This conversation started on January 6th, 2019. I can. I will. With angels all around me.
Karen how young are you?
I’m 60 years young.
What are your feelings on aging?
Turning 60 freaked me out, it scared the heck out of me. I’m over the initial shock because I feel more like 45. Aging is really a wonderful gift compared to the alternative. Having the gift of a long life I have grown into myself in so many wonderful ways. I don’t take a single minute for granted. I’m very grateful for everything I have become, and will become.
Aging doesn’t mean you stop growing. I grow every day and I’m always grateful for daily inspiration and the beauty that life provides. I’m a deep soul.
What makes you a deep soul?
I thrive with every experience and connection by receiving and giving energy, almost like an energy exchange. I call myself a deep soul because I don’t take these experiences and connections lightly. I connect fully with every opportunity, regardless if it’s working, racing, meeting new people, reconnecting, parenting, learning, smiling, or simply savoring the moment.
How have you grown into yourself?
I simply listen to my heart. My heart tells me absolutely everything I need to know. It tells the truth. It gives me direction. It can be broken and hurt, but my heart is quick to get me back into balance. It took me a few decades to find something that was right inside of me.
What is your favorite thing about being over the age of 50?
I’m grateful that I’m able to see my children grow. I have grand babies, how blessed am I? I’ve become stronger and wiser, and I’m comfortable with who I’ve become. I can reach out to others with confidence and admiration. I love life.
What is your least favorite thing?
Playing golf. It’s way to boring. Someone thought I loved it because on my birthday I opened my eyes to a set of golf clubs and a pretty sweet bag. I was surprised, I was actually in a state of total shock. Honestly, when I do golf, I find I only need one club.
I’m laughing just thinking about being on the dreaded greens, wearing funny shorts, golf shirts with those shoes and that half a hat, sun visor thing.
My golf clubs have been to a fair amount of tournaments, I’m always eager to lend them to a friend in need. You would never want to play a game of golf with me, I do everything but concentrate on that silly game.
This second one is ARGUING and YELLING. I grew up in a house where this happened daily. My parents didn’t see eye to eye. I’m sure things were tough on Dad because of Mom’s mental illness but regardless it wasn’t the way to handle things. I cried every time I heard the screaming and yelling. It broke me, made me instantly sick to my stomach. My parents behavior eventually became my childhood memories. Throughout my life I have come to avoid this behavior or be part of it. I believe in discussions, I love discussions. Arguing can cause hurt feelings and disenchantment. To me a raised voice feels threatening. I choose not to yell or be yelled at, or accept any form of verbal abuse from anyone in my life, it’s not acceptable behavior.
What has becoming a Grandma taught you ?
Love endlessly. Love until there’s nothing left to love and then love more.
What is your relationship with impermanence?
Losing loved ones is brutal and painfully hard. My Father, my two beautiful sisters, a few of my best friends and my late husband, he left me our beautiful children to raise. They are my everything. I believe they gave me their lives and I’m here to fill my life with gratitude and love. I take what I’ve been given. I accepted that nothing lasts forever.
These losses taught me to embrace and savor each moment, opportunity and connection.
You lost your dad, two sisters, your husband and multiple friends. How have you been able to avoid the emotional crush of all that loss?
You can’t avoid the emotional crush. Each time, I went to a dark place. Sports helped me navigate the darkness as well the unconditional love that I have as a parent towards my children. In the end, with every loss I actually got stronger. I started to reframe life and see the world differently. They all became something even more powerful, my Angels.
What has it been like raising two children by yourself after the loss of their father?
When my husband died, my children were respectively 19 and 21 years old. Even though they were entering adulthood, busy doing their own thing, this loss challenged me to grow and call upon my inner strength to support my children in their time of deep sadness and grief. It’s hard to see your children’s hearts crushed.
What did that dark place look and feel like?
As a child I was “deathly” afraid of death. Perhaps because I felt like I had a disproportionate amount of loss of people I love, mostly due to cancer.
My lowest point was the death of my father, when he was 52. He was my everything in my life, especially my strength and wisdom. With the death of my father, my body and mind reacted by losing weight to the point of being dangerously underweight.
I didn’t have clothes that fit me nor did I have the mental or physical confidence to socialize. Even though I cognitively knew that I wasn’t alone, I still experienced and felt such a depth of loneliness because I simply could not find myself. During that time, I sometimes wondered if I was slowly dying. This was the defining moment where my father’s strength and wisdom released my desire to live passionately and to live life to the fullest. After my father’s death, there seemed to be a consistent wave of deaths. Despite my family slowly dissipating, I continued to grow in strength and hope.
Who helped you with your sadness and grief?
My love for my daughter shifted my mind, body and soul. My daughter needed her mom to be present, to laugh again. I went to college at night to feed my curious mind. Then I got pregnant with my second child which gave me a renewed hope for life. Another positive shift in my life was the birth of my third child at the age of 42. With my parental partner, our son is now 17 and a source of both grief (of course he is now a teenager) and hope for the future. Upon reflection, I might view my life as a series of losses where my community and family diminished. Upon a reframe, my family and community has been enriched. This includes angels who look over me in a different dimension and my angels on earth, people who have come into my life to invite me to keep moving forward and loving life. This includes my three children, my best friends, my mom, my co-workers, and of course my incredible Spartan family.
