Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Your disability is your opportunity

Robin Judkins left and yours truly right

Old juddy and I go back a long way. I met him first when I did my first Coast to Coast in 1987 and after that we became firm mates.

Three years ago Juddy came to visit me in India and we travelled to Nepal together and had a great time in that fabled city, Kathmandu. We're good mates and exchange emails every so often. Usually I start off with the phrase, "where are you?" and, are you still alive?"

Just over a year ago his reply was, "yes, but just. I've had a quadruple heart bypass." Juddy's determination to drink life to the lees, saw him slowly but surely recover. Some years back we talked for more than an hour about disabilities and how you need to turn them into opportunities. We marvelled at our friend Steve Maitland, who lost a leg in a motor cycle accident, and was regularly able to beat most people with normal legs on the Coast to Coast, a gruelling endurance event over the Southern Alps of New Zealand then kayaking for four to five hours down a major river. Steve Naitland did this event countless times and never saw himself as handicapped in any way. He had the guts and belief he could do anything and he did. Similarly Juddy has made a marvellous recovery after his quadruple heart bypass. Juddy, or Robin Judkins is the organiser, inventor of the Coast to Coast.

The Speight's Coast to Coast is a contest of categories – events within a grand event that allow athletes to measure themselves against those of a similar age or inclination.

There are the two-day individual competitors, those who prefer the company of teammates, and band of intrepid adventurers who challenge themselves to complete the course in a single day.

There are classifications for men and women and, within both, age-group classifications.

From the many hundreds of competitors who are unified by the event but divided by the categories, the organisers have compiled yet another list of 43 competitors who are all different but share a common bond.

They are competing with an existing medical condition. There are no dispensations for them; nor would they seek any. They are identified only so that they may be assisted, should their condition require it.

Their conditions are many and varied – allergies to bee stings, asthma of varying severities, penicillin allergies, renal impairment, a knee reconstruction, a bleeding tendency, a shoulder injury, allergy to sticking plaster.

Ali van Polanen is on the list because she has Crohn's disease, an auto-immune affliction that affects her gastric system. Ulcers form in her small intestine and they persistently recur.

"They are controlled by medication, or when they're deciding to have one of those moments, they're not controlled at all," she says.

"It's a chronic condition. Once you've got it, you've got it for ever. It's just a question of whether you're flared up or in remission. We'll give it a few more months before we say I'm in remission, but it certainly looks as if I'm that way at the moment."

When the Crohn's is rampaging, van Polanen suffers pain and fatigue. There are other nasty symptoms that accompany it too, she says.

"I take an immune suppressant to dumb down my immune system. That's not ideal when you're an athlete, because you want a good immune system, but it's what you get used to and what you deal with," she says.

"I am fortunate. There are some people with Crohn's who are very unwell. For them, an event such as the Coast to Coast would be simply out of the question.

"At times it frustrates me because you feel, `What if?' But it's what I've got and I can't change it. That's the hand I've been dealt and I have to play it the best I can."

Has the condition ever caused her to contemplate withdrawal from athletics?

"Never," she says.

"If I didn't have multi- sport, which takes up so much of my time, Crohn's would become life-consuming.

"I would probably dwell on it a lot more and it would be a real problem."

While she resents the psychological burden of being dependent on medication when she considers herself to be a happy, healthy person, van Polanen views the necessity of it pragmatically.

"I guess it's like being an asthmatic. Unless they have their inhalers, they're in trouble, too. You have to adjust your schedule, and you have to be sensible, but it's what you get used to and what you deal with. It's literally what you make of it," she says.

"In the last six months, I've been ticking along happily. Then you can have periods when you can be quite unwell. It comes on slowly. You have to look for the signs and make sure you listen to your body.

"I've had to get used to managing it and managing my training around it. You can't work out patterns, but I think we've got the medication a little more sorted this year and that is a big help. I've also been seeing a nutritionist, who has been able to help both in terms of sports nutrition and with regards to Crohn's disease."

Although she wages a running war with the condition, van Polanen stoically refuses to proffer it as an excuse for poor performance. She will contest her third Coast to Coast at the weekend, and says she has improved with each one.

"This year, I've been a bit more consistent. I did a bit of strength work during winter. I've tended to drop my weaker disciplines over winter in the past and ignore them. I feel much happier about the way I've been going this year."

The 26-year-old Christchurch consents manager, employed by NZ Windfarms, says the company has been supportive by being flexible with working hours as she prepares for the event.

"I'm very fortunate to have such a great employer.

"Everyone on the staff has quite an interest in multi- sport. People's understanding has been greatly appreciated."

The Coast to Coast will be a special occasion for van Polanen and her family. Her father, John, will be celebrating his 50th birthday when he contests the Longest Day for the first time. Her sister, Claire, will also be doing the running leg in the teams competition.

"It's been great training with dad, considering it was him who encouraged me into running. Not many fathers and daughters can share a sporting interest the way we can share running. It's been good to show him kayaking, too. He only started last winter."

She will start the Coast to Coast with confidence and optimism. As she tames the course, so too will she score another win over Crohn's disease. Two victories in one day – that's success.

So whether it's Crohn's disease. heart problems or you have one leg, the Coast to Coast is a way to prove your disability is your opportunity.

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