Looking Back at 2017


It is, once again, time to look back over the last twelve months to reflect upon the adventures had, the obstacles faced, and lessons learned along the way.  This tradition has become something I always look forward to because no matter how many difficulties or struggles I have faced throughout the year, it always amazes me how they have helped me grow and become a better person in the end.  Every year may have different themes but the one thing that I’ve noticed is consistent since I started this annual tradition is the personal growth I’ve achieved.  I almost can’t believe how my story has unfolded over the years and what I’ve managed to accomplish, but by having a record of what it has taken to get there has kept me humble.  My aim in sharing my story is not to brag or boast, but to serve as a beacon to others.  My goals may be somewhat extreme or lofty by typical standards, but most often I am able to attain them, and not without a normal amount of bumps in the road.  I encounter problems and setbacks just like anyone else, but I keep a good attitude and try to make the most from what I have been given.  I hope that by reading this, it encourages you to do the same.

The three areas that stood out while looking back over 2017 are my amazing comeback to running, managing my health issues involving a mysterious periodic fever, and the evolution of my relationship with Christie.  I believe that they all influenced each other and that they all serve to give me greater hope into the future.  As happy and grateful as I was at the end of 2016, I was also feeling quite frustrated due to the many unanswered questions that remained regarding my health.  It had been several months that I had been sidelined from running and doing yoga like I normally was used to.  Despite many appointments with specialist doctors and dozens of medical tests, I was no further ahead in figuring out what was going on. 

In the last few days of the year, I decided that I had had enough and was determined to end the cycle of inflammation and get back to being active.  I decided one way to achieve that would be to fast for a few days during the holidays.  I gave my digestive system 3-5 days to rest, thus allowing my body’s resources to focus on healing my tissues rather than breaking down food.  I felt like I was resetting my system that had become unbalanced as a result of the many big changes that occurred my life in 2016.  Intermittent fasting later became a regular part of my life as well as a growing area of interest in the research going on investigating the physiological benefits of such practice.   

Starting in early January, I began running again, with great humility.  Some days it was only 10-15 minutes on the treadmill, other days I would make it outside in the snow for 5 minutes.  I did whatever I could without feeling like I was creating more pain in my body.  Every run was a challenge, but I steadily increased my mileage from less than a single kilometer during the first week or two, to 4 and 5km after a couple weeks and 8-10km by the end of the month.  I was making progress! 

In addition to running again, Christie convinced me to join her in the “2017 of Everything Challenge.”  It is a thing she found online that is organized by a really amazing guy named Jesse Itzler.  It is designed to push your limits and help support charity.  For every person that completed the challenge (verified by posting your daily counts on the Facebook group), Jesse would personally donate $100 to help support families that have lost their loved ones in the military.  Throughout the month of January, Christie and I both completed 2017 reps of squats, push-ups, sit-ups, dips and burpees, and documented the whole thing on our YouTube channel. 

I also met with my new rheumatologist early in the year to discuss possible changes in how I have been treating my arthritis.  Over the past few years, I have been taking a prescription anti-inflammatory twice each day to keep my symptoms at bay.  Although I found the pills to be helping reduce the frequency and intensity of flare-ups, I was concerned about their long-term use and the side-effects they come with.  Another option was to start on a type of medication called biologics, that have been shown to have really amazing results for treating arthritis, but also can have some serious side-effects, not to mention a very hefty price tag.  Since I was already starting to see some improvement with my ability to run again, I ended up getting a referral for medicinal cannabis, as a supplement to the medication I was already taking.  I had been reading a lot about the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabidiol (commonly known as CDB), and that it can be isolated from the THC, which is the active component of marijuana that makes you feel high.  Because CBD doesn’t have a psychoactive effect, it can be taken at any time of day, often in oil form (not unlike someone who uses essential oils) and it does not lead to intoxication.  It is the same type of medication that has been used with great success on children with severe seizure disorders, allowing them to live a normal life. 

Although I was very hesitant at first about going in that direction, because of the social stigma around cannabis, I later came to appreciate just how under-utilized this medication is and now feel like an advocate for further research and development of it’s applications.  Within a month or two of using the CBD oils, I was all but completely off the prescription pills, only using them occasionally for when I had acute pain and inflammation.  Only after spending a couple weeks in the U.S. during the summertime, did I need to once again rely on them for daily relief.

One other thing that helped me manage my stress and find a better balance was my decision to put a pause on my regular teaching at Moksha while I was in school.  It was a very tough decision to make, as I absolutely love teaching, but I needed to look at what was most important; getting myself back into shape would be best for everyone.

