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.
There was an air of excitement when we stumbled out of our tents this particular morning. Seven days of intense walking had taken their toll and we weren’t the same spritely bunch that began this journey.
I don’t think it’s possible to be the same person at the end. It didn’t just test us mentally, emotionally and physically; the spirit of the land, the history and the bloodshed of thousands impacted each one of us in our own way. That being said, every single one of us was ready to cross through the arches that marked the end of this grand adventure.
The morning started even earlier than usual, it was still pitch black as we threw on some clothes and made our way down to Isurava Memorial for an incredibly touching dawn service. We walked down to where 4 granite pillars stood silently marked “Courage”, “Mateship”, “Sacrifice” and “Endurance” – symbolic of what our soldiers went through as well as ourselves.
Our trek leader told us the story of the battle that took place here along with the valiant actions of Private Bruce Kingsbury who won the first Victoria Cross on Australian territory. Rani and I were asked to read a piece of writing each, which had the whole group in tears. This was followed by the Australian and Papua New Guinean National Anthems. It is another one of those moments that words could never do justice to, the feeling envelops my being as I write this.
Following the ceremony, we each took the time to pay our respects and take it all in. This was a very emotional experience for everyone, it was as if the gravity of what happened on the track hit us for the first time, like a tonne of bricks. It was the perfect beginning of our last day walking on the track as we carried the ceremony with us, not as a burden, rather as an honouring.
Packdown and breakfast resumed promptly, we wanted to make it to the Kokoda Plateau as early as possible. There was good news, at our team briefing the night before, our trek leader told us that there were only a few hours of walking up and down hills but then it flattens out. He warned us that after walking up and down so much, people tend to trip over themselves when on the flat ground. I just closed my eyes and tried to remember what flat ground even was.
I didn’t expect the immensely challenging day that followed.
Our brains are truly remarkable at adapting and dealing with intense adversity. What happened to me on that last day was that as soon as the track started flattening out, a signal in my brain must have flipped that said we’re all clear, let him have it. The only rational conclusion I can come to is that the intense concentration needed on every step of the steep sections blocked out the pain because the flat section was the most painful part of the entire track.
I found it interesting because it was by far the easiest section to actually walk, almost totally flat for 5+km. 100 times easier than The Wall, yet I had no pain there. When the track flattened, I didn’t have to focus at all and out of no-where, the pain turned on with force. Every step was agony. I’m so grateful for the team around me in that moment as they kept me distracted as best they could.
When we could see the arches in the distance, we stopped and waited for the whole group to walk the final 500 metres together. Crossing that finish line is one of the highlights of my life and as I write this I have tears streaming down my face, just like I did at that moment.
We embraced, cried, took some photos and then went to get some beer. What a day.
Day 4 started like any other day, our Trek leader Rowan woke us up with his strong Aussie, ex-army voice telling us that it’s close enough to 5.15am, time to pack up the tent, check on the people next to you and then head to breakfast. Most mornings I woke up earlier so that I had time to do my movement practice, not this morning. As I sat up, I’d hit my head against the top of the tent, roll up my sleeping bag and mattress as quickly as possible, pack my porters bag and finally, pack my bag with everything I’d need for the days walk. By then it was almost light and I’d move slowly towards breakfast.
We were warned the previous night, this mornings walk is the steepest part of the trek and following that was another few hours of slightly less steep, but still steep walking. The first section is called ‘The Wall’ and for good reason. Any steeper and it would have been completely vertical. Many times it felt more like rock climbing than walking, Rani’s favourite, my nightmare. I started 15 minutes behind everyone else to complete my movement practice. I knew I’d need the extra stability and lightness that it unfailingly gave me. From where I did my practice I could see “The Wall” across the river, the team slowly made their way up and over. I knew that today was going to test all of us.
Time to get going, the start, particularly the first hour was always tough for me but today would be even more so because it went straight into a wall, literally. As I walked through the river, my porter (Oscar) casually waited for me. As he saw me a very slight, cheeky grin came over his face, he knows what I’m up against. Over the last few days we’ve bonded and built a foundation of trust. I know he’s there when I need him every step of the way. More important than that, I can feel that he believes in me and when times get tough, that helps me believe in myself, more than he’ll ever know.
Describing the first couple of hours of walking that day isn’t easy, it took such intense focus for every step that there were very few thoughts going through my mind. When there was a thought it was usually “oh shit, how am I going to make that” or “phew, I’m glad that part’s over”. There were many times that I had to hand my walking poles to Oscar so that I could scramble up on my hands and feet. Other times I couldn’t physically lift my right leg high enough to step up. Those times, on the edge of “The Wall” in a very small space I had to shimmy around with my left foot to create space for my right foot. Once my right foot was planted, along with my two walking poles, only then could I step up with my left leg. It was like a dance, an incredibly steep and slippery, vertical dance.
No picture or video could ever do justice to walking up The Wall and as I’m writing this blog I’m even finding words hard to come by. What remains strong when I think about that section is the fear that I felt. I remember questioning whether today will be the day that I break. This is followed by intense pride and courage for not only making it, but smashing it. At the top of The Wall I caught up to the group just as they were leaving the rest area. The rest area entailed a couple of logs to either sit on or sit next to and lean on. I had a good long rest and ate one of my snacks, an Eclipse Organics Paleo bar, such a treat. I knew there was a long day of walking ahead so I took my time and it was nice walking by myself, at my own pace.
When I started walking again, I put my earphones in and started listening to a motivational audio composer on Spotify called Fearless Motivation. It got me pumped and I found “the zone”. The next section of walking, I entered into the deepest flow state I’ve ever been in. If you don’t know about flow states, it’s a state of consciousness that happens as a result of your skill level directly meeting the level of challenge in front of you, combined with a centred presence and conscious breathing. Basically, your thoughts drop away and every movement becomes almost effortless. Your senses become sharper and there’s stillness within, despite whatever is happening externally.
All that existed in my awareness was my breath, everything else – the music, right foot here, left foot there were blended into the background, moving synchronistically with ease and grace. Almost as if I was being walked, rather than doing the walking. After an hour or so I caught up to the group on a rest break, but I didn’t want to stop. Our Trek leader gave us the nod so Dad and I, with our porters, went ahead. When you enter a flow state, you don’t want anything to get in your way. The next few hours of walking breezed past with only one quick rest break for another snack.
When we got to the top of Brigade Hill, the view made it all worthwhile. Doing it in style and with dad, was the cherry on top. It was the tastiest lunch of the entire trek. It was encouraging and gave me momentum that carried me the next couple of days. It also showed me just how much my training paid off.
On the top of Brigade Hill there’s a small memorial for the men that we lost in war. One team member, Tony Stewart recited an incredible poem called ‘The Gift of Years’ by Eric Bogle, which had all of us in tears. It was a very humbling moment after being on such a high and an incredible reminder of the very reasons I was there. While this was an incredibly beautiful adventure and achievement, it’s important never to forget and to give thanks to those that lost their lives for our freedom.
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