Healthy Parks, Healthy People

Healthy Parks, Healthy People Bob Coomber

As we move through 2011 (which is flying past at an alarming rate, if you haven't noticed), you're going to begin to see "Healthy Parks, Healthy People" all over EBRPD parks and programs. When the idea was rolled out, I was excited to see the connection, one that I've felt since I was young and still walking. This is about getting in shape in ways that don't feel as structured as an afternoon at the gym, with health benefits that range from physical to emotional. Let me tell you my story, and what the program means to me.

Most of you know a little bit about me - the guy in a wheelchair who travels every trail in an effort to see something new, who enjoys a brisk breeze above 12,000 feet as often as possible, and who spends most of his spare time exploring the District's parks and trails. But it wasn't always so simple for me. Managing juvenile diabetes while outdoors in a wheelchair presents a lot of challenges. One of those challenges was to manage my condition as accurately as possible. Exercise is a great prescription for controlling diabetes and mitigating many of the long term risk factors. What better place than a setting where scenery and wildlife are dynamic pieces of a day hike, where exercise and adventure meld as one, each dependent on the other to create a wonderful day?

Long term juvenile diabetes had caused a severe decline in my health during the mid - to - late 80's. My fortunes turned one sunny afternoon in Plumas County, CA, as my left leg crumbled to pieces, without prompting, as I strolled along a quiet beach. The scene was somewhat grotesque - my leg was bending in ways legs aren't built to bend. One of the long term effects of my condition had come home to roost€¦.my first thought, oddly enough, was that I should have bought a new car with an automatic instead of a 5 speed, because I knew there was no way I'd be shifting gears anymore. I spent months healing from the break after having a wonderful orthopedic surgeon work overtime so my leg could remain with me.

After it healed, it was only a few short weeks before an ankle broke, simply from bearing my weight (and I'm not very heavy). Soon after, the opposite ankle went south. As each healed, it was only weeks after being pronounced "all better" that each broke again, the last one causing me to fall and break the OTHER leg. <whew> But I was pretty determined.

My surgeon gently suggested that I should take permanent residence in a wheelchair moving forward. This was quite a blow; I pictured myself sitting in front of the TV watching other people have fun while I was missing my outdoors travels. The first chair I had was a folding, hospital - quality device, meant not so much as a means to independence, but a concession to a lousier way of living. But I quickly determined one very important fact: as long as I kept pushing, the chair would keep moving.

I started doing sidewalk rolls after work - maybe I'd go a half mile, maybe more. I'd try to go farther than the previous day, and with each new milestone I began to consider some options - what if I were to drive to Hayward Shoreline to watch the incredibly diverse community of birds as I pushed along the hard packed gravel? Soon the Shoreline and parts of the Bay Trail became like old friends, with a bonus - the more I pushed, the better my conditioning, and the easier my diabetes was to manage. It was a win - win!

That was just the beginning. Each weekend, I'd drag my old folding chair to Garin or Redwood Regional Parks to see just how far I could take this. Soon a few hundred yards became miles; broken wheelchairs dotted the landscapes of Morgan Territory and Del Valle, as I picked up more and more giveaways, stripped them down and fitted them for the outdoors. Those poor chairs gallantly gave their all for me, no question. I broke a handful of them from the torturous twisting and flexing an uneven surface brings along for the ride. Soon I found a manufacturer who took my adventures quite seriously. They built a fully suspended, everyday chair that was as good around the home or office as it was at 12,000 feet.

You may guess the rest. My quest for the freedom of the outdoors has not yet reached its zenith, but I've nailed a lot of "firsts" in the last few years. The high point? My August, 2007 summit of California's 3rd highest peak, White Mountain in Mono County, all 14,246 feet. My training? Right here in the District's parks and open spaces, almost every weekend, rain, sun or other.

My advice to you? If you never exercise, start slow, but give yourself flexible goals so you can get your workout by walking, running or riding in one of our parks. If you manage to walk, roll or ride a quarter mile on Day One, work to a half mile by Day Five. Keep a notebook with you - what did you see? Hear? Feel? Was this walk easier than the last? Do you find it's becoming too easy? Are you ready to step out and try some beautiful miles at Tilden, Martin Luther King Shoreline, Black Diamond Mines? The inquisitive hiker will, like me, want to find out what's around the next turn or over that next hill. It's what keeps me going.

That's when this "exercise" stuff will make sense. You start feeling better, looking forward to getting out. You trace your next trail on a park map and anxiously finish the work week so you can do the Bob Walker Loop or a similarly amazing trail. Above all, you'll feel better while enjoying a gigantic community of biologic diversity. There's nothing quite as good as putting yourself through a big workout and enjoying the heck out of it. No matter your ability or fitness level, there's a trail for you. Send me an e - mail at bob@4wheelbob.com if you need ideas, because I'm still marking that next loop, that next summit, that next backpack trip on EBRPD trails. And if I'm fortunate, you and I will cross paths and share stories of the wonders we've experienced on our trail that one day, in nature, feeling better about ourselves. That's what it's all about, eh?