After our successful January challenge, I was able to convince Christie to try out another challenge for February, The Potato/Plank Challenge.  We would eat almost exclusively potatoes for one whole month, inspired by a guy in Australia who did it for a whole year in 2016 with amazing results for his health and well-being.  Christie was reluctant at first, but by the end of the month, she was the one that wanted to continue eating more potatoes on a regular basis.  The plank aspect of the challenge ended up being more of a solo thing, where I’d start with a 30 second plank on day 1 and add 10 more seconds each day.  It was super challenging, and I will admit, I missed a few days in week three and four, but I did successfully complete the full 5 minute plank on the last day.  It really solidified the idea that we can do a lot more than we might think, but it takes a daily commitment and gradual progression in order to get there.       

By March, I was feeling more stable and was ready to test myself at the first of five races in the series put on by MEC in London.  The race was held in Springbank Park on an unusually cold day and I was competing in the 15km event.  I really wanted to push myself to see where my level of fitness was.  I was very proud to have come in second place with a time just over 1 hour.  Only two weeks later, I would further test myself as a 2:15’ pacer at the annual Around the Bay 30k Road Race in Hamilton.  I had my doubts going in that I wouldn’t be able to hold such a fast pace, but I held it together and helped bring a few others across the finish line to get their silver medal. 

Due to my lack of running in the Fall of 2016 and the time constraints of the Spring season, I was forced to run my qualifier for Comrades at the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, OH, the day after racing the 6k Trail at MEC #2 in London (placing 3rd).  I was hoping to run somewhere between 3:10’-3:20’ at the Glass City run, but as the race unfolded, I found myself on pace for a sub 3:05’ marathon.  It was a whirlwind weekend that saw Christie couchsurfing for the first time, and me getting an unexpected Boston Qualifying time. 

The momentum continued through the end of April and all through May as I ran 50k at Pick Your Poison near Orillia, I paced for 3:40’ at the inaugural Mudcat Marathon in Dunnsville, and won the MEC marathon in London.  Nothing made me happier than sharing these adventures with Christie, who ran the Watford Road Race with me on Victoria day and also completed the 25k distance at Pick Your Poison.  Somehow, I also managed to lead two successful Running and Yoga workshops at the Moksha studios in Stratford and downtown London.    

All of this took place while finishing up my first year of school at D’Arcy Lane for massage therapy.  Although stressful at times, I was so grateful that I decided to take the risk of going back to school because I really love massage and hope to be of service to others in my future career as a therapist.  In the meantime, I was using a lot of my newfound knowledge about physiology and anatomy to help myself perform better during every run, and to recovery faster between races.  Everything seemed to be working well and I was improving as time passed. 

As if all that running and school wasn’t enough, Christie and I decided that waiting until 2019/2020 to get married was not going to work for us, and so we made an appointment at City Hall to have a civil ceremony on Monday, May 29th, at 11:30am.  We had a small ceremony with just our parents and a couple close friends, followed with a double surprise party with our immediate family that night at Christie’s dad’s place.  We wanted to keep our plans fairly quiet, so we planned to have Rick stage a surprise going away/engagement party for us at his house, only to surprise our siblings and other family members when we arrived in our wedding attire.  We all had so much fun and were so grateful for all the love and support from our family and friends once the news was shared publicly that evening.  The following day, Christie and I were on a plane headed to South Africa, with a brief afternoon layover in Munich.

Back in early 2016, I was only about 50% sure that I was going to be able to follow through with my trip to South Africa to run the Comrades Marathon.  Once completing the race, I thought the chances of returning within the next few years were close to zero.  Somehow, the universe conspired to convince me to give it another go in 2017, perhaps due to the comments I heard from some of the locals, “That you can only say you have run Comrades after completing both and Up-run and a Down-run.” 

There were a lot of things that I knew I should do differently than I did in the 2016 trip, and one of them was to make sure Christie was coming with me.  My previous trip was amazing, but to go back without my new wife would have been a big mistake.  It also made the perfect honeymoon for us, which was also a contributing factor in making the decision to get married when we did.  Being that it was also our honeymoon, I choose to focus a lot less on creating vlogs of my experience, and spent more time just enjoying the trip as a newlywed couple. 

Sandwiched between two long flights, we spent an afternoon exploring the bier-gartens of Munich during our layover.  We finally made it to Johannesburg on the Thursday of that week.  We had rented a car for our entire stay to make it easier to get around, and the first destination was Thrivin and Steve’s place in Tongaat, just north of Durban.  It was well after dark by the time we arrived, and it was a strange and welcoming feeling, similar to when you return home after time away, although we were just starting our trip.  Comrades was the focus over the first few days in South Africa and I’m pleased to report that the Up-run went significantly better than the Down-run in 2016.  There is so much I could say about the race experience (one that brings runners back year after year), but to prevent this from becoming a book, I will just say that having a better idea of what to expect and to see Thrivin and Christie at multiple points on the route, allowed me to finish in just over 8 and a half hours, taking over 90 minutes off my previous year’s time.  I hope to write a more detailed report on the race experience specifically, but that has yet to be completed. 

