I often get asked to do interviews and those interviews frequently involve a series of written questions. I try to answer in full, but do to space constraints, my answers often get edited. Here is an expanded version of questions I was asked for Inner Voice Life a great Vancouver based website that looks to dig a little deeper into what drives, scares and compels athletes to perform. My June 16, 2017 interview with them can be found here
1. What was your journey to beginning in your sport? What did you want to be when you grew up? What ultimately made you decide to pursue your sport?
On a professional standpoint, I always wanted to work in the foreign service as a child. My grandfather was a Canadian diplomat and he had some amazing stories of the countries he worked in. He was a very charismatic, dignified and adventurous person and he greatly influenced my thinking.
My first sporting inspiration came from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. I grew up in West Africa on the coast in Lagos, Nigeria and we didn’t have cable or satellite television and there was no local programming, so all we could watch was imported VHS tapes. One of my father’s work colleagues brought us the entire BBC coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics and I watched the games obsessively on repeat. I now have a rather strange trivia of the games.
These tapes showed me the power of the human spirit and the incredible ability of humans to push themselves to new heights. I really wanted to become an Olympian and visualized myself walking in the opening ceremonies and representing Canada. I really didn’t care what sport it happened in, I found everything interesting.
At the same time, living in a third world country, surrounded by other expatriates from around the world, sport and play was a huge connecting and bonding force for us despite our varied backgrounds. It showed me that sport, play and movement are a sort of universal language and can be a real unifier. Sport doesn’t care who you are, or what your background is.
Because of this, I was incredibly active as a child. I played every sport I could and would do whatever I could to get outside. My main sports at the time were sailing, surfing, skateboarding, swimming, tennis, soccer, track and field and table tennis.
As I grew older and sports became more structured I started to trend towards more endurance based sports. It seemed like I had some natural ability towards putting my head down and working hard. When I first moved to Canada at the age of 17, I loved that x-country skiing and cross country running were great ways to explore the incredible landscapes of Canada. I loved the primal feeling of moving over and across the land under my own power. It also didn’t hurt that I had some initial success at racing these events.
In university, I joined the local triathlon team and qualified for the Canadian Junior National Team competing at the world championships. This was a very special moment for me, because I got to wear the maple leaf and walk in an opening ceremony like I had pictured myself doing a decade before.
I ended up moving out to the National Training Centre in Victoria, BC and competing internationally on the Canadian team for a number of years, hoping to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. I was fortunate to be surrounded by and got to train with some of the best triathletes of the era, people like Simon Whitfield, Peter Reid, Lori Bowden, Greg Bennett, Hamish Carter and Brent McMahon. However in about 2006 I realized that I probably wasn’t good enough to make the Olympic team. I had done everything I could and I loved the sport, but I simply didn’t quite have what it took to be truly world class in triathlon. So instead I became the national team manager and got to go to Beijing as a team supporter. I also applied to law school and was accepted there during that time. I figured that law was a useful degree, even if I never actually practiced law. At the same time, I took up trail and mountain running, which seemed quite time efficient and simple in terms of gear relative to my triathlon days.
One of my favourite aspects of triathlon training was our long runs in the forests and hills around Victoria, BC. I also seemed to get better relative to other athletes the longer and harder our runs got. Around that time, I remember seeing a picture of Scott Jurek running in the forest around Seattle with his dog and reading about these crazy 100-mile runs in the mountains and I found myself drawn towards that style of running.
I signed up for my first trail running race, which happened to be a qualified for the Canadian Mountain Running team. I qualified for the Canadian Long Distance Mountain running team at that race and soon found myself on the start line of the World Long Distance Mountain Running championships at the Jungrau Marathon in Interlaken Switzerland. The race was a marathon up the side of a mountain and finished on a glacier at the base of the Eiger, one of Europe’s most iconic peaks. I ended up finishing 11th at the event and was soon hooked on mountain and ultrarunning. From there I slowly increased the distances of my races, starting with 50kms, then 50-milers and finally 100-mile races.
2. Every athlete needs a tribe. Tell us about how you’ve decided to pick who you have around you while you train and compete.
