I’ve come to understand that grief can have one of two effects on your life; it can stall your progress forward (athletically, professionally, personally), forcing you to drag it like an anchor until both mind and body submit and give up the fight. Or, if you’ll let it, experiencing loss can serve as a catalyst to let go of perceived and often insignificant mental and emotional burdens, creating space for whatever it is that drives you and truly powers your happiness.
At the time of my 29th birthday in early February 2015, I’d begun my typical “new year, new season” race scheduling routine. I had my season’s bookend races secured, along with a handful of events in mind to fill the remaining weeks and months. I’d coordinated with my coach to transition out of base building mode and into my typical four week training block cycle, and was getting nutrition dialled in. Everything right on track.
In the week following my birthday, I answered a call from my sister, telling me that our father was in the hospital. Within six days, we’d lost him. While he’d been ill for several months, the seemingly sudden nature of his passing was gut wrenching. Navigating the process of emotionally accepting the loss while also supporting my family was, at its best, overwhelming. At its worst? Full scale emotional detachment. I returned to work quickly, perhaps too quickly. Not out of necessity driven by deadlines or schedule constraints, but rather by my own need to emotionally compartmentalize the loss and cling to some semblance of normalcy.
This attempt at “fight or flight” also extended to my training schedule. Or, I should say, my sudden lack thereof. My coach advised that I take time off, that I disengage from the need to train/focus on race season. “Just take care of you” was a phrase spoken often. Being the slightly stubborn, dig-my-heels-in-even-if-it-kills-me type, I thought I knew better. After two weeks of mental and physical downtime, I decided I would take myself to the gym, jump on the treadmill, and do what had always brought me so much joy: run. I lasted less than 10 minutes before I stopped the belt, sobbing like a five year old who had just dropped her ice cream cone. The first time I tried to swim? I had a small but very real panic attack halfway down my 50m lane and had to breaststroke back to the wall. First trainer ride? Lasted all of half an hour before my mind told me, “This is stupid, you’re sweating your butt off but literally going nowhere.” In the span of a couple months, I’d mentally quit (about half a dozen times) road running, triathlon, being a social human being, and very nearly my job out of simply not wanting to answer any more questions about what had happened. I was certain my race season was trashed, and came to the conclusion that I no longer cared.
Then, of all things, Facebook threw me a lifeline. A pinned post in my newsfeed from a local running group starting up their Spring urban trail series. Trail running? Running on dirt…Through the mud and trees…Runs that frequently required bear spray…And can lead to falls by way of tree roots and rocks…By one’s own choice? Completely absurd. As it happens, absurdity can be quite cathartic.
From the first time my feet hit a trail, I felt something profound. No, not the mud soaking through my shoes, or my shins getting scuffed up on a fall, or my quads screaming on an epically brutal climb. It was what all of those things brought me; happiness. Pure, absurd, “wish I could do this all day every day” kind of happiness. Despite the grief and pain I was carrying, being surrounded by the elements of nature that my dad had taught me to love as a child was so emotionally freeing, it was almost indescribable. Filling my lungs with fresh air, feeling the ground pushing back against my soles, taking in the hidden beauty that Calgary affords anyone willing to seek it out. I had never felt anything like it. I hadn’t felt that close to my dad and my memories of him since he’d passed, and was overcome with emotion on more than one occasion. But rather than forcing me to stop, my grief was, and continues to be, the mental rocket fuel I needed to help me chase that feeling and return to myself. Couple that with the community of new friends I’d met and come to love, and I felt like I had found the secret to an everlastingly happy life. Imagine that; all that goodness from something that I was almost certain I’d hate.
Finding solace in trail running, ironically, also reignited my drive for road racing. But while the muscle memory returned and the training sessions left me physically stronger than I’d ever been, the thought of racing without being able to share those moments with both of my parents was mentally crippling. My mother is a rock, MY rock. But the feeling of half of me being absent has not been an easy one to escape. Luckily, the release that trail has brought me has left me with the realization that I don’t have to be on a dirt trail to feel dad’s spirit with me. Every time I step out the door to do something that I love, be it running, riding, climbing, volunteering, or just laying in the sun with a good book, he’s there with me. His memory lives on through my happiness, my adventurous spirit, and yes, even my stubborn, “You can’t tell me I can’t” take on life.
Through support from friends and family, and my own self enforced “Just keep moving forward” mantra, I managed to carve out a stronger season than I would have thought possible. There were days when I truly doubted whether I could get out of bed and function like a normal human being or not. Yet every time I’ve crossed the mat at the end of a race since dad’s passing, those feelings of doubt are replaced with the gentle reminder from him that I’m much stronger than I think I am.
Grief is like a fingerprint; its a little different for everyone. The one consistency is what grief tries to do; rob us of our joy. And the moment we submit and stop living our lives with the purpose of remaining driven toward creating our own happiness, grief succeeds.
So smile, even when it hurts. And let go of the anchor.