1 women’s junior college track team in the country at the time. I ran 6 days a week, usually twice a day, and lifted weights three times a week. My junior year I transferred to Whitworth College (as it was known then) and got the opportunity to add basketball to my cross country and track schedules. I loved every minute of it all! And I kept working out, 6 days a week.

After college, I played softball and soccer in city leagues, and then I got into biking. (Too many injuries from soccer made it so running was no longer an option.) I continued to work out almost daily, lifting weights and biking for hours. I even hired a personal cycling coach, and I raced all around the northwest.

Being an athlete was who I was as a person. I was disciplined. I watched what I ate. I listened to my body, adjusting workouts as needed. I pushed myself to achieve more. It was as natural to me as breathing. I had been doing this my whole life – only the sports would change, the basics never did.

And then, 11 ½ years ago, I got sick, and developed a mysterious muscle disease that has, at this point, left me fully disabled, unable to do even minimal physical exertion (such as standing up for more than 5 minutes) without becoming exhausted. And I thought, “Well, so much for being an athlete.” Through some very good counsel (from Dr. Michelle Estelle at Cornerstone Psychologists), I learned to apply the lessons from sports to living with a disability. But I still felt somewhat bereft, because I was no longer an athlete, and I felt I had to reinvent myself as ‘someone with a disability.’ But recently, in talking things out with Michelle, I realized this most amazing truth: I am still an athlete!

I can hear you say: “Hold on, Kris, how can you be an athlete? Taking a shower exhausts you! You can’t do any sport!”

Well, bear with me here. When I was talking with Michelle, I was saying how I felt that living with a disability made me selfish, because I was always taking stock of my physical condition and focused on my body. She asked how that was any different from when I was biking. Didn't I focus on my body, how I was feeling, what would my workout be, etc? And I laughed and said, I guess it’s the same, but my workouts are different now. And then we both paused, and looked at each other, and I said, “Holy cow! I am still an athlete. I am still an athlete! I do the same things I've always done – it’s just the workouts are different now!”

Let me explain. When I was biking, I would wake up each day and take stock of my body: how tired was I from the previous day? Was I particularly sore anywhere? Should I adjust my scheduled workout, or go with what was planned? Well, it’s no different today. I ask myself the same questions. The exact same questions. The only difference is the nature of my ‘workout.’ (More on that in a bit.)

When I was biking, I had to pay attention to the food I ate. I had to make sure to eat enough to make up for the calories burned, and to eat the right type of fuel. I needed carbs before a workout or a race, and I needed good protein for building muscle. I avoided most plain sugars, except during workouts. I was very aware of what I ate. Again, it’s no different today, except I have to eat fewer calories, because my caloric expenditure is so low. But I still have to focus on eating good food for my body, which now means fewer carbs and lots less sugar. But it’s not new for me to change my food intake depending on the sport I’m doing. In college, I really bulked up for basketball season so I wouldn't get pushed around on the court, eating lots more fats and carbs. But then when track season came, I had to cut out the fats and carbs to drop weight in order to run faster. So, my current sport requires that I watch my total caloric intake, and keep my sugars and fats low. Nothing new – I have modified my diet to best serve my sport.

So now we come to the big difference: workouts. Unfortunately, whatever this disease is, doing any kind of exertion is counter-productive. Because my muscles don’t work right, using them at all causes them to shake, makes them sore, and makes me exhausted. This is any type of exertion. For example, even typing this makes my forearms ache. It's why I have to limit my writing to no more than 30 minutes a day. So, if I can't exercise, what are my workouts? Well, the purpose of a workout is to improve your performance in your sport, right? My new sport is called “living with a disability that makes you tired” so my workouts consist of things like this:
  • Using a shower stool so I don’t have to stand up
  • Sitting down while I get dressed/undressed
  • Sitting down while I brush my teeth
  • Using a stool in the kitchen when I do any food prep
  • Limiting the kind of food prep I do (e.g. stir fry is out – too tiring for my hands/arms)
  • Sitting in my chair and reading
  • Using the handicap shopping cart (the one I used to call the “old lady cart”)
  • Saying ‘no’ to activities when I’m too tired (this is a hard one – I get out for fun so rarely, I hate to miss things, but sometimes I have to!)
  • Asking for help, especially for rides to appointments (this is another hard one – I always feel like I’m inconveniencing people)

These are all things that help me ‘perform’ better at my sport – measuring my performance as my fatigue level. These are my new workouts.

But what about competitions/races? Well, my ‘race-day’ is any day I have to leave the house for one or more appointments or activities. Just like biking, I have to prepare for race-day by moderating my workouts beforehand, and give myself recovery days afterward. In my new sport, this means making sure I’m doing my best workouts to be as rested as possible beforehand, and then giving myself several recovery days to try to regain my strength. Just as I wouldn't schedule bike race days back to back, I need to be wise in my appointment scheduling, giving myself several days between appointments.

So, you see, I really am an athlete still! Everything is just like it always was: listening to my body, eating right, working out, competing. The only thing that has changed is the nature of my workouts. And I have always modified my workouts depending on which sport I'm competing in, so it's no different in my new sport. I just need a better name than “living with a disability that makes you tired” – but I'm working on it!