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Fibromyalgia sufferer becomes figure champion
Saturday 5 November 2011
Fibromyalgia sufferer becomes figure champion
Brandi McAtee's health provider calls her the poster child for living with chronic pain from systemic fibromyalgia as well as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease.
On Sept. 24, McAtee, of Kalispell, was crowned the 2011 Figure B champion at the Washington Ironman Competition in Bellevue, Wash.
"I was thrilled. I'm still thrilled," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I get a big rush when I think of how far I've come in the last two and a half years."
Her husband, Jeff, couldn't be prouder of his wife, who works as bookkeeper and bartender at the Scoreboard. He has witnessed his wife's struggles firsthand.
"She went from almost in a wheelchair to being in amazing, amazing shape," he said.
Through diet and rigorous exercise, McAtee reduced her pain and created a competition-grade physique. Her experience has fueled her new passion to inspire other chronic pain sufferers not to give up.
McAtee said she was diagnosed with a hereditary form of early-onset osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease. Now 33, she had back surgery four years ago but did not find relief from her pain.
"I just started going downhill after the surgery with horrible pain," she said. "I couldn't believe that was what my life was supposed to be."
Her continuing pain was diagnosed as systemic fibromyalgia. The National Fibromyalgia Association defines it as a complex chronic pain syndrome with physical, mental and social impacts.
McAtee remembers well the debilitating fatigue and pain before her lifestyle changes. Just to keep mobile, she took a large array of medications including narcotic pain relievers Percocet and morphine.
"When I say I hit rock bottom, I mean rock bottom," she said.
Her turnaround began when she received a scholarship from The Summit in Kalispell to attend an aquatic class designed for people suffering from arthritis and fibromyalgia. McAtee said the class included stretching and strengthening in the heated therapy pool using thumb weights.
She found herself in the company of much older people who were more flexible and endured longer than she could.
"The 90-year-olds were kicking my butt," McAtee said. "I was so frustrated and in so much pain that I was leaving everyday in tears."
At first, she could only endure 20 minutes. But she persisted and in about two weeks, she worked up to a full hour.
Encouraged by her progress, McAtee decided to add a little cardio and weight lifting.
"I started very slow with 2 1/2 pound dumbbells on my own," she said.
She continued to improve to the point that a magazine article on body-building competitions drew her interest. Categories of competitions include body building, figure, fitness and bikini.
McAtee describes figure as a step down from the bulk and striated muscles of body builders. Competitors strive for symmetry in muscles and a more feminine look but not quite as soft and lean as bikini competitors.
Intrigued with the idea of competing, McAtee asked a personal trainer if she thought that she could train enough to compete. When she answered that she didn't think she could build enough muscle with fibromyalgia, McAtee took on the challenge.
An amazing thing occurred.
"The more muscle I built and the stronger I got, the less pain I had," she said. "I still hurt every day, but it's tolerable."
In July 2010, McAtee entered her first competition, the state figure championship in Portland, Ore. She jokes that she took third but that amounted to dead last - there were only three competitors in her Figure B division for women 5-foot-2 to 5-foot-4.
"I wasn't physically competitive but it was good experience," McAtee said.
Observing the competitive women, she learned about posing, airbrush tanning and other staging aspects. McAtee said she was more prepared but she still came in last at her next competitions.
Finally, in the 2010 Ironman Competition, she edged up to next to last.
"I was all excited," she said. "At least I didn't finish last."
When her fibromyalgia flared up after the Ironman, McAtee almost gave up competing. But in January, she found a new and decidedly different diet and weight training program called "training to failure" on the website musclehack.com.
"It changed everything," she said. "I lift heavy. I can't do any more than 12 reps."
The website's recommended diet went against everything she had learned with its emphasis on high fat and low carbohydrates with no sugar or alcohol for six days a week.
"I eat bacon cheeseburgers without the bun and drink coffee with cream," McAtee said. "It's pretty nice."
On the seventh day, she loads up on carbs for 24 hours.
McAtee said the idea is to force the body to burn fat, which she describes as a better-quality fuel for the body. To make sure her cardiovascular health isn't compromised, she monitors her heart rate and blood pressure and has regular checkups.
By following this diet and exercise regime, she found that she had much more energy and built more muscle. Just 10 weeks after starting the program, she competed in the Big Sky Championship in Missoula.
"I took second place in figure," she said. "And there were nine of us."
After that contest, McAtee didn't feel the exhaustion that she experienced with her more standard training. She was able to return to her rigorous schedule of hitting the gym at around 4 a.m. six days a week.
When the 2011 Washington Ironman Competition rolled around, she was feeling so confident that she invested in a striking new bikini that she describes as "leaving little to the imagination.
McAtee said she would have been happy to make the top five and at least take home a trophy. When she made that cut, she figured she might make fourth but instead was number one.
"I was laughing and crying and shaking," she said. "When I thought of all the days I left that pool crying - I was just elated."
By getting in super condition, McAtee was as able to cut her medications to a fraction of her earlier levels. She encourages others in chronic pain to go slowly but exercise and push to find their real limits.
McAtee loves the quote from Henry Ford that "Whether you think you can or if you think you can't, you're right." She calls herself living proof that "you can."
"You can't give up. You have to know that there is something better ahead for you," she said. "There's nothing like the feeling you get when you take your life back."
The above, with comments, originally appeared here.
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