Geoff Starling CSCS
When I met Lisa, she was deep in the throes of depression. Pulling a mask over her face to turn up to work, visit with her grandkids and generally function in her day-to-day life. Not a literal mask made of paper and string but one that she had crafted using layers of resilience and emotional fortitude. The moment she was at home and could remove it, she would crawl back into bed, draw the covers over her head and stay there until it was time to retrieve the mask and head out again. This cycle continued for several months as she wrestled with the loss of her youngest child to homicide.
Lisa would undergo several journeys over the next two years as she confronted her new reality. One of these was to regain control of her health by channeling a portion of her energy into better habits around eating and exercise. This provided a focus for the day. It offered her something that she could directly influence. If she turned up and did the work, results would ensue. The more effort she put in, the greater the return.
At first the new habits were difficult to commit to and the results were slow to manifest. She continually doubted herself and tried to pull away, back to the place where she was comfortable. Cocooned from what was going on in the media and the courthouse. Her daughter, Shannon, went missing in November of 2014 and wouldn’t be discovered until the following summer.
Lisa and I connected quite early on in this process. We met through a support group for families affected by homicide that I had been attending for a while following the murder of my younger brother in 2014. I regularly talked about the mental and physical benefits that committing to regular exercise had delivered me and Lisa asked if we could work together on improving her health. She confides in me later that it took her almost a year to build up the courage to discuss this with me for fear that I would laugh and walk away. Not because of who I was, but because of who she was.
The day that we met at my facility was the first time Lisa had ever stepped foot in a gym and one of the few times she had ever engaged in structured exercise. I operate out of a training studio with equipment mostly suited to athletes. Squat racks and kettlebells standing in place of the regular battery of treadmills and elliptical machines that beckon most to its kind. [For someone new to this world this does not provide many intuitive solutions for achieving their exercise goals. As a coach, however, it permits a level of programming that is far more effective than prescribing the ‘fat burn’ option on a stationary bike. Lisa instead got to see exercises like ‘Sled Drag’, ‘Rope Pull’ and ‘Tire Flip’ appear on her workout sheets.
To Lisa’s credit she persevered with this crazy new world and built up enough confidence to train on her own. We continued to meet once per week and she was diligent about completing her homework in between. Lifting weights according to the program we had mapped out together and engaging in incidental activity like walking her dog and being more mindful of what she was eating. She also attended the regular Saturday morning training session created through the Calgary Homicide Support Group dubbed Exercise Therapy by its members.
Over the next several months she experienced a steady return on her investment and was encouraged to push her goal of “turn up to my sessions” a little farther. In August we established a series of benchmarks that were challenging but achievable. These included a 3km street walk and barbell exercise called the deadlift (lifting the barbell from the floor to a standing position) performed at a percentage of her bodyweight.
Every 10-12 weeks we would test these benchmarks and recalibrate the next progression according to how she did. By April we had nudged her from completing a 3km street walk to competing in a 5km fun run/walk. She set herself to this in May and flew through it, proudly earning her first event ribbon for the Calgary Onesie Run. Less than a month later she succumbed to some peer pressure from her daughter, Erin and registered for the X Warrior Stadium Challenge: a seven kilometer obstacle race through Calgary’s Stampede Stadium. A few of us from the Saturday workout group rallied together and formed a team to run alongside her. There’s nothing like power in numbers!
On the day of the challenge we gathered outside of the stadium then entered together to collect our race kits. Lisa and I had invested some time the week before mocking up obstacles that mimicked those she would face in the event to refine her technique and reduce the potential for injury. We had also agreed on a set of goals for the day:
Make it to the start line
Make it to the finish line
Complete as many obstacles along the way as possible
You have to understand how far doing something like this was outside of this working mum’s comfort zone. She and I regularly joked about the reaction the Lisa of 18 months ago would have if she was told that she would be where she is now; climbing 6 foot walls, hauling buckets of sand and crawling under barbed wire. Erin and I committed to staying with Lisa through the entire race and guiding her to through as many of the obstacles as we could. There were a couple of hairy moments - the hairiest of which was a 15 foot wall of scaffolding that had to be traversed - but Lisa powered on despite her mounting fears (did I mention she is terrified of heights?) and crossed the finish line intact bar a couple of scrapes and bruises.
Walking away with gold was never on the list and although we took longer to complete the race than every other athlete, Lisa was immensely proud of her achievement. She made it to the starting line, crossed the finish and conquered 16 of the 26 obstacles along the way. Once the shock of breaking the final ribbon had sunk in, Lisa shared her highlight of the day: the axe throw! Hurling a hatchet 10 feet into a plywood target and nailing it on her first attempt. The confidence she earned by astonishing herself with what she was capable of doing was all the reward she needed. Although the medal and ‘X Warrior 2017 Finisher’ shirt are proud additions to her mantle.
Lisa was back at the gym the following week hitting her reps and loading up the sled. We also seized this opportunity to draw up new some goals. Next on her list; the Insane Inflatable 5K! And this time she is the one pressuring Erin to sign up, “come on, it’ll be fun”! She encourages her. Try telling the ‘old’ Lisa that scrambling through 3 miles of inflatable chutes and ladders is now considered ‘fun’ and keep a straight face.
The mask is still there as guards like this never truly leave us but it’s a bit lighter now and chipped around the edges. The string that holds it in place running slack with disuse. The time she would have previously spent under her covers now being shared with her friends retelling the story of how she conquered the tower of scaffold and left the mountain of stadium stairs in her dust.
This is only one example of how taking control of your health can lead to personal victories both physically and mentally. The key is to permit yourself to be helped and be open to trying new things. You never know, there may be an X Warrior hiding in you?!
Geoff is a writer, speaker and fitness professional in Calgary, Canada. He is a strength athlete, husband, and father of two busy kids.
If you would like to learn more about getting started with exercise, goal setting and many other health, fitness and lifestyle topics, head over to GeoffStarling.com or any of the social media channels linked below.
Geoff Starling CSCS