After spending several days with Thrivin, we hit the road with stops in St. Lucia, Swaziland and Kruger National Park.  There were countless adventures along the way, but once again, I have to draw the line somewhere when sharing all the stories.  Needless to say, we had a great time, saw lots of animals and nature, and concluded our trip by spending a couple days with Christie’s former host mum, Karen, in Johannesburg.  Christie lived with Karen and her family during a Rotary exchange back in 2004 and 2005.

Upon arriving back home, there was little time to reflect on everything because we had about a million other things planned for the summer.  I had started to work on repairing some of the water damage in my Aunt’s house in Strathroy while balancing that with teaching some classes at Moksha.  I was still experiencing periodic fevers, but was getting closer to figuring out the cause, credit going more to facebook comments than to the doctors I had seen.  We found some research on an autoimmune disorder that causes similar symptoms and responds really well to a single dose of prednisone in order to halt episodes.  I had tried taking predisone a couple times with great success so I was much more at ease with my busy racing schedule still ahead of me.  I would have to wait until July before finally seeing another specialist doctor in Toronto who all but diagnosed me with a syndrome known as PFAPA.  Although I didn’t have a cure (PFAPA is only known to spontaneously resolve), I at least had a pretty decent treatment and would just have to listen really well to my body and what I needed to do or not do. 

One great example of choosing humility over ego was the big fundraiser that I was involved with in late June for the local VON.  I had pledged to run 150km around a 1km loop in Mt. Brydges over 24 hours as a way to raise awareness for the organization and drum up some media buzz.  Running a race for myself is one thing, but having the pressure of performing such a daunting task in the public spotlight is a little bit harder to resolve.  One of the only things that had still been bugging me since starting to run again since January was that I was prone to early fatigue and weakness on the inner side of my right ankle.  I had felt it during many training runs and definitely during Comrades and the races that led up to it, but I never felt like it was causing me more harm… until I was over 100km in the VON run.  By the time I was up to 115km, my posture and gait were compensating considerably and I was in a lot of pain.  After walking some laps with Christie, I made the call to stop running in the early hours of the morning and hoped for a speedy recovery.  After a few hours of rest, my ankle was feeling better than when I had first stopped, but still not good enough to finish the run.  Instead I walked the last few kilometers with the community event for a grand total of 120k.  I was disappointed I didn’t make it to 150km, but I’m proud of myself for listening to my body and choosing to do what was safer for the injury. 

I was starting to become quite nervous about my commitment to run the Eastern States 100 (mile) trail race in August, so I thought it would be best to test my strategy out at The North Face 50mile Endurance Challenge at Blue Mountain, ON.  I was invited by my friend David Wise, a fellow plant-based ultra-runner from Toronto, to join him and a couple other guys at the race on July 16th.  We all shared a campsite, literally only a few steps from Georgian Bay and had fun catching up with each other.  To summarize the race briefly, it was both a blast and miserable.  I met some really great people, including a brief chat with Dean Karnazes at the finish line, but I also had a lot of pain in my ankle and both heals had nasty blisters early on in the run.  I learned a lot in preparation for ES100, especially regarding the shoes I would wear for the 100 miler (not the same ones as the I wore that day). 

Fast forward a few weeks, and Christie and I are preparing for a trip to Pennsylania, where I would be running the toughest 100 mile race I have ever signed up for with one of my best friends, Nick, who lives in BC.  Nick and his wife, Sarah, were in London visiting her parents before we all drove down together to do the race in the states.  We all stayed in a little bed and breakfast about 10 miles from the race venue.  Both nervous and excited, Nick and I focused on logistics and making sure we were as prepared as possible.  I also knew that between Sarah’s crewing experience at other crazy runs like the UTMB and FatDog120, and Christie’s natural Sherpa skills, that Nick and I were in good hands regardless of what happened out there.  I also had my friend Blair drive up from College State to help crew and pace me through the night. 

The ES100 started at 5am on Saturday Aug. 12th, with dense fog, making the trails very hard to navigate in the dark, even with our headlamps.  There were lots of slippery, loose rocks and patience was necessary to prevent twisting an ankle or sliding off the trail.  By the time we got to the first major climb (of which there was about 20 throughout the race), I was already spent and had a very hard time keeping up with Nick.  He waited for me at each of the first few aid stations, but by the time we would first see our wives, around the 18mile mark, I felt wasted and knew that staying together would be a bad idea.  As Nick and I were leaving that aid station, I told him to go on ahead and run his own race; keeping up with him was preventing me from being able to listen to my own body.  From that point on, I started to feel more comfortable and went at my own pace.  It was still one of the hardest courses I have ever ran on, but I made sure to look after myself and prevent bigger problems from occurring later in the race. 

