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Benji aims to complete 50km in eleven hours - Wheelchair Ultra Marathon Challenge

This Saturday Benji Borrastero, a young wheelchair bound user, who is among the first active parasports persons in Gibraltar will be attempting to complete an eleven hour ultra-marathon by the forecourt of the ICC. After weeks of training Mr Borrastero, who recently completed his studies in the UK and has returned to Gibraltar to now work at the Gibraltar Sports and Leisure Authority has a goal of completing up to 35km on his wheelchair in the eleven-hour period, although his main objective is to try and reach the 50-60km mark and raise awareness.
His challenge once again brings to the forefront the issues which is faced by many a disabled person. A young man with a passion for sport Benji Borrastero has been at the forefront in recent years in a drive to try and bring sports to a disabled community under the parasports banner. Having competed in the UK in various sports and now returning to Gibraltar his challenge, which aims to bring awareness on disabled issues also brings to the forefront the many complex issues many of us forget when considering inclusivity in our society.
The challenge coincides with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and is aimed in support of the local charity Possabilities who this Saturday also hold their Journey to Lapland event at Lathbury. It also comes in a year in which issues on disabilities have been at the forefront of many in sport, especially after the successful completion of a gruelling climb of Med Steps at the end of the Summer by Eric Rowbottom, a wheelchair bound user who has for decades been at the forefront of attempts to try and bring sports closer to the disabled community. Although both have been navigating their wheelchairs down separate paths their efforts now converge to heighten the significance of a re-evaluation of sports ideology behind inclusivity as more sports organisations start to ask themselves questions on how to step into the future to provide for greater inclusivity as awareness is raised on the issue, especially on the perspectives being taken on the issues.
Benji Borrastero has kept his momentum in trying to bring to Gibraltar the parasport association something which is one of his passions to fullfill.
We had a chance to ask Benji about his challenge before he sets out this Saturday in what is an endurance challenge few of us would even consider trying out for.

You will be undertaking an 11 hour wheelchair ultra marathon this weekend outside of the ICC. What will this entail and what distance do you expect you will be doing?

“This is going to entail me pushing my wheelchair near-continuously from 8am to 7pm outside of the ICC on an Invictus Active Trainer (think the equivalent of a wheelchair treadmill). With the exception of bathroom breaks and a small food break I won’t stop pushing. I’m aiming for a distance of at least 50km, but given how my training has been going I’m going to push for 60km or more!”

Such a challenge requires endurance and a lot of preparation. How have you prepared for these event?
“I’ve been going to the gym for months now and working with a trainer named Paul MacGregor to build up the strength that I need. Recently though, there’s been a lot of focus on endurance training (often doing multiple sets of 15 or more repetitions with no break), the mental game (how to stay focused and not give up), nutrition and simply pushing my wheelchair for up to 6 hours to get a feel for the event.
If you count the time I spent thinking whilst pushing my wheelchair I’ve easily spent more time focusing on the mental and nutritional side of this because of how important they’ll be.”

What is your main aim in trying to complete such a challenge?
“My main aim is to raise awareness of the benefits of mobility aids. More often than not people look at things like wheelchairs, crutches etc. as “disabling” because they are used by people with disabilities. I want to show how untrue this is. My wheelchair ENABLES me to do so much. Pushing myself to do something that most non-disabled people would struggle to do, without the need of mobility aids, shows just how true this is.
“I’m also using this opportunity to raise money for the charity PossAbilities. I think they’re doing amazing work and when we touched base about their Journey to Lapland event this slotted in so naturally. The total distance I travel in my chair will be added to the total being attempted by those walking at Lathbury Sport Complex.”

On a personal level, forgetting the awareness side of your challenge. What will it mean for you to complete such a challenge, especially when it will be so public?
“To be truly open, as weird as it may sound, this is very much an opportunity to reflect on my past self and almost apologise to myself and my previous wheelchairs for my opinion of them. I tried to use my wheelchair as little as possible growing up but being at university meant I had no family to rely on. Then when I was 20 years old, I pushed my body too far and this resulted in me having to use my wheelchair for my day-to-day tasks. I always used my chair, living my life around trying to use it as a last resort tool and saw it as “disabling”. Reflecting on myself back then I realise how much more active I could have been if I’d been open to using my wheelchair more often. This is my chance to show my past self just how active a wheelchair has made me and doing so as publicly as the ICC heavily solidifies this fact.”

You recently graduated from university and whilst in the U.K. you were able to practise sport. We have spoken about this before in which you advocated for Gibraltar to consider bringing Paralympic sport to the community. How has it been for you on returning and what progress have you seen if any towards more accessibility in sport for people such as yourself?
“My return to Gibraltar was shortly before COVID hit so unfortunately progress towards Parasports was delayed by that fact; but progress is definitely being made now. I’ve been continuing my efforts to create the Gibraltar Parasports Association and aim to hold our first public meeting in 2023 to finally let it expand and grow in all the ways I know it can.
“I know there’s definitely an appetite for it and a lot of people are able to help make it happen. So I’m very optimistic about the future.”

As a sports person yourself, young and I take it with a lot of passion still in you to stay active what is it like for you at the moment with what is available in Gibraltar, especially having come from having been involved actively in competitive events in the U.K?
“It’s been a challenge. My heart has always been with wheelchair basketball, which is obviously a team sport, so it’s not yet been possible to get back into that. But having found weight training in the way that I have has given me back a lot of the drive for competition and improvement.”

The 3rd December is international day of persons with disabilities. Do you feel it is important to have such a day, or do you feel more should be done all year around to keep awareness at the forefront?
“Both have their place, I guess. Awareness all year round is definitely beneficial but having a singular day allows there to be a focus on disabled people and their stories in a way that constant awareness can’t. “

We recently saw Eric Rowbottom complete a gruelling climb of Med Steps which raised a lot of money but also made many people stop and think. First of all how do you feel about what he did? And importantly do you think it highlighted how much more as a community is needed to make people aware of the issues so that people understand the real issues and not just donate?
“Eric’s challenge was definitely a massive undertaking and I can only applaud him for his courage and commitment. What he did was an apt analogy for the struggle of living with a disability in a world that is not designed with such people in mind. We’re hitting two sides of the same coin; he was showing the struggle of being disabled and I’m aiming to show people what can be achieved with the tools that can enable us.”

In the same way as Eric you have an ambitious aim of getting to 35kms and if possible 50km. For you personally what will it mean achieving your objective, especially getting close or on the 50km mark?
“In a word, proud. Like any athlete achieving their next goal we all feel that rush when we succeed. I can’t imagine how exhilarating it will be to hit such a target where everyone can see it happen. Plus I get to do it alongside such a great cause in PossAbilities. Though, like other athletes, I know that it will definitely make me hungry for the next big milestone.”

How important will it be for you to see the support from the public having already received support from many groups across the community?
“I mentioned how important the mental game was earlier and this is a large part of it. Every marathon runner knows that the people watching alongside the track, shouting words of encouragement, give you the inspiration to keep going and push even harder.
“There will also be a second wheelchair and trainer set up for the public to try. Again any distance achieved by members of the public will be added to the total in the Journey to Lapland organised by PossAbilities. If people cannot make it to the Lathbury Sport Complex pop down to the ICC - every kilometer counts whether you can walk it or wheel it! It’ll give me such a rush to see people trying to push alongside me and increase our total distance. Just imagine prominent members of our community trying to keep up…
“I also can’t understate how important the support of my friends and family has been and will continue to be. This would have not been possible if it wasn’t for them.
“Lastly, thanks to the Gibraltar Disability Society for lending me the second treadmill which they funded last year.”

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