Run­ner bat­tles back from crip­pling con­di­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - LORI EWING

When Kate Van Buskirk won the women’s 3,000 me­tres at the his­toric Mill­rose Games, it was a vic­tory that went way beyond cross­ing the line first.

The 29-year-old run­ner from Bramp­ton is fi­nally feel­ing healthy and fit after two years of bat­tling spondy­loarthropa­thy, a crip­pling con­di­tion that left her un­able to even roll over in bed, let alone roar down a track. Op­ti­mism has re­placed all the doubts about her fu­ture, and now Van Buskirk looks for­ward to bat­tling for a spot on Canada’s team for the world track and field cham­pi­onships this sum­mer.

“I’m gen­uinely feel­ing like win­ning races and run­ning fast times are in­cred­i­ble and def­i­nitely a part of why we do this. But if I had come sev­enth and run a bit slower, but felt the way that I had felt on Satur­day, I would’ve been just as happy,” Van Buskirk said. “Be­cause I feel like I’m a run­ner again.”

Van Buskirk won bronze in the 1,500 me­tres at the 2014 Com­mon­wealth Games, but her run­ning went south soon after. What started as a torn ham­string ten­don turned into a “year and a half of pain and dis­com­fort,” and she was fi­nally di­ag­nosed with spondy­loarthropa­thy, a chronic con­di­tion in the arthri­tis fam­ily that re­sults in in­flam­ma­tion in the joints of her lower back, hips and pelvis.

“One of the hard­est parts was that I was in so much pain just in my reg­u­lar life that I was just in sur­vival mode,” she said. “I thought: I don’t even care if I can never run again, I just want to be able to walk or move with­out pain at some point. Be­cause it was so se­vere.

“I had done some re­search, but there’s not a lot out there on other elite fe­male ath­letes who have this con­di­tion, so I didn’t have a lot of hope­ful re­demp­tion sto­ries to go off of of peo­ple who’d come out of this. So we were kind of a lit­tle bit blind with it.”

At her low­est point, she was also fight­ing se­vere de­pres­sion.

“I’m prone to anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion to be­gin with, so that def­i­nitely was play­ing in just given how long I’d been hurt,” she said. “It was a com­bi­na­tion of the dis­ap­point­ment of it all, but it was also just be­ing in chronic pain for many, many months at a time. It re­ally wore on me.”

Van Buskirk worked with a cast of ex­perts in­clud­ing track coach and phys­io­ther­a­pist Wynn Gmitroski and Ath­let­ics Canada physi­cian Paddy McCluskey in Vic­to­ria, Dr. Kris Shep­pard at The Run­ner’s Academy in Toronto, and her Toronto coaches Dave Reid and Ed­die Ra­poso. And over the course of two and a half years of “fig­ur­ing stuff out,” through trial and er­ror, tin­ker­ing with her diet, man­ual ther­apy to off-load her joints, and work­ing on her biome­chan­ics, she’s now pain-free about 85 or 90 per cent of the time.

She’ll never be free of her con­di­tion, but has a plan of at­tack when the pain flares up.

Last week­end in New York, there was noth­ing but the good kind of pain — “the pain you earn,” she said — when she crossed the fin­ish line at the Mill­rose Games.

“I feel like I have more con­trol. And I feel like I’m able to push my lim­its and tap into these re­ally spe­cial places that I hadn’t been able to ac­cess for over two years,” she said. “I ac­tu­ally re­ally en­joy the process now. Even the painful work­outs that are gru­elling and tough and you have to go to that dark place to get through them, I’m gath­er­ing so much en­joy­ment from that.”

The goal this sum­mer is the world cham­pi­onships in London. She hopes to top her per­for­mance at the 2013 world cham­pi­onships in Moscow where she missed the fi­nal in the 1,500 me­tres by one spot.

But if the last two years have taught her any­thing, she said, it’s not the ad­ver­sity that’s thrown your way, it’s how well you can deal with it.

“You can do well in f ar less ideal cir­cum­stances, and I think learn­ing that is one of the most im­por­tant things in any­one’s ca­reer,” she said. “A lot of peo­ple think we have to have ev­ery­thing go per­fectly to optimize re­sults. In this sport, fi­nan­cially, en­vi­ron­ment changes ... there are so many things that are beyond our con­trol. I would say the most im­por­tant thing is be­ing adapt­able.”


Kate Van Buskirk with the Pan Am flame on June 23, 2015.

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