Who helped you with your crushed heart?
I depended on me. I knew I had what it took to move forward, to persevere, to rise up and to shine. I still welcomed the support of others who surrounded me. We all need a family, community or tribe, but I knew I had to make it and thrive. I always remind myself of that with my tattoo which reads:
I can. I will. With angels all around me. Which sits on my left forearm forever.
Is sharing your story scary?
Sharing my story is scary. Scott you have asked me to do some serious self-reflection and go to a place of vulnerability. But this process has also nudged me to acknowledge how I got to where I am today and have hope for the unknown future. I found the strength and the motivation to shift my life.
Sharing my story is overwhelming. I cried through so much of this simply because it really baffled me how much I went through, I forgot a lot of memories until now.
Over the weekend I didn’t think I could finish this, but heck that’s not me. I never give up, never quit. My intention is to help others that are having difficulty getting over yesterday, to move forward, to embrace today. It’s possible to live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life no matter how horrific things in the past were, having a future is a gift. Honestly it’s been an obstacle getting through this reflection. I look back into my past and the reality is my life was a constant whirlwind of tragic moments, days, weeks, months and years. Every time I caught my breath, tried to be happy and move on someone in my family was in turmoil, it’s still happening to this very day.
You haven’t mentioned your mom, is she still with you?
My mom is beautiful and still with me at the young age of 87 years. February 23rd is her birthday. I felt like unleashing her life would be a betrayal to her, but it was, and still is a huge part of my life. My story is not complete without me explaining how I grew up. My mom is border line schizophrenia. She was diagnosed after having us three girls. My mom was always lost in her illness as long as I can remember. I never felt like I had a nurturing mother figure, god bless her she did try, but just fell apart. Mom was afraid of everything, us girls, my dad and people in general. Mom would take comfort by staying in her room for days with her bible, reading verses out loud about demons coming to get us. Mom was in and out of hospitals. She often wanted to stay, I assume because she felt safe there but they always sent her home. My older sister suffered from mental illness as well but was never officially diagnosed. As a result, Mary and Mom spent endless days together nurturing each other. Mom said, Mary was the only one that understood her. My dad looked after Mom and us three girls until he passed away from cancer. Despite Mom’s mental health challenges, she always talks about wanting to get better. I know the reality is that she will never get better because her illness is part of my mother. However, I admire her tenacity and will to never stop trying. I inherited from her the strength of never giving up.
Today, I try to visit my mom every second day, connecting with her the best way I can. Mom loves the lake. So, I got her an apartment in a seniors’ building overlooking Lake Ontario. They call it the million-dollar view, this bring her joy and a smile on her face brings me joy.
How has caring for all these loved ones with serious illnesses affected you?
I was the only one that seemed to be able to get through things, meanwhile inside I was terrified that I would develop a mental illness or die of cancer because we shared the same genes. As a young teen I would walk to my doctor’s office and plead with him to check me out and send me for tests. I was positive I was going to become mentally ill or get cancer. I had quarterly visits to check on my mental and health status. Each time with a pat on my back and a huge smile from my doctors saying, “Karen your clear, you’re going to live a healthy life.” When I would leave the office with this amazing news I ran as fast as I could home again singing as loud as I could. I’m going to be fine. I’m going to live. Just about 8 months ago I did the genetic testing 23 and me and the health check. I ran it through 3 different codes systems to see if they went deeper with the codes if something would show up. Nothing, and yes I sang and danced each time I received a clean bill of health.
You mentioned it took a few decades to find something that was right inside of you. Was it a painful process?
I felt like I was expected to be the rock for everyone else. At one moment, I questioned my sanity. At one point, I felt like I was being crushed, barely able to breathe, waiting for the next loss to happen. So, of course it was a painful process but for every yin there is a yang. When I felt like running away, I eventually found my stride forward. Other times, I was convinced that the darkness of losing loved ones was here to stay permanently but glimmers of light reminded me that my strength would help me recover from these dark feelings. So because of this painful journey, I am the strong woman today that you are chatting with. Now, I always follow the light. It balances me and fills my heart with hope for tomorrow.
With all the loss you have experienced in life have you thought about giving in, giving up?
Only once when my father was told he had stage 4 lung cancer, inoperable, chemotherapy would shrink the invasive tumors but they were growing by the minute. The next 7 months killed me. I watched my hero, my rock, the greatest man ever to walk the face of this earth, die in front of me. Dad was my hero. The person that was always there and taught me everything I needed, oh my, how painful this was. I wanted my dad to live and I wanted take his pain. I got to the point I couldn’t stand the smell of food. I was going through my dads process of death but the thing was I wasn’t sick. This was the only time this happened, I never fell into this again as I went through many, many more horrific deaths.
How do you prevent the painful parts of your past from affecting the present moment?
