(Racer, endurance athlete, mountain climber…. and all from a wheelchair. I first came across Michael Mills in 2013 as I read about his completing the Spartan Race, an obstacle course event. What impressed me about Mills wasn’t that he competed from a wheelchair, it was that he didn’t let the wheelchair define and confine him. I began to follow his postings on Facebook and I was struck with his positive attitude and determination. I followed along with his races and his adventures with his team the Dirtbags. And I felt a little challenged that I struggled up mountains here in PA on two legs while he crawled up Stone Mountain as a fundraiser for a charity.
I approached Mills for an interview not only because I thought his story fits in with one of the themes of A Taste For The Woods, which is encouraging everyone to get outdoors, but because I am a fan. I’m thrilled Mills agreed to an interview. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as I did having it. )
Q: You were in an accident at age 16 that left you paralyzed from the waist down. Before the accident, did you engage in outdoor activities and sports?
MM: Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, you either played football or you didn’t. I didn’t. I skated. I was one of two kids in my school and one of maybe 5 out of my whole town that rode a skateboard.. So, needless to say, we stuck together closely and three of us are still great friends to this day.
Q. How long after the accident were you hospitalized and in rehab/physical therapy?
MM: I spent 2 years in and out of the hospitals/rehab/physical therapy.
Q. What sustained you mentally during this time?
MM: I wanted out as fast a possible, so I fought hard to get better faster just so I could get out and live as normal life as possible with my new found disability. There were days in rehab where I would be the last one out of the rehab gym with the therapist and I would roll out the door and leave it cracked so I could sneak back in after hours. I would spend time in their alone just lifting and trying things on my own to get better. I had the mentality that the harder I worked, the faster I would get home…
Q. Back in 1996 you saw a wheelchair race, and that inspired the 19 year old you to become active again.
MM: After seeing wheelchair racing, I knew I wanted to do it. It was fast, fun and dangerous. I love that combination. It was a lot like skating again. It gave me the adrenaline rush I needed to feel alive again.
Q. How did you train for wheelchair racing? What sort of physical and mental preparation did you do for your first race? How did you think you would finish in that race, and how far did you think you would go in the sport?
MM: I purchased a used wheelchair and it came the prettiest purplish color I could not see myself in! So, in true fashion, it received a coat of flat black spray paint and I started training. My first race, I went in with no knowledge and I started out with a pair of baseball gloves and a roll of duct tape over my fingers for padding. I knew I had to have padding and I saw some old school photos of the forefathers of racing and their gloves. I at least thought it was duct tape and I follow suit.. My first race was a 10k and I had my butt handed to me but I finished. It was a small local race with 2 other racers and I finished dead last but I was hooked. I started training on the hills and roads back home in Mississippi and I got faster. Since that day, I have competed overseas, been world ranked and have raced over 150 road races in my career. I am still doing it to this day. I actually have 8 road races planned this year.
Q. What drew you to endurance and obstacle racing events like the Spartan Race?
MM: WOW!!! To be honest with you, I was kinda burnt out of racing and just going through the motions. I have raced so many races and been a lot of places. I was just tired of it and needed a break for a bit. I came across a photo of endurance athlete Todd Love and I saw a man who had no legs and one arm waist deep in the mud. It struck my interest and I then found Spartan Race. I was hooked with the idea of doing something different and I was hooked with the challenge of something new. Obstacle Court Racing. Can a man in a wheelchair do OCR? I didn’t know, but I was about to find out.
Q. How did you prepare for it? What adaptations did you make so you could complete it?
MM: I reached out to Spartan Race and was told, I could try. “YOU CAN TRY!” That was all I needed to hear. It was just enough to encourage me to train and it was enough I needed for someone to doubt my ability. “You CAN TRY” was to me doubt that someone else had in me. I have loved to always prove people wrong and this was another time to do so. I made it public that I was going to do it and my friends I had grown up with decided they wanted to do it with me. So, there we went. We knew nothing about Spartan Race and we went at it blindly. We had a blast and We finished it together. I had no intentions of doing another. I finished a goal and I was happy with that.
Q. But then…
MM: Shortly after the Georgia Spartan Race in March 2013, Spartan Race posted a photo on Facebook and someone made the comment that there was no way a man in a wheelchair could have done it and that the team had to have carried me the entire way.
