Tales from the Trail: An Adaptive Athlete's Philosophy

By Nerissa Dawn Cannon

Editor's Note: GRIT is proud to bring you original content written by our Trailblazers.  Nerissa has been active for as long as she can remember, but her diagnosis of Spinal Arthritis and Fibromyalgia forced her to be more creative in her outdoor activities. She started her own Etsy store and pet training and walking business in her rural area of Colorado.

When someone who has lived an active lifestyle suffers a debilitating illness or injury, there can be a learning curve to adapting to their new life. Sometimes the change in abilities comes all at once, and sometimes it comes over a period of time. In my case, it has been progressive.

Over my first month of having the GRIT Freedom Chair, I have felt more like my old self than I have in years! I’ve been able to do more without compromising my health and the added time outside, off the pavement has done wonders for my spirit. Those close to me have even noticed the change in me. However, I have also learned that although I might FEEL, in spirit, like my pre-illness self, my body handles extreme physical stress much differently than it used to. I’ve had a major grieving period over this, and come out the other side. Here are some of the key things I’ve noted on my journey so far, and I hope they can help you in your physical pursuits, no matter what your ability is.

 

1. It’s OK to take a rest day when you need it, even if it’s every other day or 2 days in a row!

When I received my GRIT Freedom Chair it did feel, indeed, like freedom. I felt like so much of the world opened up to me that I hadn’t been able to explore for so long. Because my spirit yearned for adventure, I got a little excited about this new opportunity of freedom. I pushed HARD and FAST! Also, I forgot that I needed more time to build up my strength than the “average” person.

With my particular illness, not only does activity aggravate many of my symptoms (chronic pain, fatigue, and muscle weakness), but I also take at least twice as long to recover from the activity than I used to (sometimes 3-4 times as long!). This can be frustrating as I sit on the couch, pressed down by fatigue and pain and nausea and my spirit yearns to go out on another adventure like I did the day before.

My illness is progressive, and my greatest fear is that I will spend so much time recovering from activity that by the time I could have progressed in strength, my illness will have already caught up and restrict my abilities even more. Nevertheless, I can’t let fear of that progression allow me to waste time. The only thing I CAN do is: Do as much as I can, while I can, and allow myself permission to rest! Allowing myself permission to rest is the mental struggle, but it’s important! I found I was wasting so much energy being angry that I couldn’t do more. I kept mentally berating myself for being “weak.” When I switched the mentality into giving myself the permission to recover when needed, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest. Fear of running out of time in the future, doesn’t negate the need to look after my present needs.

 

2. Push yourself, but don’t break yourself!

Only you know your abilities. It’s important to try to push yourself beyond comfort level if you are looking to progress physically. However, depending on your disability or illness, you need to be careful with HOW you push yourself.

Whereas in my past I’d have to push myself hard over a prolonged and difficult activity to feel exertion so intense that I’m nauseous and feverish, nowadays moderate activity easily gets me to that point. In any physical endeavor or feat of strength, there is discomfort. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, right?! However, I’ve learned I need to have a higher level of bare honesty with myself now than I’ve ever had to have before. When you live in your body for so long, you learn what appropriate discomfort to manage is, and what is not. I like to call this “good pain” (feeling like you worked out good yesterday but you can still move, LOL) and “bad pain” (where it feels like you’ve actually damaged something important). This level is different for every person. If you have extreme physical goals, but you also deal with illness or injury, then you need to be very aware and honest of your abilities, pushing to the BRINK but being smart about when and where you should stop.

 

3. Don’t compare your current ability to your past ability. Move forward and strive to do more the next time!

That bare honesty in your abilities might mean some re-evaluating after illness or injury. It’s really hard to not compare what you can do now with what you did before, but that can quickly lead one down a path of self-pity and anger. Instead, I work to remain in the present.

I often refer to my life without illness as “The Before,” and I’m living in “The After.” It’s like new, uncharted territory that I’m trying to map out! It is a harsher environment than I was living in before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t survive and thrive in it! I just need to learn its’ secrets and find the resources within this land of “After” to help me overcome the challenges it also gives me. Expecting the “After” to be like the “Before,” to me is like expecting the Red Center of Australia to be like the Rainforests of South America. Both are beautiful, vibrant landscapes, but are very different, and you need different skills to tackle each one!

 

4. Don’t compare yourself to others!

It’s a common practice in our modern society to have “role models,” “heroes,” or people who have accomplished great things inspire you. This is not necessarily a bad thing! Looking to others for inspiration can motivate you to accomplish great things! The other side of that coin, however, is when you beat yourself up because you don’t see yourself reaching the same heights as they did. NOTHING good comes from beating yourself up! It makes you lose motivation. You hear this voice that says, “You’ll never do what [this person] did/can do, so why even bother?!” IGNORE THIS VOICE! Everyone has a different set of abilities, even those without a disability.

Not everyone will be an elite, competitive swimmer even if they can swim! Not everyone will run track in the Olympics even if they can jog around the block just fine! I’m SUPREMELY guilty of comparing my abilities to others, so this has been a tough lesson for me to learn and apply. It’s important to surround yourself with people who inspire you and push you, while also finding and celebrate your unique abilities that may not be exactly like another person’s, and that’s okay! A person who became like a father to me, S. Frank Stringham, has said often, “We are ALL the best in the world at SOMETHING!” I’ve always loved that, and it applies to my life now more than ever. You won’t be the best by following in someone’s shadow! You need to try new things, take risks, follow your own path, and find your own level of AWESOME!

 

5. It’s OK to have big long term goals, but break it down into short-term, realistic goals!

While I don’t discuss it often, my ultimate goal would be to be the first adaptive (wheelchair) hiker/backpacker to thru hike major trails such as the Appalachian Trail. This would be great and awesome to accomplish! It’s a goal to keep me moving forward, and it gives me direction. However, short term steps can include something as simple as doing sprints up a short, paved hill in my GRIT Freedom Chair. Then, once I have more strength and endurance I can start doing short hiking trails, and increase trail distance gradually. If I never do a major thru hike, will I have failed? NO! I will still have accomplished MANY small goals along the way!
 

 

6. Forget Timelines & Enjoy the Journey!

For me, this is perhaps the toughest and most important thing I’ve learned. Human beings have a tendency to crave shattering extreme records and timelines. We honor the “first,” the “youngest,” and the “fastest.” America’s first climbing icon, and one of my personal heroes, Royal Robbins, said, “You want to be the first, you want to be the best. It’s natural!” But even though Robbins held a bold philosophy of rock climbing, even he stressed, “Getting to the top is nothing; the way you do it is everything.” How you get up there is what’s important. The fact that you get up there AT ALL is important! Enjoy the journey! Take in what’s around you! Even if things seem take you longer than other people, forget that! Focus on what drives you and WHY you are attempting things, and enjoy the view along the way!

Do you feel you are too old to learn something new or push yourself? No such thing! Another of my personal heroes, Louis Zamperini (whose life inspired the book, and subsequent movie, “Unbreakable”), who was an Olympic runner, he first learned to skateboard in his 70s! No matter how old you are there is always something you haven’t tried yet, something new you might enjoy! Even if it means you have to adapt the way you do it, simply get out there and DO IT!


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The GRIT Freedom Chair is the most versatile chair on the market, designed from the ground up to handle any terrain. From trails to grass to snow, the Freedom Chair is built for you to push yourself. Born out of research at MIT, the Freedom Chair's patented easy-push levers reduce shoulder strain and put you in control of your mobility. Learn more about the GRIT Freedom Chair at www.gogrit.us