Competing in the unofficial wheelchair division – in the back with the strollers – Donna Husick and Gail Ableman probably will not win Bloomsday on Sunday.
But when they finish, it’ll represent a couple of victories.
In the chair will be Ableman, 54 and a Bloomsday virgin, for whom it’ll be a bucket-list wish come true. Behind the wheels will be Husick, for whom the race arrives nearly a year after she choose Ableman to help her eat and exercise better – and started to finally shed the extra pounds she’d struggled with for years.
Ableman, who has a form of muscular dystrophy (and normally uses a motorized chair, though she’ll sit in a manual one Sunday), serves as a fitness and nutrition coach for Husick, who’ll be pushing with help, in turns, from her husband, Frank.
“I’m excited to burn the calories, but I’m excited that I’m doing it with Gail – that she’ll get a T-shirt and I’ll get a T-shirt,” said Husick, of Spokane.
Ableman has placed a certain amount of faith in her escorts.
“If they drop me, guess who’s going down the hill at the speed of sound?” Ableman said. “I said, ‘Don’t drop me. If you drop me, lay your body down in front of me.’ ”
Ableman’s own path to fitness started after her diagnosis. Now, the retired corrections officer shares what she’s learned as a nutrition and fitness coach. She works from her home, where clients are drawn by word of mouth.
Ableman’s form of muscular dystrophy is called Friedreich’s ataxia. Early symptoms usually include loss of balance and clumsiness. Muscle weakness that starts in the legs and torso spreads to the arms and hands, according to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Some people with the disease have difficulty talking and swallowing, muscle tightness and heart problems. Friedreich’s ataxia, which is hereditary, begins with the body’s inability to manage iron, according to the MDA.
In the early days of Ableman’s disease, she felt like someone kept coming up and pushing her. She often staggered and fell, once tumbling down the stairs with her baby in her arms.
“I was 25 when I was diagnosed,” Ableman said. “I was in a wheelchair by the time I was 30.”
A mother of four, she’d already gained extra weight. As a wheelchair user, she worried about gaining more. When Ableman and her husband split up in 2001, she realized her independence depended on her fitness. She needed to be strong and lean enough to pick herself up off the floor if she fell, to get herself in and out of the shower, to use the bathroom without help.
Doctors have warned her against muscle-strengthening exercises, fearful they’d do more damage than good, Ableman said.
“But it’s the muscles that enable people to be independent,” she said.
With minimal information available on workouts for wheelchair users, she mostly figured out what she needed to do on her own, focusing on upper body strength and losing weight.
She joined a gym and attended religiously, working out with a trainer who helped her strengthen and stretch her back, shoulders and arms.
“I told my doctor I didn’t want to be the gym joke, being this fat little old lady thinking I could work out,” Ableman said. “One guy told me I was the gym inspiration.”
She took courses in fitness and nutrition from the online school Penn Foster, learning about healthy menu planning, weight loss and exercise routines. She teaches herself, for her own benefit and for her clients, frequently consulting fitness and anatomy books.
She later bought her own gym equipment, specially built for wheelchair users, and installed it in her home. For cardiovascular workouts, she uses a hand bike or does fast reps on her weight equipment, minus the weights.
She’s lost 65 pounds.
Now she tells her clients they’re her walking billboards.
Spokane resident Julie Shepard-Hall, 50, went to Ableman seeking guidance on a healthier diet and exercise. Ableman helps her log the food she eats, researches recipes for her, helps her choose food and read labels. Once, Shepard-Hall said, Ableman packed her a lunch – buying containers, filling them with healthy food and telling her, “This is how you need to eat.”
Ableman’s partner of five years, Bill Beall, 55, also has Friedreich’s ataxia and uses a motorized wheelchair. Both credit their daily weight-training routines for allowing them to live, together, mostly independently. (Beall is unable to bear weight on his legs and feet, so paid caregivers arrive mornings and nights to help him get in and out of bed.)
Spokane resident Melissa Hanson, 33, said she started working with Ableman last fall, seeking to create healthy habits that would last.
The coach is no complainer, Hanson said. But she said Ableman’s ongoing story provides some motivation as she continues to maintain her own fitness, never submitting her own disability as an excuse, while demonstrating a passion for helping others get healthy, too.
“Some people might have more choice words to say about her when she pushes them,” Hanson said. “I just love her, because if you’re going to come in there and complain, she listens to you but then she says, ‘Let’s get to it. This is about you and not about your excuses.’ She’s been a good inspiration for a lot of people.”