This story first appeared in the May/June edition of Canadian Running
Movement has largely defined my life. I think better and feel better about myself when I am in motion, it’s how I express myself to the world. It has been my panacea. One of my first coaches told me that “motion is lotion” – this motto largely defines my world view, however, for most of my adult life I have associated moving with competition and trying to win races. That hasn’t always been the case.
My earliest childhood memories are of running around the block, playing tag, chasing a ball and swimming in the ocean getting pounded by a beach break. Movement is how I interacted with the world, my friends and my family. As I grew older my movement became more structured. I joined sports teams and began competing. That led me onto the varsity swim team and cross-country running teams, then onto national teams in triathlon, duathlon, mountain running, ultrarunning and ski mountaineering. Throughout those years, I was surrounded by some of the best endurance athletes in the world and some of the top movement analysts in Canada with my coaches, physiotherapists, massage therapists and chiropractors. Together we trained hard and studied the intricacies of sport, analyzing the smallest detail to try and eke out the ultimate performance from my body. I took a lot of pride and pleasure in that process and it’s led me to have some incredibly profound and moving experiences in some of the most beautiful, remote and challenging environments and events in the world. I felt I had largely mastered my body and the various forms of movement that I have asked of it over the years.
On Aug. 31, 2016, I lost my mastery and came within inches of losing my identity. I found myself in a broken heap, surrounded by blood, lying face down in a pile of jagged, sharp scree at the base of a mountain. I had fallen over 200 feet down a series of cliffs while doing an alpine run with Nick Elson and Dakota Jones, two of the best mountain runners in the world. I was lucky to be alive.
By all accounts, the fall should have killed me, but for whatever reason it just wasn’t my time yet. I stayed conscious throughout the fall and once I stopped tumbling, the first thing I did was to try to move again. I wiggled my toes to see if I was paralyzed – they moved. That simple, tiny, seemingly insignificant initial burst of movement meant everything to me and it brought me immediate joy, but I knew I was still in serious trouble. I could tell by the pain that shot through my body as I rolled my broken carcass over onto my back and by the blood that surrounded me that my situation was critical, but I could still move, which meant I could live.
My next thought was that although I could move, now was a time to stay calm and still. Not moving was now how I would stay alive. My friends, the Parks Canada Search and Rescue Team and the medical first responders were able to get me off the mountain and stabilize me. I owe them my life. I spent over eight hours in surgery. I awoke with metal holding my body together. I was told that I had broken my T8-T11 spine, I had broken my hip and my ankle and I had severe lacerations across my entire body. As I came to from my post-surgical haze, I found myself surrounded by my family and the people I care about most. I instantly realized that they are what my life is really about. This realization struck me to my core. They had travelled from around the world to be by my side when I needed it most, that gave me incredible strength, because at that moment, coming out of surgery I was scared. I knew that the life I had known, my life of easy movement and athletic success would forever be changed.
My surgeon came into the room and told me that the surgeries were all very positive and that the bones that I had broken, although severe, were largely non-weight bearing and I would likely make a full recovery. His words confused me. What does full recovery look like to him? Did he know that recovery to me meant running for a 100 miles up and down mountains faster than most? Was he telling me that I would be able to do that again? Or was he just saying that I would one day walk and may run a little? Would I be able to take my children into the mountains one day and chase them around? Would I run another race? Would I win another race? I was holding on to my old understanding of what movement meant. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by pain, both emotional and physical, and almost instantly fell asleep, never getting an answer. I don’t know if I ever even vocalized the questions.
When I came to again, a day or so later, my family was still there by my side. We spent a lot of time touching each other. The simple movement of a hug, holding hands, or having my swollen legs and feet massaged was my new life force. I always thought that “motion is lotion” meant challenging my limits, I suddenly realized that even the smallest of movement can have a profound impact. The concept of motion is lotion took on new meaning to me.
A day or so after my surgery, the hospital physiotherapist came by to see me and he told me that we had to work on my endurance so that I could regain my strength to get up and go to the bathroom. He told me that I had to move and that the sooner I could move, the quicker my recovery would be. Once again I was being told that “motion is lotion.” Regardless, I had to laugh at his statement. Less than 48 hours before I counted myself as one of the best mountain ultrarunners in the world, of course I could walk the three feet to the bathroom stall. I tried to get up and was instantly paralyzed by shooting pain throughout my body. That feeling scared me. I no longer really knew my body and what I would be capable of. I had no way of knowing what my full recovery would mean.
Despite my fear and the uncertainty about my physical future, I decided at that moment to let go of all my expectations about what movement meant to me. Movement was no longer about competing and winning. Movement instantly became about enjoying life. I knew that I would have to learn how to move again. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to run up a mountain, I didn’t know if I would be able to race, but I did know one thing – that I would have to embrace the process of learning how to use my new body, just as I had enjoyed the process of honing and perfecting my movement as a world-class athlete. With my friends, my family, my fiancée and my support network by my side, I began the slow road back to movement.
As I took my first steps, then my first strides, “motion is lotion” has gone back to what it meant to me as a child. It means a chance to learn about myself, it means healing my psychological wounds from my accident. It means having special connections with those nearest and dearest to me. It means getting out and embracing the world around me. Motion is lotion now means healing, love, connection and appreciation. I will continue to embrace that motto, sharing it with those around me, just as my coach once shared it with me, and I will continue to move for as long as my body and mind will let me.