I train alone a fair bit, mostly due to time constraints. Also, it’s not always easy to find people who want to run long and hard in the mountains. I tend to be drawn to runs and mountain outings that are quite adventurous, something in between running and climbing. Often these runs are a bit too technical for a lot of runners, or involve too much running for many climbers.
I tend to surround myself with curious, ambitious and adventurous people. I like people who aren’t afraid to take chances and who often follow unconventional paths. I find that they often live very rich lives. I would also say that I am most comfortable around people who would describe themselves at introverted, because that’s how I see myself.
In terms of races, I like to race athletes at the top of their game, so I try and choose races with competitive fields as I find it helps me bring the best out of me. Another aspect of racing that I love is that races are a celebration of our sport and the hard work we all put into it. We all spend a lot of time training, it is the bulk of what we do as endurance athletes, racing is a tiny fraction of our interaction with the sport, so it is nice to all come together a few times a year and share that passion. Everyone who races has their own story from the day, the way their preparation and race unfolded, and it is really special to get to hear those individual stories, from the race winners, to the first time runner/racer.
3. What is one bit of wisdom do you take from your sport and impart on your community to help them?
When you’re taking on a big challenge, in order for it not to be overwhelming, it’s much easier to break it into small manageable chunks. When I’m standing on the start line of a 100-mile mountain race and know that it will take me close to, or over, 24-hours to complete it can feel incredibly daunting. I know that it is going to hurt and I know that I will experience highs and lows, so I break the run down, focusing on what I am down here and now. I go mile by mile, or sometimes even shorter breaks than that. I focus on getting to the next bend, up a hill, to a view point, to a rock up the trail and little by little, as I make it to that next point, the distance starts to tick by and I find myself covering ground.
The other thing I am very careful to do is to celebrate small victories. I always have a bit of candy on me and every hour or so of running I give myself a congratulatory reward for making it that far.
Finally, one lesson I have learned is that if you have a problem in a long race it is better to address there and then than wait to deal with it. For instance if you have a small pebble in your shoe, take the minute or so to untie your shoe and get rid of the pebble. If you wait and push through it, the pebble can rub your foot, leading you to limp and eventually it could get so bad that it ends your race. So taking 1 minute to fix a seemingly small problem could save you hours, or the whole race later on. The same applies for problems in life. It is far better to address an issue early on, no matter how insignificant it may feel at the time, because that seemingly minor irritant can grow into a serious problem if not properly `addressed.
4. What’s that one thing in your sport that you didn’t know anything about when you started?
How anyone could run for 100-miles. Although I thought it might be possible, because others were doing it, but it just seemed so improbable and difficult. Even now that I have finished a few of them, I was right, they are rather difficult.
5. When times get tough on-field, where does your mind go? What does your inner voice say? We’ve all wanted to quit at some point (training, a race, the whole sport). Talk us through the moment you first considered quitting.
I have never had a race where I haven’t at least asked myself once why am I doing this, or why don’t I slow down a bit to make it hurt a bit less? The pain is always self-inflicted and coming up with answers to those questions is partly why I do the sport. You will have a thousand different emotions over the course of 10k race or a 100-mile run and you have embrace them all.
The answer to the inner voice is very context specific and depends entirely where I am at emotionally when the feeling comes on. Sometimes I completely disassociate from the pain and discomfort and let my might wander. Other times I focus intently on what I am doing. I think about my form, what my needs may be at the time, do I need food, water and I try execute my strategy.
In other circumstances I will think about some of my training runs, or other races and I remind myself that the discomfort will eventually pass.
Mostly I try to remind myself that I am doing something I love. I have chosen to make myself suffer, to put myself in that place of discomfort. I find that by owning the feeling it looses some of its hold over me. I look at the beauty around me and I try and get energy from my surroundings. I will also try and smile at volunteers, or other competitors as I find that this helps lift my mood.