Aside from a bit of logistical chaos between aid stations affecting Christie and Sarah more than Nick and I, I began to become more confident throughout the race that I would be able to finish.  Some thunderstorms rolled through in the afternoon, but by changing my socks more frequently, I was able to keep going without causing too much extra damage to my feet. 

Blair came on to pace me as it was getting dark and it was a nice shift to spend some time catching up on our friendship instead of passively listening to my audiobooks.  It definitely helped to pass the time, one step at a time.  At about 3am, Blair decided he should head home so his entire Sunday was not a write-off (He has a wife a toddler to spend time with).  Luckily for me, Christie had arranged to have another pacer, who had been hanging out at one of the aid stations, join me once Blair left.  He was there to pace his friend, who had dropped from the race earlier in the day.  It was great to get to know him on the trails and it made the time pass much easier.  Brad stayed with me all the way to the end of the run, which took me until a few minutes past noon on Sunday.  My final time was just over 31 hours and 10 minutes.  Aside from the obvious fatigue, I felt okay, possibly even better than I did at the 18mile mark.  Nick finished a few hours before I did.  I was so relieved that it was finally behind me, a realization that made me feel like I needed to take a bit of a break from running for awhile. 

Without much chance to recover after ES100, Christie and I were home and away again, this time heading for upstate New York for the Woodstock Fruit Festival.  We had volunteered to work at the festival only a few weeks earlier, thinking that the odds of getting accepted were low.  Given the opportunity, we both had to figure out ways of rearranging our schedule in order to make it work.  For those that have not heard of Woodstock, it is a weeklong retreat, dedicated to the raw-vegan lifestyle.  Although Christie and I are mostly plant-based when we are at home, to try eating raw-vegan/fruitarian for 10 days seemed a bit extreme, but we were excited to try it out.

Our experience at Woodstock is another matter that is difficult to summarize in less than a couple paragraphs.  Suffice it to say, we had an amazing time, learned a lot and met some wonderful people like ultrarunner and festival founder Mike Arnstein, head chefs Chris Kendall and Gytis along with many others that I hope to stay connected to for years to come.

We ended our summer at home with just enough time for me to have a pretty massive flare-up of arthritis in my sacroiliac joints before school started up again.

Due to an acquisition over the summer by TriOS college, my classes were moved from D’Arcy Lane just down the street, to the TriOS campus on First St. in the east end of the city.  The transition to TriOS was not without its frustrations and resistance, but my classes are going really well this year and I am very excited to be finishing the program next June.  I have been very restricted with the amount of teaching I have been able to do, both at TVDSB and Moksha, because of our new schedule, but I think it is for the best to focus on my classes for the duration of the school year. 

School has been the major focus for both Christie and I these past few months, but we have still had time to fit in a few more races, such as That Dam Hill (I ran 143km in 24h), the MEC races #4, and #5 (posting a 39:08” for 10k) and the inaugural Sticks n’ Stones trail run in Cambridge.  2017 has been the biggest year of racing I have ever done, with the exception of 2010, where I ran 18 marathons and ultras. 

We also hosted a very informal wedding reception at the end of September at my mom’s place in Strathroy, so that we could see every one and celebrate with all our friends and family.  Words cannot describe how grateful I am each day that I get to be married to Christie.  She is certainly the perfect compliment for me, as our similarities give us momentum as a couple and our differences balance each other’s weaknesses. 

The last big adventure of 2017 is our trip to Costa Rica for our sister’s wedding.  Being the nerds we are, we chose to stay at an AirBnB to save a little money and also to give us a lot more time to study while soaking up the sun before heading home for our final exams before the holidays.

As always, I like to close by expressing gratitude for all the people in my lives that make my journey possible.  Christie has been my biggest fan as well as the first person to hold me accountable when I do start to make excuses, which I love her for all the more.  To my family and friends, I feel driven to explore deeper into the human condition based on your encouragement and inspiration, even those that I may only get to see in person every few years.  You all make a difference to me and I wouldn’t expect you to have read this far if you didn’t also care for me.  That being said, I like to end on a more humble note, acknowledging that I’m only able to pack so much into each year because I am not spending the entire time documenting it all and preparing this annual write-up.  I spend most of my time in action, out there in the world and set aside time every once in awhile to reflect back.  Sometimes the only way to get things done is to get started, not knowing how it’ll all turn out.  As we prepare to enter into 2018, a year that I’m intentionally not making too many plans in advance; I can’t wait to see how it’ll all unfold.  I’m sure it’ll be filled with a few big achievements, perhaps some challenges along the way, and without a doubt there’ll be a few surprises. 

 

With much love and gratitude, I wish you a healthy and happy New Year!

 

Brian Groot   

© Brian Groot 2018