Q. I saw that photo, and that comment. The Spartan Race organizers posted in response supporting you. I remember it because I started following you on Facebook after that.
MM: I was hurt, angered and blown away. I did my best and I tried every single obstacle. We did it together as a team. So, I then thought what could I do to prove to people that a person in a wheelchair could be athletic in the OCR WORLD! O. K., SPARTAN DEATH RACE!! Go from Spartan Sprint to the Death Race. Crazy huh? Yeah it was and it was what I needed to prove that I was worthy to be in the OCR world! I lasted 25 hours before cut on a time hack. I worked my tail off and gained respect of many from the Death Race. I had proven I was able to compete and be known in the OCR world as an athlete not a disabled person.
Q. What’s the meaning behind the team name “Dirtbags” and how do you find people to become a Dirtbag?
MM: Now, the DIRTBAGS! HAHAHA!!! Where do I start? O.K. the meaning behind the name “DIRTBAGS”… it started up as a few friends that decided they wanted to do an OCR event and they called themselves the “DIRTBAGS” and the name stuck. I met many of the founding 7 last year at the 2013 Georgia Spartan Sprint and later on we just started talking. The goal was just to do an event with them. That was all they wanted because they knew it would be fun. The opportunity came up and I was asked to become the final member at number 8. I had to do a race with them and prove to them I was worthy of wearing that orange jersey and well, let’s just say I wear it with pride now. The group consists of prior marines, their wives or girlfriends and we are one big happy family. We work as a team and we work well together. One thing you will always see out of us, is that we are close and on the course, we are even closer. We are well known through out the OCR world as exactly what we are, We are loud, fun and would help any fellow athlete along the way. But don’t get into it with one, because if you do, well, let’s just say you have the rest to deal with.. we are like a biker gang without the bikes. Well, I have a wheelchair, that could be a bike… LOL!!!!!!!!!
Q. What is your training like?
MM: I compete in two sports and I train for both weekly. I never take one week to train for one without training for the other.. My weekly routine is 3 days on 1 day off, 2 days on 1 day off. The racing chair is anaerobic and aerobic at the same time. It is cardio and strength mixed with endurance. It depends on what I am training for on how I train in the racer. If I am training for speed and short distance like a 10k, it is more sprint workouts like 1 hour of 1 min on 1 min off with average strokes of 100 per minute. That will burn your body quick…lol. If I am training for distance, it s miles and miles of pushing, steady pushing the country roads.
My OCR/Functional training consist of a lot of H.I.I.T Training with my trainer twice a week. it consist of heavy sandbags, tire flips, sledge hammers and some heavy objects. Not your typical gym stuff. Kellye Davis Williams over at Kellye Personal Fitness assists me in my training. She modifies the class workouts for me so I can train alongside of other people. It is more fun and I am not segregated from the group..
Q. Take us through the average training day of Michael Mills, athlete. I see you roll uphill with a weighted vest and throw tires around as part of your training. What other adaptations to exercises do you make?
MM: Typical training day would go something like this. Let’s say I am doing a 1 hour training day with both sports. I would start out with a simple warm up of 30 to 50 pushups, 30 to 50 dips, a 5minute warm up in the racer with a few pickup sprints at 80% speed and then I would do a 30 minute roller work at a level 2 (meaning I could carry on a conversation with minimal shortness of breath). After that, I would hit the driveway with my training mask ( it is an elevation mask that restricts my breathing and simulates high altitude training) and flip the tractor tire for 3 times out and 3 times back, 30 pushups, 1 minute of high jntensity battle ropes, 30 murpees (modified burpees), 30 crunches, 1 minute of sledge hammers slams, 30 pushups, 1 minute of kettle bell swings, 30 murpees, 1 minute of tractor tire presses (get under one end and do chest presses), 30 crunches. Rest for 2 minutes and then repeat until 30 minutes is up. This is all done in my garage on this day. I sometimes add a 45lb weight vest to my routine for added strength.
