Gillian Chow: “I am strong. I am brave. I am free.”
This is a story about trust, learning to dance in the unknown, taking on really big goals and what’s possible with focus and determination.
“Hey Laurie! I have a favour to ask. I’m planning my Big Dance 56km run through the Bruce Trail on November 18 and I’m wondering if you’d crew for me? I’m turning 30 on November 19 and I want to celebrate my ability to run and my relationship with running so far.”
Gillian Chow is a running friend of mine who has completed a few ultra races however this run was different. This was a solo event, her longest run and, as she describes it, “a personal project that strolled into my mind as I meandered the trails with Bruce in August.” I chuckled and without hesitation I told her “Yes! It will be fun! I’m excited to be able to support you from the sidelines as your crew.” Especially since mine was the the easy part: Driving from one check point to the next while Gillian ran the point to point course she had mapped out.
Because it was November, the weather was unpredictable and, sure enough, the forecast for November 18th was -9C. That meant the moisture would freeze on the ground from the previous day’s snow and rain. A potentially treacherous run. After much deliberation, Gillian decided to move the run to Friday November 20th where the temperature was predicted to be +14C. A balmy day and ideal conditions for The Big Dance, as it turned out.
The Early Runner Gets The Daylight
We were on the road by 5am so Gillian could start by 6am. Anticipating 9 hours to finish, she wanted to have enough daylight hours at the end of the day in case she was delayed or took longer to finish than anticipated. It starts to get dark in the forest by 4 pm at this time of year.
A 6am start meant it was completely black outside. The first 1.5 km were on the road so I offered to drive behind her, giving her light to see her way and also protecting her should an oncoming car appear. I giggled as I watched her making all the familiar and necessary little adjustments at the start of a long event. A quick tilt of her hat. Re-positioning her arm warmers. Checking her watch. A tug on her vest and check of her water valve. Another little pull on her sleeves and she began to settle into her rhythm. I followed her until the road became a single lane path with water-filled potholes and deep bush on either side. It was time to say “so long for now” and drive off to meet her at her first checkpoint. The Big Dance had begun.
As I watched her head off into the forest, the light from her single bulb headlamp bouncing off the branches, I marvelled at her sense of adventure and my good fortune to be her support crew. She was explicit from the start as to her reasons for asking me, “I trust you Laurie. I really trust you. You did your 55k race in Nepal by yourself. You can take care of yourself. You understand my desire to do this run by myself for myself. I know you’ll be there at all the stops. You have experience so you’ll know the questions to ask me and provide helpful reminders.” For me, it was a fun and an important responsibility at the same time.
Unknown to Gillian I had a custom medal for her to commemorate The Big Dance. She finished far ahead of schedule yet seemed as exuberant as she did at the start, her perpetual grin and sparkling eyes filled with glee at her accomplishment. Her enthusiasm inspired me to start thinking about my own ‘Big Dance’ in 2021.
The Thrill of Accomplishment
During our drive home, her run complete, Gillian said she was thrilled with her day. She had achieved her objectives. In her words on the day after The Big Dance, or TBD, as she fondly referred to it:
Factors That Led To A Fulfilling Day
On our drive to the start, I had asked Gillian what her Mantra for the day would be. She immediately lifted her arms in the air and said “I am strong. I am brave. I am free.” Her big smile - along with her words - conveyed confidence and calmness. She believed in herself…the best fuel to take along 56km of trail.
Gillian’s estimated finish time was just over 9 hours. Her actual time was just over 8 hours. Her disciplined training made a difference, not only in her ability to have a great finishing time…but also in the way she was able to experience the run. She told me how she really did feel free running through the narrow technical trails, climbing down and up ravines and feeling the wind blowing across the open fields. She stayed present in the moment, experiencing the magic of moving through the forest.
When plans are set and circumstances change, we can feel thrown off course before we begin. When the weather wasn’t cooperating for the day of The Big Dance, Gillian was caught between sticking to her original date or changing it. In her goals above, she said she wanted an adventure that wasn’t TBD because so many events this year were deferred or uncertain because of the pandemic. She was the race organizer and wasn’t going to let anything get in her way! Ultimately she changed the day — a conscious choice that kept her in control. She chose the option that would give her the best experience and still fulfill her goals for the run.
The Gift of Shared Experience
When this effervescent and impressive 30-year-old woman wanted 60-year-old me to be her support crew for her important celebration of life, she gave me a big gift. She made me feel current, able to contribute and connected. When I saw what Gillian wrote on social media after The Big Dance, my heart was even more full.
“[Laurie] was my cheerleader, crew captain, snack provider, safety escort, and camerawoman! Thank you for not hesitating to say yes to a girl with a dream, committing to giving me a full day of your time, offering to move your days around to give me the best weather day, being patient with me while I was a stubborn 5 year old, giving me the space to make my own decision, and then following me around all day in the middle of what can feel like nowhere. All while sharing in my enthusiasm of The Bruce Trail and desire to find More-In-Me.”
Sharing this experience with Gillian was as rewarding for me as completing the run was for her!
Now, Gillian has set her sights on running the entire Bruce Trail, approximately 900km from Niagara to Tobermory, and complete the run with an FKT (fastest known time) for a woman. She is documenting her preparations on the podcast, Wanna Help me FKT? Even with the 56km accomplishment behind her, Gillian still battles doubt and worries about her dreams and even herself. But more than that, she is ready to take step after step until she reaches her dream. I’ll leave you with this insight she shares on her podcast,
“When you're worried about what people will think about you, or you're scared to admit what you want because you don't feel worthy. And when that voice of the Saboteur is on your shoulder, pouring doubt over your excited heart... Here's the thing: Perhaps your dream isn't profoundly poetic. It doesn't have to be perfectly polished to have a point. Because you shouldn't let other people make you feel plain and pedestrian or preposterous when they aren't you. Nothing can make it any less worth doing, if you want to do it.”