Being back on track, winning races and setting records feels much better for Kate Van Buskirk than being flat on her back in pain.
The Brampton, Ont. athlete is writing one of the great Canadian sport comeback stories, setting a national record of 4:26.92 for the indoor mile at a prestigious meet in January at the famed New York Armory after two years fraught with injury and illness.
The performance qualified her to compete at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, in March where she ran a personal best 4:09.42 in the 1,500 metres but fell a tenth of a second short of qualifying for the final.
Van Buskirk, 30, was diagnosed with a debilitating auto-immune disease a year after winning a bronze medal in the 1,500 metres at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The genetic disease, a rheumatoid condition called spondyloarthropathy, came to light as she nursed a hamstring tendon tear. It could have ended her running career and altered her very way of life.
“I knew injury was part of the game. I’d seen many teammates deal with serious injuries that could be career ending. No one is immune,” says Van Buskirk, national 1,500-metre champion in 2013 and 2014. “I didn’t anticipate I’d discover something about myself that could keep me ⇑from ever being active again. There were times when I was just in pain every day.”
Chronic inflammation enveloped her hips, pelvis and back. The SI joints in her lower back ached every day. She uprooted from her Toronto training base and headed to Victoria to work with athletic therapist Wynn Gmitroski and other experts at the Pacific Institute for Sports Excellence. Sports medicine doctors, physiologists, psychologists and nutritionists all had a hand in Van Buskirk’s resurrection. But beaten down physically and emotionally, she stopped training altogether, abandoned her dream of making the 2016 Rio Summer Games team and moved back to Toronto to focus solely on recovery.
“I watched the Olympics, but pulled out of the running community. That couple of months away from the sport allowed me to heal physically and lit the fire under me once again that this was something I still wanted to do at a competitive level.”
Van Buskirk learned to take baby steps. It wasn’t competition that drove her, it was a desire to be healthy. “My experience made me a lot more sympathetic to people with chronic illnesses or conditions,” she says. “It came with a lot of humility and brought me down to a more basic level of ‘I just want to be a happy, healthy person.’ Any ability to chase elite goals would just be seen as a gift.”
Coach Dave Reid has been steering Van Buskirk’s rise back to competition and he looked forward to seeing her in her Team Canada kit for the first time in almost four years in Birmingham.
“Kate is a smarter, wiser, more appreciative person in life,” says Reid. “One of the reasons her running has improved is because her outlook on life has changed. Her drive is greater than it was before and her passion and appreciation for the sport is there. If she stays healthy, I see no reason she shouldn’t go the Olympics and be very successful.”
Injury and illness has taught Van Buskirk volumes about her own body and mind. She is intimately aware of the biomechanics of running, what she’s fuelling her body with, being careful to avoid any foods that promote inflammation. She’s cut out dairy and gluten, eats tons of fermented foods like tempeh and kombucha.
Strength training is a bigger part of her routine and she even works as a trainer at Toronto gym Myodetox Performance, where she leads circuit classes each week. On the track, if a workout isn’t feeling right, training is cut off. Myofascial stretching and other manual therapies are key parts of maintaining her health.
Qualifying for World Indoors is a big goal achieved for 2018 and Van Buskirk says she’d like to experiment with 5Ks this year, a distance she is just a sliver away from reaching world standard. She intends to race at the NACAC (North American, Central American and Caribbean) championships this August in Toronto.
A tattoo on her torso reminds Van Buskirk to “Be Relentlessly Positive.” Her mantra is a tribute to a teammate from Duke University. It reminds her of what she lost and what she gains from her passion, love and gratitude for running.
Kate Van Buskirk
- Born: June 9, 1987, Brampton, Ont.
- School: Turner Fenton High, Brampton, Duke University, Durham, N.C.
- Career Highlights: Canadian record indoor mile 4:26.92, (2018); 2013 & 2014 Canadian 1,500 metres champion; 2014 Commonwealth Games 1,500 metres bronze medal; 2006 Gold medal NACAC cross country championships; 2005 Canadian junior champion 5,000M