Kate Van Buskirk won bronze for Canada at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She’s currently training for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
I’m sitting on the covered patio in front of our condo in Scottsdale, Arizona sipping on a post-run coffee and stretching my tired legs out on the chair across from me. I gaze down at my sunburnt thighs, a reminder of how close we are to the unrelenting sun. Its hard to find shade in the desert and most of my runs trace the canal systems that cut like veins through this arid land supplying water to the cities and farms, the life blood of the Copper State. I’m getting darker every day, and the tan lines that give away every athlete are becoming increasingly pronounced: sports bra, shorts, compression socks, sunglasses, watch. My body is a patchwork of white and brown; Canada and Arizona.
Training in the American southwest is a new experience for me. Each winter for the last three years I’ve traveled to Florida to escape the snow and cold for a few weeks, but the best early season races are in California so basing in the neighbouring state makes far more sense. March in Scottsdale, April in Flagstaff, May in California…not a bad way to welcome spring! The cacti and sunbeams make for a pretty spectacular setting and my body seems to appreciate it as much as my mind does. Each workout is faster than the last, and it’s relieving to feel my fitness coming around. There are few things that I love more than being right in the thick of a training cycle, churning out 120km weeks, inching closer to race pace, ending my days exhausted, exhilarated and hungry for more. This is the good life: when the body is fit and healthy, the mind is tuned in and the heart is full.
But it isn’t always this way.
Every track and field athlete in Canada will face a laundry list of obstacles throughout their athletic career that make them question their commitment to this sport: injury, illness, a crushing loss, a disappointing season, nomad’s fatigue, being flat broke, the internal debate between sticking it out for one more year or just moving on to a real job already. Knowing that these experiences are shared by our tight-knit community of athletes provides some solace, but as we watch more and more of our friends walk away from the track and move on to start families, careers and RRSP’s, its hard not to wonder if this pursuit is worth the sacrifice.
Like most elite athletes, I’ve dealt with each of the aforementioned challenges. And, as I’ve realized is also true for many athletes, these challenges have been compounded by anxiety and depression. My struggle with mental illness seemed in its worst moments like the thing that most defined me, even as I was experiencing the greatest athletic success of my collegiate career. In my last year at Duke I set an NCAA record and 3 Duke school records, earned 2 All-American titles, anchored our Blue Devils to a 4x800m victory at the Penn Relays, and ran personal bests just about every time I stepped on the track. I was being recognized as one of the top mid-distance runners in the NCAA in the same semester that I was struggling to get out of bed or attend classes. I was both protected and terrified by this image, constantly afraid that the grand illusion would be shattered and my vulnerable side would be revealed.
One of the greatest and most counterintuitive things I’ve learned in the 4 years since returning home from university is that the more vulnerable I’ve allowed myself to be, the stronger I’ve become. Just like the injuries, the illnesses, the financial stressors and the uncertainty about the future, the more I’ve talked about dealing with depression and anxiety the more I’ve found support, understanding and community. I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge about myself as an athlete and as a person, and I’ve equipped myself with information and tools to move forward on this journey as peacefully and optimistically as possible. And I get more excited about the journey every day.
I vividly remember a workout that I did at the Chinguacousy Park track in my hometown of Brampton when I was in middle school. I was preparing for the North American Hershey Track and Field Games, by far the biggest race of my young life. I was running 400m repeats and my dad was coaching me; other than the two of us, the stadium was empty. As I began my last interval, my dad told me to imagine myself running the best race of my life, and to use this as motivation to finish the workout as fast as I could. I’m sure he intended for me to envision myself competing well at the Hershey meet, but the image that came into my 13 year-old mind was of crossing the finish line at the Olympics. I had no real frame of reference for this other than what I’d seen on TV, but as I rounded the final turn on the track I pictured a stadium roaring with energy, me wearing a Canadian racing kit, and the Olympic rings above me. At 13 I knew innately that I wanted to be an Olympian, and that desire has fuelled my athletic drive for the last 15 years.
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are now just over a year away, and the excitement builds with each passing day. But while my dream of becoming an Olympian has intensified over the years, it now shares its spot in my heart with other experiences and desires. Over the last decade, I have had the great fortune of representing Canada at 8 major international events and each has brought me enormous pride, extraordinary learning opportunities and memories that will stay with me throughout my life. Competing at the Olympics would surely be an unparalleled experience, but it would be just one set of memories within a much larger anthology that will collectively define my athletic career.
I’m also never navigating this journey alone. I have such an enormous love affair with the running community, who constantly surprises and inspires me, and which cannot be adequately described as anything other than an awesome, giant family. I feel this community beside me every time I lace up my shoes, and the tremendous sense of purpose that this brings helps to keep me grounded. Through the successes and the disappointments, I am buoyed by my love for my sport and the people who comprise it.
There is always something to look forward to, and before the Olympics can fully enter my radar, I have this summer’s Pan Am Games and World Championships to prepare for. Neither team will be announced until late June, so for now I’ll run through the desert, my head full of dreams, my heart full of love, and my body readying itself for whatever the next step may be.