Although I quit the sport of triathlon, I was ready to move on at that stage in my life. I haven’t once regretted the choice, nor have I looked back on the decision. I instantly began to look for new physical challenges. I think it’s important for us to reinvent ourselves and to keep pushing ourselves throughout our lives. The big sign for me that it is time to move is when I stop to be curious about what I’m doing. When I stop reading about a sport and when I stop wanting to learn more, then I know that I need to look for something new to do.
6. When times get tough off-field, what learnings do you take from your sport that remain relevant?
Having patience is an incredibly useful tool. Knowing that even when I am facing challenges that eventually those feelings will pass if I continue to take care of myself. It can be very easy to be reactionary in day to day life, but taking a step back and keeping the big picture in mind helps me deal with day to day stress.
Also, as in ultrarunning, being mindful of what I’m doing on a day to day and moment to moment basis, while focusing on always moving forward has been a huge help.
I also use a lot of my training principles in tackling my day to day problems. I often seek out expert advise, I try and remain curious at all times and I try to not get bogged down in day to day minutiae. When you are following a training program, no single workout makes a difference, it’s the cumulative effect of all your training that matters, so I train and be as consistent as possible. I know that I will have some good days and bad days, so I try and not get too down on the bad days and I try and celebrate the good ones.
7. Imagine you wake up tomorrow unable to compete ever again, what mentality, skills and perspective would you take into your ‘normal’ life.
Having a positive attitude impacts everything else that you do. It impacts how people interact with you. Also, have a deep appreciation for the things that you are able to do and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small they may feel. Those small, personal victories add up.
Also, always be curious. You can learn something new every day, from every experience you have and from every person you meet – so ask questions of everything and everyone, always.
8. Who in your life inspires you most?
Anyone who approaches life with passion, adventure, curiosity, open-mindedness and conviction.
9. What’s been the biggest tragedy in your life and how has it impacted you?
I haven’t had a lot of tragedy in my life. Tragedy is a very powerful word. Growing up in Nigeria, a country where people experience real hardship and poverty, where corruption is rampant and life is often cheap, I got to see what tragedy could look like. Despite these abject hardships, people were happy. They found joy in the simplest of pleasures and accepted that life can be hard at times, but they pushed forward. I think that gave me some real perspective.
Aside from losing some family members and suffering through an emotionally challenging divorce, my most recent difficulty happened last summer. I was attempting a big mountaineering traverse in Rogers Pass, BC with two friends, Nick Elson and Dakota Jones when I suffered a bad fall while climbing unroped up a peak. A big rock I was pulling on to climb up, came out on me, sending me tumbling backwards over 200-feet down a series of rocky cliffs.
When I first felt the rock pull and senses myself falling backwards, I had a strange sense of calm come over me and I had almost instant acceptance that I was going to die. With hindsight, I now get chills thinking about the incident and I have clear flashbacks to seeing the peaks on the horizon flipped upside down and thinking about how strange that sight was as I tumbled down the mountain. When I finally came to rest in a field of scree at the base of the peak, surrounded by a pool of blood, I knew that I had hurt myself very badly, but I was alive.
Nick and Dakota were able to climb down to me very quickly. They were able to call for help and they sat beside me, helping me to stay calm. I was airlifted out of the area and was in surgery by that night. When I came to after my surgery I learned that I had broken my back, the doctors had to pin my T8-T11 vertebrae, I had broken the iliac crest in my hip and that was also pinned, I had severe lacerations, down to the bone around my hip, I had scars across my body, and I had broken my ankle.
The doctors assured me that I would make a full recovery, but they couldn’t answer what that actually meant in my case. I didn’t know if I could ever run, ski, or climb again, or even if I would want to.
Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive family and although they live around the world, my accident brought them all together. My mother flew in from Victoria, my dad and stepmom came from Lagos, my brother from Bangkok and my girlfriend flew in from Calgary. Throughout my hospital stay and during my recovery, I had friends come out to see me and I got incredibly supportive messages from around the world.
My mom ended up living with me for one month and my girlfriend, Laura, now my fiancée, who is a medical resident, took time out of her residency to help care for me. That love and support was incredibly powerful to me and it went a long way to help me process what had just happened and I am certain helped speed up my recovery. It was a truly special time with them. Time I cherish a great deal and it brought us all together in a very special way.
