ON THE DAY BEFORE NATASHA WODAK MADE HER RETURN TO STREET RACING, THE 35-YEAR-OLD OLYMPIAN WAS IN HIGH HEELS AND A RED DRESS ON QUEEN STREET WEST IN TORONTO, BRINGING TRAFFIC TO A HALT.
By: Ben Kaplan
A smorgasbord of male runners laid strewn at her feet. Wodak, born and raised in Surrey, B.C., not far from where she still lives a 45-minute drive from her parents’ house, had reached the greatest heights of any long-time competitive Canadian racer: competing for her country in the 2016 Olympic Games. But something felt lacking in her journey and, after being slowed by a toe injury, she wanted things to be diffe- rent in her return to the sport that she loves.
At the shoot, Wodak was generous with her time, experimental with her pictures and entirely at ease, at least seemingly so, with her place in the world. It’s hard to imagine this smiling and friendly, albeit, ferocious racer who goes by the nickname T.Fierce, was once saddled by depression, anxious and unable to sleep. What compounds this contrast but serves as a reminder to all runners, elite or back-of- the-pack, is that Wodak was at her unhappiest when she was in her best shape, physically, and about to step on the largest starting line of a life spent in sports. Even Olympians are humans, Wodak discove- red. She tried being a machine, it didn’t work.
“I was in a place in my life where I didn’t feel settled and coach Richard and I were battling and I was single and 34, wondering, ‘Am I ever going to meet someone?’ I felt lonely and like I gave up a lot for the Olympic dream and it didn’t feel like I thought it would,” says Wodak, whose frank, matter-of-fact nature is disarming in person and a bit surprising, given her appearance makes her look more like the models who usually create the congestion on Queen Street West than the Olympian that she is. “Here I was training away, and not happy. I didn’t get to do the races I wanted and every race was really important and stressful. Really, I missed having a life, having fun.”
Wodak did a few things in short order to get her life back under control. She saw a doctor and was prescribed pills to help with her sleeping. She met a man who was stable and kind and, as doctors operated on her toe, fell in love. And then Natasha found a new coach. While still on good terms with Richard Lee, a famous Vancouver-based coach who has trained Dylan Wykes, Richard Mosely, Sue Lee, his Olympian wife, and countless more, Wodak signed up with Lynn Kanuka, who’s not only an old family friend and Olympic bronze medalist but seemed to share a similar ethos: the goal is to run faster times—indeed, Wodak will be competing at the IAAF World Championships this August in London. However, no more agonizing over every race, every training run, every practice, every pound. If Wodak is going to devote her time and attention—her heart and her soul—to running, she’s going to approach the sport differently. Her gift is no longer a sentence. It’s a chance to be free.
“She’s a hard worker and very committed and, at the same time, she’s well-rounded. I use the term ‘spunky,’” says Kanuka, reached in Vancouver after a training session with Wodak and her son, Jack. At today’s session, which focused on cadence and speed—Kanuka believes that for Wodak to get faster in 10,000-metres (10K), she needs to get faster first at 1,5000 and 5,000-metres, get fast at the short stuff and you’ll be faster when you run long—the weather was typical Vancouver, wind and rain. But instead of getting discou- raged, the team ran in the trails, enjoyed their morning and, by the time they returned to the track, the weather had cleared.
“Natasha’s best running is still very possible in her future; she has a lot of mileage in her back pocket, but at this stage of her life, she knows herself and knows that you have to feel like you like what you’re doing in order to succeed,” says Kanuka. “We’re having fun and not worrying about too much of anything other than that.”
Indeed, following her shoot, Wodak had a glass of red wine and a plate of sushi, smiled and said: “I feel so much more happy and settled since the Olympics that whatever happens next with my running, honestly? It’s just icing on the cake.”
This is the part where Wodak’s story gets exciting and why running can bring so much pleasure to not just participants, but also to fans. The next morning in Toronto, at the Race Roster Spring Run-Off 8K, Wodak won. It wasn’t a deep field and her time of 27:55 didn’t rewrite the books, but she smiled as she crossed the finish line and, even though she’s without a sponsor and still working through a delicate toe, she radiated joy at the childlike pleasure of being able to run.
“She had some down times, but she’s back now and it’s great to see her run free of pain, it’s exhilarating,” says Patti Wodak, Natasha’s mom. “Natasha has grit and she goes for it—our family motto is, ‘Never Say Die.’”
For Wodak, the race was the start of a rapid comeback, but the experience was taken in stride. “I feel fortunate to feel happy and healthy because I know where I was,” she says. “I’m thankful for my struggles because I learned appreciation and Alan, my boyfriend, Lynn, my coach, and I, we all feel excited about what the future may bring.”
In road racing, the future is never far off and in quick succession, Wodak raced again and again. After the Race Roster 8K in April, Wodak competed in May at the BMO half-marathon in Vancouver,
her hometown race. At the start line, she flashed the peace sign. Again, there were no expectations. Again, Wodak took the win for the Canadian women, running so quickly that she was only six seconds off the course record. The girl from B.C. felt thrilled to race among family and friends. “My plan for the race was to go out conservatively and I was waiting for the pain to set in, but it didn’t come,” says Wodak, relaying her experience with a measure of thrilled disbelief.
Wodak’s PBs are all over the Canadian records. She holds Canada’s national record in 10,000 metres, set in Palo Alto in 2015 at a speed of 31:41:59, and the national record for the 8K distance—running 25:28:5 in 2015 in Saanichton, B.C. Of course, Wodak’s older now. But as all runners know, lots of factors come into play on any given day’s perfor- mance. Wodak has always had drive, strength and power. But now she has experience, grati- tude and belief.
In the fall, after the World Championships in London, Wodak wants to take a shot at Lanni Marchant’s Canadian women’s record in the half-marathon, a time of 1:10:47. (Her PB is 1:11:20, third fastest Canadian women’s half-marathon of all-time). And for now, the professional racer just keeps doing her work.
In late May, after Vancouver, Wodak lined up at the Canadian 10K Championships in Ottawa and took second place among female Canadian women to Rachel Cliff. And though she was disappointed with the outcome—a result of running too fast too soon and unde- restimating the heat—she has the Toronto Waterfront 10K in June and remains feeling happy about both her recent efforts and her state of mind.
In Ottawa, we met up with Wodak a few hours before her race, as she took in the expo with Alan by her side and posed for photo- graphs with fans. Again, she was generous with her time, smiling, not the least bit vain about appearances or seemingly nervous about her race, which was the Canadian championships of all things. Natasha Wodak, T. Fierce, Olympian, seemed to be having a blast.
“Do I think I have faster times in me? Of course I do, or I wouldn’t be training so hard, but I’m going to do it my way,” she said. “I know, running and otherwise, the way I want my life to be. Coming from where I came from, let me tell you—I’m thankful for today.”