In our recent interview, Annie Gaudreault shared her heart-warming and courageous story of overcoming the odds, completing 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon and 3 full distance IRONMAN triathlons …so far! Her story is one of taking action when opportunities appeared, changing limiting beliefs in the process, gaining confidence in all aspects of life, staying open to possibility and surrounding herself with inspiring communities. Her story is filled with humour, grace, courage and determination.
I came to my movement through an executive career that made me quite stressed. I was very very busy. I worked in branding and design – similar to the advertising world for those who are not familiar and I was very very scattered and extremely stressed. I decided to run because it was the only thing I could do that basically did not need to be scheduled. To me, that was a very liberating thing. I did not have to sign up for things and didn’t have to pay penalties when I couldn’t show up. I was in a demanding client service role so I was not always in control of the agenda.
I was born with cystic fibrosis. That is a disease that affects primarily your lungs and pancreas – part of your digestive system. It makes breathing difficult. Growing up running was really not part of the things that I really could do. It was not realistic. In fact they recommended swimming as a great exercise to strengthen my lungs. So to be honest, when I started running I had very very very small goals. I also had terrible confidence. I was happy to be running at night because nobody could see me. There was nobody around and I thought okay I won’t embarrass myself. (laughter) And really once you think about it there aren’t many skills required to it. You don’t really need to be good at it. Thank God because I was terrible! But I kept at it and it became this passion. My life evolved and I started to slowly put running in front of other priorities and eventually joined a women’s running group. And that became quite cathartic. Eventually, I was doing the marathon. Who would have thought that this sick kid who could barely go around the street up and down with all the other kids could set out to do a marathon! Again I started with just a goal if I could do this and keep up with everybody else, I’m going to be thrilled.
What happened is I really transformed and I did not know this but I was transforming all through these races because I was growing. Some parts of the training were easy and some parts were hard. Some races were easy and some were terribly challenging and I grew so much out of it.
I remember it was a hot day. A challenging day for all of us. I said to my friends,
You know the trouble with running? It’s such a raw experience. When you’re doing a physical activity that pushes you outside your comfort zone, pushed to places you can’t go anywhere, can’t hide anywhere, and it’s in that you can’t hide anywhere – that’s the moment that you realize what you’re made of.
That’s the transformation process. If somebody had told me in 2004 that I had massive grit and that I was a person that could go through terrible moments like being drenched by water, I would have said no way that’s not me. I discovered myself through the activity. Because I was pushed. I would have never have pushed myself otherwise. I don’t think so. I saw new sides of me. I said “wow!” That’s when you shed layers. You’re like “damn, yes I’ve got this.” That’s why it gives you wings to start your business, to ask for a raise. What I mean is you discover what truly makes you happy. Slowly but surely I got into triathlon and set new goals.
I also started my own company and I think that if I looked back, the two are very much tied. When you are doing all these things that are pushing yourself. Nobody thought I could do these things but look at me! Going and starting a business which is pretty scary . I thought well if I can run a marathon when nobody believed in me then I can also start a business and see how it goes. It has been an amazing journey. Made me think I really don’t want to work in the branding world. I want to work in the wellness business because I love it so much more. My latest is that I am in school to become a Holistic nutritionist. I will be graduating at the end of the year. I am extremely happy about that.
I was pretty embarrassed when I first started running so I ran on my own for a while and a colleague at work has suggested I sign up for this race. I did not know what a half marathon was but I said yes. Then I found out it was 21 km! I said “oh my god what have I done?!” But there was something beautiful in that because I just started to run a little bit longer. This was pre-internet so they gave me a working plan and I said “oh this is a spreadsheet. I think I can make sense of this.”
Back then I remember I was in a very busy intense role. So running was deeply personal and a great alone time for me. As much as I make fun of my inability to run, the fact is I could run and I started to feel really good having this time on my own. My running shoes, my shorts, my baseball hat and I. Really that’s all I needed. And I followed this plan. I did not know this back then but it was not just great for my stress level, it was time with myself with my thoughts. I worked out a lot of problems during those runs. I got rid of a lot of things that did not matter on those runs. It was really my own personal therapy.
And I made a lot of mistakes. I knew nothing about nutrition. I knew nothing about hydration. I really knew nothing. Honestly. But after the half marathon, it was electrifying what I felt at that finish line.
I’ll never forget that beautiful sense of elation. All I wanted to do was, not another half, I wanted to run a marathon!! C’mon! Who wants to do half of anything?
After the half marathon and so so training plan, I think I understood that despite the fact that my lungs were limited and some good days and some bad days – it’s a formula. Like anything, a growth mindset. I can do this! I was very privileged to have incredible coaches. Very real. Talked in a real human way. For the first time in my life, because I’d been this kid who was sick, I was a runner! It was very powerful for my ego. I was a runner.
Once I signed up for my marathon, I sought help. I joined a marathon group because I knew that I was out of my league. I need coaching. I need proper training. And I also needed support. I knew there was no way I was going to do this alone
My long runs were always on a Saturday for number of years and we always had brunch. A bit like ‘Sex in The City’ girls. They always had their weekend brunch together. It was like religion. Honestly I came home 1 o’clock in the afternoon. To me it was so precious. I hated missing one of those weeks. And to this day if I drive by the Grenadier restaurant in High Park in Toronto that’s all I think about. These amazing brunch times with my girls. I’m extremely grateful. And I’m still friends with many of them. This was our first marathon!