So a time that could be seen as a tragedy was actually an incredibly special and deeply rewarding time for me and for my family. It reminded me how special the love and bond that a family can have is. It is a feeling that has stuck with me.
The recovery, although challenging at times, has reaffirmed my love of moving. I always knew that I am happiest in motion, but at one point that meant challenging myself in some of the most difficult sporting events, or mountain environments, but now it manifested itself in the simplest of movements. I celebrated standing for the first time, then taking my first steps and I have enjoyed watching myself grow stronger and slowly be able to increase my activity level.
My recovery also allowed me to experience new things. I got back into writing and I began sketching. Laura would take me for long “pushes” in the wheelchair. We would ten sit down somewhere with a view and sketch. It allowed me to look at the mountains in a completely new way.
10. We all have bad training and racing days, how do you attempt to get back on track when you know things aren’t going well?
I always try and keep things in perspective. While no one likes to have a bad day, I like to take a step back and figure out why it may have happened and try and figure out what I might do differently to avoid having it happen in the future. From there, I just move on. I allow myself to be grumpy for a day or so, I think that’s a perfectly normal and healthy feeling to have when you have put time and energy into something that you care about it hasn’t gone to plan. It acts as a release, but then I try and let it go. No one race, or training day defines you and, in the big picture, racing and training doesn’t really matter that much. I do it for pleasure and sport gives me an awful lot of pleasure and I learn an awful lot about myself, even, and sometimes more so, on the days when it doesn’t go quite to plan.
11. Given your successes and failures, what’s something that you know about yourself that you didn’t before you started?
That I seem to have very durable feet. I think growing up largely barefoot really helped me develop quite tough feet and it strengthened my arches. I think this helped me avoid a lot of overuse injuries. I have sort of made up for those recently with some traumatic injuries, but my feet have allowed me to put in some big training volume over the years.
12. How has your commitment to sport impacted your relationships with family/friends/colleagues/partners etc.
It has had a huge impact on those relationships. Many of my closest friendships have come from, or have been solidified through sport. My fiancée, Laura and I have had some of our most profound experiences together on mountain adventures. These have given us some incredible memories that I know we both cherish, but it has also strained some of my relationships.
Like many athletes, I have been incredibly selfish at times, putting my own ambitions and plans above theirs. I have passed on family vacations to train and race and have dictated plans around my personal needs to get out and exercise. I have used sport as a crutch to avoid having to deal with issues at times. I don’t think it would be too far fetched to say that I have literally run away from problems at some points in my life. But at other times I have found myself running towards something, which is a far healthier approach.
I have chosen my careers around the flexibility they offer me to be able to train and I have chosen the places I live based around access to trails, mountains and people to train with.
I know that I am not always easy to be around, especially if I haven’t been able to get some exercise in on a day and I know that my accident last year really scared my family. I know that they continue to worry about me as I venture back into the mountains and I do keep that in mind when I venture out, trying my best to alleviate their fears and worries.
Despite their trepidations and worries, my family have also been my biggest supporters throughout my career. They have always encouraged me to pursue my passions. My dad helped me out financially at various stages throughout my career and has always offered incredible advice, my mom has come to whatever race she can and has a spot on her wall with various magazine covers I’ve been on and she diligently keeps media that I’ve appeared in. My broader family are equally supportive and I know that they are proud and happy for the me and the successes that I have had and they have always been there for me through my various struggles.
I have met some amazing people through sport. I have experienced places and things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience if it weren’t for sport. There is something incredibly primal and rewarding about moving through natural spaces under your own power and I think it that has deeply impacted my worldview and hence, how I interact with people.
13. What’s your next race? What is next on your sporting bucket list?
My main race for 2017 is the Hardrock 100-mile endurance run. It will be a real celebration of my recovery so far.
Aside from that, I would like to keep pushing the adventure side of running. I really enjoy combining running and skiing with climbing, so I see myself continuing to do big traverses and, as my technical skills continue to improve, I see myself playing in bigger mountains.