After breaking my back, I learned to live again on a group trip to Costa Rica

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I joined the United States Army soon after college. I was pretty fit, athletic and revelled in physical activity. I was initially signed up for six years’ service but I suffered a major back injury early on in my career. I was just 24. It started small, with a stress fracture on my spine that occurred through marching exercises and carrying a heavy backpack. For about a year, I was given ibuprofen and encouraged by the medical team to push through. 

Unfortunately this made it a lot worse. By the time I finally got an X-ray, I discovered I had a condition known as spondylolisthesis of the L5-S1. In plain English this meant my back wasn’t connected anymore – it was broken. I could still move but I had very limited mobility. The military doctor scared me by saying that if I did anything wrong, I might not be able to walk again.

I ended up working with the army for a year longer on desk duties before eventually being medically discharged. This then lead me into a decade-long career as a contractor in Military Intelligence. I could manage the job physically because it was desk-based. But at this point, I found myself sinking into a depression unable to move properly or be active anymore.

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I was so scared of injury, I avoided anything physical

The daily pain in my lower back was chronic. I felt a constant inward pressure on my spine. One wrong step or turn had the sensation of a knife being twisted. Sometimes a pain would shoot down my leg and I’d struggle to stay upright. I ended up using a cane every day to simply walk around. I couldn’t stand in place for more than a couple of minutes without excruciating pain. If it became critical, I had to rock back and forth just to try and manage the discomfort.

In the 15 years that followed, I felt like I missed out on life. I ended up being frozen with fear, so scared of injuring myself further that I avoided anything physical. Being so limited in my movement meant I also put on lots of weight, which bothered me profoundly.

Over time, I saw plenty of chiropractors, physical therapists and personal trainers. But I never really got any answers. I couldn’t find that person who would dig deep enough to help me recover physically and mentally, while being mindful of my ongoing back injury. Doctors told me there wasn’t an option for my injury other than surgery, and even that was risky and might not provide a cure.

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Finally, I made a decision to do something about it

I felt angry at my military bosses for how everything was handled and I ended up losing my job due to my inability to focus or care about much anymore. I ended up taking a year off to try and refocus mentally. I lived out of my Subaru Outback for a year. 

I then had a bit of luck when Amazon reached out to me near the end of my year off and offered me a cloud-based consultant position. My role didn’t have much of an impact on my back, although I was still struggling to cope with the daily pain. 

Then, on the run-up to my 40th birthday, I made a decision to finally do something about it. I didn’t want to sit around anymore, especially not at such a big occasion. Instead, I made up my mind to celebrate with a big adventure trip – the kind I could never have imagined attempting with my back.

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I decided to book a trip on Flash Pack’s Costa Rica adventure

I knew that I would need in-person support to help me achieve this mission, so I did some extensive research. I was then very lucky to come across Jared Leeper, a personal trainer from BYB Fitness in Georgetown, Texas. He was training my sister and she suggested he’d be a good fit for me. But, essentially, it was still a leap of faith.

From the outset, Jared was different to other trainers I’ve had over the years. He came in with so much knowledge about diet, exercise and supplements. But better still, he was very goal oriented and always had a plan. Whenever we were training and I felt a twinge or pain in my back, Jared wouldn’t let me just quit. He would stop me and we would dive into the motions and identify the pain, looking specifically what muscles or movements were causing it. This gave me the confidence to keep training, knowing that I wasn’t permanently injuring myself.

When I decided to book a trip on Flash Pack’s Costa Rica adventure, Jared went onto the website and took note of every physical activity on the itinerary, from jungle hiking to abseiling and white water rafting. He also did a lot of studying to understand my particular form of back injury.

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My favourite activity was rafting down class III and IV rapids

All this meant that I trusted Jared to push me without scaring me at the first sign of a back twinge or any pain. Throughout our seven-month training programme, he constantly reassured me that I would not only make it onto the trip but that I would also enjoy it. 

Before, I was embarrassed at the idea that I might not be able to keep up with everyone on a physical adventure like Costa Rica. But I trained to the point where I felt confident about taking on each activity, from both a physical and mental perspective. I lost over 80 pounds during the training period too, which I felt proud of. 

As for the trip itself, I absolutely loved it. It was the best time of my life. We did a lot of hiking, Tarzan swings, ziplining – you name it. I didn’t once have pain. My favourite activity was rafting down class III and IV rapids on Costa Rica’s remote Pacuare River. It’s the kind of experience I never thought I’d be able to do. It was so exciting to be in the thick of this exhilarating river ride with everyone, being thrown about and having the camaraderie of sharing all the scarier moments together.

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The best bit? Traveling with a group of strangers

At one point during the adventure, our raft got stuck on a rock and I helped the guide to heave it off using ropes. Again, this is something I couldn’t have imagined doing before. But the fact that I had spent some time pulling ropes at the gym in training meant I could. It was only a little thing but it felt so rewarding to be able to help out. 

I was also a bit concerned about hiking for long periods of time, especially on any steep inclines. But in reality, I had the energy and mobility to complete the Costa Rican routes well. I even helped out a couple of other people who were struggling so they didn’t feel left out.

In fact, one of the best parts of the adventure was being able to travel with a group of strangers. A side benefit of working out and getting healthier is that I find it easier to meet new people. I’m now a lot more comfortable and confident in myself.

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My time in Costa Rica transformed my outlook on life

The vibe in our group of solo travelers was great, too. There were no cliques. We just hung out together and got to know one another. I definitely felt welcomed as a friend, and I was able to enjoy a wonderful trip.

My 40th birthday fell towards the end of the trip when we were resting up at El Mangroove, a luxury resort on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. It happened to be the day of our rum tasting session, too, which was great timing. We got to experiment with flavours and make our own bottle, which I’m saving to open on my 50th birthday.

Overall, my time in Costa Rica transformed my outlook on life and helped boost my confidence. It’s amazing to know that I can now raft, rappel, hike and more, without pain or having to stop regularly.

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I’d say don’t let fear hold you back

For anyone else in a similar situation, I’d say don’t let fear hold you back. I did for far too long. Start slowly by dipping your toe into a small group trip. That’ll give you the rush of travel with a group of new friends. Once you’ve experienced that, I guarantee you’ll be ready to push to the next level of a more adventurous trip abroad.

Back in my home city of Austin, I’m back working with Jared to look at what challenge to take on next. At the moment, I’m thinking of a Thanksgiving trip to the Galapagos Islands, which has always been on my wish list. Wherever I go, I know Jared will draw up exercises and movements to help get me be physically strong and able. Listening to and trusting him has completely changed my life.

Rick Prokupek is an Amazon Web Services consultant from Austin, Texas. He traveled with Flash Pack to Costa Rica.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: courtesy of Rick Prokupek, Flash Pack and Unsplash

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