TORONTO – 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, Ont., 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 offload 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 Millrose Games marked her third and final race of this indoor track season. The Duke University grad opened the season with a victory in a mile race. It was a world’s best time at that point in the season.
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. She’d love to attend the Canadian distance team’s altitude camp this spring in Flagstaff, Ariz., but said it’s largely limited to carded — nationally funded — athletes and she no longer has that status.
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 far 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.”