The inside of the Cabbagetown Boxing Club is exactly what you’d expect to see when you walk into a boxing gym. Walls are littered with vintage fight posters from Ali and Duran. Just outside the men’s change room is a tribute to Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo.
It’s loud–the thud of the heavy bag punctuating all activity. A sound system that indicates various intervals and the end of a round of sparring has to be even louder so fighters in the ring can actually hear it. There’s a section for weight training and an open floor space where a few guys jump rope and work through warmup drills. One gentleman, bald and covered in tattoos, smiles and sings along to Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” as he skips, which helps take the edge off the somewhat intimidating atmosphere.
Heather Hopkins is one of the fighters pounding away at the heavy bag when I walk in. She’s been training at Cabbagetown for a decade now and has about 40 amateur fights under her belt. For the last few years, she’s also worn the hat of trainer. Once she’s taken her recruits through a final seven minutes of core work to end their session for the evening, we move to an office space at the back of the gym that was formerly used by a sports psychologist. Between our chairs is a duffel bag filled with boxing gloves.
It’s not the site I would have ever expected to interview a 15 time marathoner, but that’s what Heather is, balancing two passions informed by what she describes as her perpetual need to move. “I’m a work in progress,” Heather explains. “I’m always looking for a challenge and whatever new thing I find, I just want to be really good at it.”
Boxing came first. “I walked by a gym on Yonge Street, saw some guys hitting the bag, and I felt like I had to do that,” Heather says. From there it was a natural progression to competition. “The gym I was at wasn’t producing fighters and I was told that if I wanted to compete I had to go to Cabbagetown.”
At that point, Heather was in her late twenties. Cabbagetown trainer Johnny informed Heather that she was a bit old to be starting out and that Coach Pete Wylie needed at least three years to build a fighter. Heather assured them she was committed.
Fighters, of course, are required to do roadwork. No training montage is complete without a shot of a boxer trotting along in sweats and throwing jabs and straights at the imaginary opponent in front of them. “Coach Wylie needed me running about three or four times a week, but I hated the basic running program he gave me,” Heather says. “I just did it because I was told to and I always do my homework,” she adds with a laugh.
Much like her foray into the ring, it was the notion that she could compete and be the best that made Heather adopt running wholeheartedly. “At first, I’d see others running, but I didn’t consider myself one of them; I was just a fighter doing roadwork.”
Racing changed all of that.
During the Cabbagetown Festival, Heather was surprised to find herself first among the women in the “mini marathon,” which she describes as “really just a mad dash through the neighbourhood for a mile.” The race experience, which pulled her up to greater distances from the 10K to the marathon, is part of what made Heather feel like she actually belonged to this thing everyone called the running community.
“I think I really did get the runner’s high and gradually started to find things I enjoyed about running,” Heather says. Those things included “…exploring my own city the further I went. Without realizing it I began to enjoy it.”
It’s now been 15 marathons for Heather, including a win at the Cornwall Marathon, her hometown race. It’s a remarkable achievement to excel at two very different athletic pursuits. While roadwork has always been a part of the fighter’s repertoire, marathon training is it’s own beast. Heather insists, however, that they complement each other well. “There’s a mental toughness required for both,” she explains. “When I’m running a long distance on a Sunday and trying to push through it I remember sparring sessions where I’ve had it tough and then you remember the fight you have in you. There is so much to fight against within and without.”
In practice, balancing the demanding training of two sports can be a bit more of a challenge. “I still don’t really work from a formal plan,” Heather confesses. Her marathon training is a hodge-podge of her roadwork, Sunday long runs with the Eastbound Run Crew, and daily run commutes from her day job to the gym. Six to ten rounds of sparring also registers as decent endurance training.
She’s managed to tack on some track work as of last year and even managed to enjoy it, commenting, “I thought it was the best. Whatever work you put in front of me, I’ll do it, so I loved having a track workout in front of me. The opportunity to run fast was something I liked.”
The approach is simple for Heather. She loves fighting and she’s come to love running. She also loves the work that both require, so there’s no sense in half-assing it. Neither was a bucket-list or “one and done” venture. The extreme competitiveness hasn’t faded altogether, but is balanced with that sense that she’s a work in progress. “That person may be faster than me on any given day or in any given moment,” Heather says, “but there are always things I can do in order to be better in another moment. I’m still working on being able to accept things I can’t control and be okay with it.”
“I feel comfortable calling myself a runner and am confident in that,” is how Heather describes her greatest area of improvement. “I feel that as a fighter and a runner, my opportunity is still there and I want to be involved in both in some capacity as long as I can be. If I can run forever, I will.”
Like her idol Anne Wolfe, who went from decorated amateur to professional fighter to elite trainer and even to actress, Heather is open to new ways in which she might challenge herself and feed her need for movement.
Follow Heather’s adventures at @hopalong.heather.