The Art and Science of Fitness | Lessons in endurance from disabled athletes - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | Lessons in endurance from athletes with disabilities

Jul 10, 2023 06:40 PM IST

The story of visually impaired athletes like Divyanshu Ganatra, is a lesson in challenging norms and pushing boundaries. We all have much to learn from them

In August 2017, I met a young doctor on top of Tanglang La, a high mountain pass in Ladakh, at an altitude of 17,480 ft (5,328 metres). That’s halfway to the point where planes fly at. I was in a rush because Matthew Maday, the only participant in the 333 km category at La Ultra - The High to still be on the course, was getting close to the finish line. The 333 km category of the course included running across three high passes – Khardung La, Wari La and Tanglang La – at an average altitude of 14,500 ft.

So, how does a visually impaired person fly? (Representative Image- Credit: Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation) PREMIUM
So, how does a visually impaired person fly? (Representative Image- Credit: Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation)

All of this needed to be done in 72 hours with the course record being 60 hours 37 minutes 58 seconds, jointly held by Jovica Spajic of Serbia and Grant Maughan of Australia.

Here the biggest issue is the lack of oxygen – it is as little as half of what it is in the plains. Since I had not slept for the last couple of days and was too involved in my own initiative, I had to budget my energies and focus on what was at hand. Just a few hours prior to my run, four Indian participants, Amit Chaudhary, Amit Kumar, Sunil Kumar Handa and Raj Vadgama with a cut-off time of 48 hours, had completed the 222 km category at the race for the first time. I thought the participants at my crazy run, which I had been doing since 2010, were doing the impossible. And I used to get a kick and a high from making people achieve the impossible in a safe manner.

The name of the young doctor that I met at Tanglang La was Dr Pavan Kumar G. I do vaguely remember him telling me that he was on the medical crew for a bunch of folks doing tandem cycling in pairs with a visually impaired rider on the rear seat, bicycling from Manali to Khardung La, over a distance of nearly 500 km. Please read the last sentence again. Yes, it's nuts!

For the first 55 km of the terrain between Manali and Khardung La, there is a steep climb leading to Rohtang Pass. This road is busy pretty much throughout the year with tourists going there to get selfies clicked. The road from thereon, at least way back in 2017, wasn’t in a good state because of extreme weather conditions.

These roads, which are already narrow, are worsened because of the proximity of Ladakh to China and Pakistan, clogged with convoys of 100-plus army trucks plying on the route. In the sections where roads are under construction, it’s very dusty.

Now imagine being on these roads on a tandem cycle, where you are visually impaired, sitting behind a stranger with good vision. Yes, you are pedalling away too, but besides yourself, you have to trust a stranger quite literally with your life. On one side you can repeatedly hear vehicles zooming by, and on the other, you are told there is a deep gorge with a drop of a thousand feet or more.

So who were those people and why were they doing this insane stuff? Were they on a death wish? Remember, this is coming from me, who only gets excited by the impossible.

The organisation that put this event together is called ‘Adventures Beyond Borders Foundation’, founded by 46-year-old Divyanshu Ganatra, a clinical psychologist, behavioural facilitator, and a self-made social entrepreneur. At nineteen years old, he lost his eyesight because of glaucoma. However, he had the foresight to enable folks like him to experience extreme adventure, which seems unimaginable for people with sight.

In August 2014, Divyanshu and his sighted captain Gagan Grover cycled five hundred kilometres from Manali to Khardung La, becoming the first tandem cycling pair with a visually impaired rider to achieve this feat. They overcame everything, ranging from bad weather to malfunctioning cycles to get there a full day earlier than they had intended to.

“It was an exhilarating ride,” Divyanshu says.

But it all started with Divyanshu’s desire to fly. In early 2014, he became the first visually-impaired Indian paragliding pilot. And he did it all by himself. All of us who are reading this should wonder how this is even possible!

When I was told of Divyanshu's flying, it reminded me of Jim Moriarty from the television series Sherlock Holmes, where he reminds Sherlock of a seemingly basic principle, “It's not the fall that kills you, Sherlock. Of all people, you should know that it's not the fall, it's never the fall. It's the landing!” Divyanshu agrees. “Taking off and landing are the trickiest,” he says.

So, how does a visually impaired person fly?

“In flying, like everything else in life, a series of steps needs to be followed. People with eyesight tend to take those steps for granted whereas someone like me needs to practise really hard and not take anything for granted. When these steps are shared through the radio, those instructions need to be followed to the T. While landing, the gap from the ground is crucial. It's important to go by instructions and also by feel, which is a crucial sixth sense. You need to believe in your team and keep your head on your shoulders at all times.”

These achievements and overcoming all the social stigma, encouraged Divyanshu to create a platform offering adaptive adventures and outdoor sporting activities for all people across different types of disabilities, not just the visually impaired.

“As the idea of sport as a gateway to a world of inclusion grew bigger and bigger within me, I eventually founded a little something called ‘Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation’. The goal of the foundation was simple: for people with and without disability to play together, build empathy and create social change. Because strength lies in community,” he says.

When I asked Divyanshu how people with disabilities participate in these extreme sports, he chuckled, saying, “It’s no big deal, we just do it. But we do it slightly differently. We all just tend to complicate matters too much, something I have been trying to encourage people to not do.”

I have a personal connection with Divyanshu’s story. Way back in 1993, I was diagnosed with retinal detachment – facing the risk of losing my eyesight. Still, I was more worried about being forced to stop the one activity I love, i.e. running. When I asked my eye surgeon if I could carry on with my running, his response shocked me. “Why run if you don’t plan on going to the Olympics?”

Luckily, I didn’t listen to his advice for too long and got back to running and strength training. Since then, I have run far more than I did before my retinal detachment thirty years ago, and more importantly, I have made loads of other people pick it up as well when the world told them that they couldn’t. Without knowing each other’s stories, I was following Divyanshu's mantra, “To change the world, change your mindset.”

However, the cynics amongst us would say that other senses are automatically enhanced in visually impaired people, and hence they have the potential to do more. But is it really so?

A few years back I held a similar opinion and wanted to hire visually impaired people for manual therapy at my sports medicine and rehabilitation clinic, Back 2 Fitness. This could address my eagerness to make a social impact while keeping the clinic's quality of treatment high. As a part of the therapy efforts, I went to a blind school and interacted with visually impaired people. The lesson I learnt there was that the loss of one sense doesn’t automatically enhance other senses unless you have made a deliberate effort to work on it.

As for Dr Pavan Kumar G, I had a supposed impact on his journey. “I wanted to thank you that our brief chat on top of Tanglang La in 2017. It encouraged me to pick up sports medicine.” He has gone on to pursue sports medicine from my alma mater, Queen’s Medical Centre, University of Nottingham, and is now pursuing DNB Orthopedics.

It was like a whiff of fresh air for me to know Pavan was following his passion to make a bigger difference in society rather than being driven by money alone, which unfortunately is a rarity in the medical fraternity. He shared a noble social message, saying, “We need to imbibe everybody with sports, exercise and physical activity, so they recognise that people with special needs are provided with those opportunities too. Once they experience things, they can teach us how to be with them. This way people with special needs can teach us empathy, something we all lack today."

As Divyanshu has demonstrated by doing what most people with even good eyesight can’t dream of doing, having our senses is no good if we don’t make deliberate efforts to improve them. This tends to be the case with most people who are perfectly able-bodied but then waste away their lives by being slobs, numbing their perfectly functional senses.

Whether it is our senses, muscles or even our minds, if we don’t use them, we end up losing them.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 km in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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