Some of you may have thought at one point or another, why is Adam doing this crazy challenge? I’ll be honest with you, at first I didn’t know. The thought never crossed my mind before I was asked point blank. In the past, I daydreamed about what it might be like to walk Mt. Kilimanjaro or Everest. Kokoda never even crossed my mind. When you’re unable to walk longer than 500 meters without being severe pain, those ideas are nothing but a fantasy, a dream. Like ending starvation in third-world countries or switching to renewable energy globally or world peace – I didn’t expect it to happen in my lifetime.

I want to shed some light on the backstory. In 2010 I moved to the University of Arizona to study an undergraduate degree as well as play for the college wheelchair tennis team, The Wildcats! It wasn’t long after I arrived that I realised that the campus was simply too big for me to walk around. To get from one class to the other involved walking significant distances and by about 2pm in the afternoon, I was spent. A friend on the team suggested that I get a wheelchair for everyday life, an option that I had never considered because I could walk, why would I go into a chair? I can be a bit stubborn sometimes but I looked into it and I’m glad I did.

From the first day I used it, I realised that this was a game changer. No longer did I have to walk across campus in agony. No longer did I arrive at class late and be lost for the rest of the class. Most importantly, no longer did I feel exhausted by 2pm because the pain had taken its toll on my energy. Game changer. I still walked short distances around campus and on days that my arms were sore from tennis or gym training, but my main mode of transport had changed and despite the challenges of getting used to being shorter than everyone, I loved it.

The wheelchair remained as my main mode of transport for almost 7 years until August 2017. I used it any time I had to walk longer than a few hundred meters. I still walked around my house, generally without a cane but with a big limp. When I drove somewhere, I always spent extra time to get the closest parking possible so that I only had to walk a short distance instead of getting my wheelchair out of the car. There was a rare exception that I felt like walking somewhere or when wheelchair accessibility wasn’t the greatest. This didn’t happen often, the mood had to be right and inevitably, I would pay for it the next day, or even a few days, with elevated pain.

Fifteen years of chronic pain didn’t stop me from living my life but it certainly did limit me in certain ways. Being around people on the wheelchair tennis tour who couldn’t walk at all gave me an amazing perspective and I was grateful to be able to walk any distance at all.

I learned to deal with the pain using a “mind over matter” approach which was very beneficial as an athlete. My will to get things done was huge and I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. The mindset “no pain, no gain,” served me phenomenally. I accepted the reality at the time, which was that I would be in chronic pain for life. This meant I had to move forward despite it.

“The journey has many bumps, twists and turns. But one day you will reach your destination. You’ll know for sure then that it was all worth it. So keep on trusting and keep on walking. The end will be more glorious than you can imagine.” – Anusha Atukorala

Little did I know that there was another possibility. In December 2015 a friend introduced me to a movement teacher, Benny, who runs his business as the Movement Monk. He’s a bit of a modern-day monk, as I like to call him. Throughout my life and tennis career, I constantly sought after people who could give me an edge on the court. Within minutes of meeting Benny, I knew I had found my teacher. His method was cultivated over many years of his own practice as he overcame a severe back injury.

The practice uses breathing, awareness, and intention to observe and explore movement within the body. Tension release meditation and standing meditation were major components. As you can imagine, when I first started, standing meditation was extremely challenging. One of the intentions of the practice is to observe the sensations within the body without labelling them as positive or negative. Now when you’re standing and pain levels are increasing by the second, it’s a massive mental challenge, on top of the physical challenge, to feel the pain without judging it. Like anything, with time, practice and persistence it got easier to be present with whatever sensations and feelings arose.

Over a long period of time, the practice of holding a painful position started changing the experience of the pain. It was very gradual but as I leaned into the pain and got more used to it, while not judging or resisting it, it started to transform. By sticking with this practice for the last 3 years, my entire experience of the way I move through the world on my feet changed.

When I was asked to walk Kokoda it had only been 18 months of this practice. I’d seen a dramatic shift but I couldn’t have imagined the progress over the 18 months that followed.

Limitations are very much in the mind but they are also in the body. To make progress with this kind of challenge or any challenge, nothing can change if you don’t face it head on. It also takes a multi-faceted approach, as there is not one magical thing that will bring the desired outcome. Training for Kokoda started with walking 1km at a time and building from there, on top of my practice, I was eating an anti-inflammatory whole food diet and meditating everyday.

On the track itself, the biggest challenge, that I couldn’t emulate in training beforehand, was 8 back to back 15km+ days of walking up and down the steepest, slipperiest mountains I’d ever been on. All while carrying a 5kg+ backpack, sleeping in small tents on a blow-up mattress and eating more carbs in a day than I would normally eat in a month, with a very limited amount of protein. To keep it in perspective I reminded myself constantly that the diggers had it so much worse, with almost no food and at times very severe injuries, along with an enemy that could be lurking around any corner, waiting to kill them. This helped when times got tough.

One of the major benefits that came from training for the Kokoda Track was completely unexpected. I didn’t think it was possible so why would I expect it? In February 2018, after 6 months of training, the longest walk I had done was just over 11km. One morning while doing the standing meditation practice of observing feelings and sensations in my body I noticed that there was no pain. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. After 15 years of chronic pain, every single day, using no painkillers at all, suddenly I had no pain. It was unbelievable. I did all kinds of movements to see if I was just imagining it or if it was real. It was real.

Not everyday since then has been free of pain, while training there was plenty of it, believe me. Funnily enough I have a lot more discomfort while sitting these days due to missing bones in my hip. That being said, not too long ago I hardly ever walked anywhere and now I’m out of chronic pain and haven’t touched my wheelchair in 18 months. This has me thinking, what else is possible? I plan to continue my practices and see how far I can get. I also plan to start teaching others with walking difficulties, chronic pain or other physical restrictions how to start the journey towards moving with freedom and ease.

So why did I do it? To prove to myself that no matter what’s in front of me, I can move forward one step at a time and to show others that they can do the same.

Inspiration through action.

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