During my Ironman training, the team community became more evident. As a runner I was always very single minded as a runner in my goals. When I trained for Ironman I trained with people and I became very attached to the their success. And I wanted us as a team to support one another. That was a big discovery about me. I had started wanting to escape my daily issues to becoming this person who was far more focused on others. Even though of course I wanted to do my training in a healthy and good way I was very invested in my friends success as part of the Ironman. That was a big thing for me. I did not think I was a team sport person. I really really loved it. I’m not a particularly good swimmer. I met some of my best friends in the ‘lane of shame’ – that’s what we called the slowest lane in the pool. And we have such a good time together. I’m so glad that I can be there for them and they can be there for me. We all pull one another. That community has served me so well.
Women have a tendency to be so hard on themselves because the standards have been so high. And I think that we start to appreciate who we are for who we truly are and see these things aren’t that important. I don’t need to look pretty, I don’t need to be cute and quiet etc. I can be grunty and sweaty and bold. Absolutely incredible – it can be incredibly powerful. We stop being shy and trying to conform. Shedding those layers is so liberating. Oh It’s so beautiful. It’s still a work in process for me.
It’s amazing how you believe labels that are given to you. The fact that I had been given this belief that I was sickly. I believed it. When you have the belief you act consequently. That‘s a very key thing, When you change the belief is when you change the actions.
When I stopped having that as my vernacular I stopped adopting that belief system. And that I was a runner and I was basically whatever I dam well choose. Ok then it’s not crazy to believe that I could do the impossible… that I could have new ambitions… that I could have new activity goals. Whatever the goals might be.
Women think, oh well that‘s not for me that’s for somebody else. I don’t have a runner’s body type. I say, “Nonsense! There is no such thing as a runner’s body type. There’s just women. Period. And we can do it if we choose to.”
I often find that people who come to me for wellness coaching say “I haven’t done this because I’m waiting to have ‘this’ done. Or that milestone accomplished.” I always say there is no such thing as a best time just do it because I have seen time and time again with myself and others who you become once you do it. I would never have become a runner in my head intellectualizing it, reading a book or watching netflicks about it. I became a runner by running. It deprogrammed the old beliefs of “oh you are sickly, you are weak you should be careful about your health. You should not push yourself.” That is totally irrelevant now. I think about myself in a big much more powerful way.
Doing transforms your thoughts. And then it’s beautiful because its like a self serving prophecy. You know it therefore you believe it and all your actions support your goals. And you hang out with people who support those goals and you try to minimize the behaviours that hinder that progress. Its amazing how powerful that system is.
I like to tell this story when I was running the Scotiabank marathon in Toronto. I was having the most beautiful day and it was still the first 10km of the race and I’ve got a beautiful focus on. Then I see this guy a little ahead of me with the infamous Ironman tattoo on his calf. The Ironman is a long distance triathlon. And as lot of people get a tattoo as a badge of honour when they complete it. I thought “I can’ t believe this guy has done an Ironman.” I ran up to him and said “you have to tell me about ironman.” He said. “Doing an ironman is a little easier than doing a marathon.” I said to myself, oh I know he’s lying to me. I wanted to talk to him because I thought this was the craziest undertaking anyone could do. And I was secretly envious.
One day I received an email. I was not part of the mailing list. It was total fluke. Someone sent it to me. It was basically this guy offering a package that said “Do you want to come do an Ironman with us? I’ll give you the training and the entry for X race. If you sign up you are in.” Literally that’s all I needed to do. And I replied and said I signed up. Then I stared at my screen. “Oh my god what have you done?” But It was in that moment thank God that I did not think too much. Because there would have been so many reasons to say no no no! That’s crazy for all the same reasons from years ago. And that’s how I did my first ironman. I was grateful to have this chance. I think the universe knew I wanted to do this.
In the Ironman race, you swim 3.8km then bike 180km and followed by a marathon 42.2km. You have 17 hours to complete it. Usually, it starts at 7am and closes at midnight. If you finish before midnight you get your medal. I was using the analogy that’s there’s always a method. There’s a way to learn and understand. Well, Ironman is no different. There is a formula for training. And you will get to be able to finish. Absolutely. But the ‘day of’ is like any day. You may wake up that day with an upset stomach. You may wake up that day and you have a head cold. You may have slept poorly the day before. You do your best the day of the race and that’s all that matters. It is truly a transformative experience. For sure. It is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it was magical and I had an amazing community around me. Without them I would never have been able to accomplish it. Once again it takes a village to accomplish anything.
The biggest lesson all in all is that you need to be open to the possibility. We as women, we get into our own way. We stop ourselves with all the reasons why we can’t. There are so many reasons in this world from the distraction of the family and professional requirements and the voices inside our heads.
Just stay open to the possibility. And usually life facilitates the opportunities. You’ve just got to take them. It doesn’t have to be all figured out and all perfect. You don’t have to be great at it.
That’s a really big thing. I lost a long time ago my desire to be perfect. Thank God for it. I was wasting a lot of precious time. That would be my biggest thing. Just stay open and just go for it. Whatever it is. It will bring you so much joy.