Q. What is your eating plan like?
MM: Well, I try to eat as clean as possible but I don’t always eat the best but I try. My diet consists of a high protein, medium carb, medium fat, low calorie plan. My typical day is 4 egg whites, 6 oz of lean turkey sausage, 1 cup of mixed peppers and onions, along with a cup of dark berries, like blackberries or blueberries and a handful of almonds. Snack is Core Power Protein Shake as I am at the office by then, lunch is typically 6 to 8 oz of lean chicken, 1 cup of green beans or 1 cup of dark berries and handful of almonds, snack again is of course, Core Power shake, pre-workout is typically ½ can of Spartan Energy, a spoon full of honey and a table spoon of peanut butter, and then after I train, for dinner, it is typically 6 to 8 oz of lean meat, 1 cup of veggies, and another handful of almonds. I drink a lot of water from Aquahydrate and I try to stay away from coffee but it is my biggest vice. I love coffee.
Q. When you aren’t being an athlete, what do you do outside? Any particular place you go to get outside to relax, or to just be outside?
MM: I love the outdoors. Our backyard is a constant playground. We are always out grilling, passing the football, playing tag and especially during the fall, the kids love covering me with leaves.. We also love visiting national history parks and old war battlefields too.That is always fun. Really anything we can do to get outside is perfect. Outside is much more fun than the inside.
Q. What’s the significance of Stone Mountain to you? Why climb it?
MM: Stone Mountain is a mountain that people walk and run up for exercise. It is an awesome mountain that once you reach the top of it, you can see all over Atlanta and the surrounding areas. When I first went to Stone Mountain, my oldest son and wife climbed it and as I waited at the bottom for them, I saw people smiling after they finished the climb. I asked one person and she said the view after the climb was amazing. It made me want to do it. So, I decided to crawl up it. I became the first paralyzed person to climb the mountain in its history. This past February was the second time I scaled it and this will now be a yearly event I put on for people to climb up it with me.
Q. Please tell us about the charity you represent on the climbs.
MM: When I decided I would climb Stone Mountain, I decided I would try and raise money for a local charity in the process. The charity is called Bert’s Big Adventure (www.bertsbigadventure.com ) This nonprofit helps raise money for terminally and chronically ill children to go to Disney World with their families for one week. In that one week, these families don’t have to worry about doctor appointments, checkups and etc. They get to be a family and the kids get to be real kids. This hits home with me because when I was paralyzed, if it hadn’t been for the community and the people around my home that helped my family out, I would not be where I am today. Plus, once you see these kids’ faces and the fact that your donation and support is the reason for the smile… Well, that makes it all worth it.. I will climb any mountain for them just so I know they get to enjoy life!
Q. I see the Spartan Race is one of your sponsors. Who else is sponsoring you?
MM: My current sponsors are Reebok Spartan Race, I am the first official Sponsored Pro Adaptive Athlete that is paralyzed. I am also sponsored by Endevr/Strength Tape, Aquahydrate Sports Water, Core Power Protein Shakes, Training Mask, Shepherd Center Wheelchair Racing Team, Xcalibur Sports Chairs, Pro-Lite Disc Wheels, Challenge Racing Tires, GeigerRig Hydration Systems, prosok.com, Spartan Energy, Woodhams Eye Clinic, Black Palm Syndicate and Ostrim Jerky.
Q. What are your future racing plans?
MM: This year, I am going for the Spartan Trifecta. I am planning on climbing the Rocky Steps this year. I would also like to get into handcycle racing as well. I have a few cool ideas planned but will let them be plans for now until I am ready to announce them.
Q. What do you want people to leave with after reading your story?
MM: First and Foremost, I want people to know that “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!” Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because of a disability. Next, I want people see athletes such as myself as an adaptive athlete, not a disabled athlete. The word disabled is such a negative word and the definition is “to make ineffective, unfit, or incapable, as by crippling.” I am by no means any of these words and that is why I want people to use the term adaptive instead of disabled. Adaptive meaning, “to adjust (someone or something, esp oneself) to different conditions, a new environment, etc.” The word adaptive suits me for who I am and what I do. Lastly, teamwork is key to achieving goals and reaching new heights. Without the support of my fellow Dirtbags, my wife, family and my sponsors, I would not be where I am today.
Q. Where can people keep up with your races and other activities?
MM: The best place to follow me is on www.facebook.com/chasingmichaelmills and always check out the www.spartanrace.com blog section as I post blogs from time to time. You can follow the Dirtbags at https://www.facebook.com/DirtbagsOCR
Q. Thank you, Michael, for the interview.