I refuse to let the past even come close to affecting my present moment. I have full control over my mind, this took many years of practice. It doesn’t mean the past doesn’t try and creep in, because it does, I just don’t accept it. To let go of your past is the only way to move forward. To gain control of your thoughts is a gift, it takes will power not to give in but it’s so damn possible for everyone to achieve. I’m living proof anything is possible.
What does that idea of Forward, look and feel like in your everyday life. On the course or off the course?
Forward is the way I live. I believe the past is the past, I reflect on memories that only bring a smile to my face. I believe in the gift of life, the beauty of the world and the beautiful people that surround me. I’m like bouncing off my chair as I answer this question. I have so much to do, so much to give, and so much to be thankful for. Off or on the course doesn’t change me, I’m me where ever I go. This beautiful world is my gift and I happen to be blessed with a healthy mind and a strong body. We are here only on borrowed time so I’m here for a good time. I will continue to laugh, dance, sing like nobody is watching. Racing is a godsend to me and makes me even stronger mentally and physically, it makes me even crazier about life then I already am.
Thank you for sharing your past, I know this was a painful reflection. I deeply appreciate your vulnerability. Lets focus on the now. What has Spartan and Obstacle racing taught you at this point in your life?
First of all I wouldn’t change my past. To race is a gift and I’m out there using my gift with other beautiful people.
Why do you consider racing a gift?
I receive gifts of friendships that I call family. Each race is an adventure. I get to travel and explore new locations, experience local cuisine and culture. I now feel part of a growing community, reconnecting with and meeting new Spartan family members at each race. I no longer feel alone but rather receive the energy and strength to fuel my journey forward while giving back to others. I feel so alive. I’m so appreciative that I have my health which allows me to race. This includes my healthy body and mind which helps me achieve challenges I never knew possible. Hell, I successfully crushed a 14.5 hour Hurricane Heat in Ottawa, July 2018 and my first Ultra Beast in Dallas, October 2018 at the age of 60, recovering from a broken wrist from a Spartan race three months earlier. Not bad?
Why do you Spartan race? Have you always been an athlete?
Sports and physical movement have always been a staple in my life. I have enjoyed the sports of hockey, gymnastics, field hockey, dragon boat racing, flag football, soccer, running just to name a few. When I found cross-fit, it helped me develop a strong body. I wanted to do something with my strength, I was introduced to obstacle race training through a functional fitness training gym. That lead to my first 5 km obstacle race with Spartan and I simply fell in love with every aspect: the racing, the challenge, the obstacles, the community, the love, the positive energy, the stories that people share of hardships and victories. This helps me connect with so many people. The world of Spartan has also continued to teach me to never give in. It reinforces my value of moving forward and never giving up.
When I cross the finish line either by myself or with teammates, my smile induces such a positive chemical release that I sometimes wonder if my face might break, because my smile is that big.
How many days a week do you train?
I train 6 days a week.
Why do you love running?
Running is my reboot, my refueling station. Running clears my head and is an organizer of my thoughts. The earth keeps me grounded. I feel cleansed. The air, the beauty of Mother Nature, the sky, the trees and the wild flowers light up my life. Running trails I feel like I’m entering a different world, it’s like heaven on earth for me. It’s not just part of my training, it’s my way of life with exceptional benefits.
Do you trail race or do you just strictly compete in Obstacle Course Racing?
I have done some small trail races but mostly compete in Obstacles Coarse Racing. I plan on doing the Spartan Trail series next year. I train on trails .
What is your most challenging race this year? And why did you sign ups for it?
I have to say the Ultra Beast in New Jersey. Redemption. I’m signed up and ready to take home my buckle.
Why is the new Jersey Ultra Beast redemption?
Last year was my first attempt at the grueling 30 mile Ultra Beast race. I entered the transition four minutes to late. Transition is the half way refueling station. I was devastated when they cut my band off my arm. I felt defeat, sadness, weakness and not being worthy of such a huge race. I asked why the bucket was full of bands? Did all these people miss the transition? The answer was some, but most racers didn’t want to go back out again. I could not believe why someone would call it quits. Unless your injured, why quit what you could have finished. That’s all I wanted to do and they gave up. I never quit, I finish races, until this race. I waited around for my Spartan friends to finish their race. When they walked around with their buckles I wanted to cry. It took me a good chunk of the night to even be approachable, I was drowning in self-pity. I eventually snapped out of my pity party and approached my Spartan family with new light of hope. We sat around that night and planned our next Ultra Beast in Dallas.
The support of my Spartan family is incredible, we stick together. We all flew to Dallas in October and I crushed my first Ultra Beast with time to spare. I’m going back this year to New Jersey and not leaving without my buckle.
This fail gave me something incredible, it gave me the resolve to move forward.
What did not finishing the Jersey Ultra beast teach you about yourself?
A heck of a lot when reflecting back. Huge amounts honestly. It’s actually incredible what failure can teach you. It helps you move on, gets you back up, moves you forward with wisdom you didn’t have before. Failure showed me how incredible I was at picking myself right back up again. How quickly I could turn things into a positive and how eager I was for whatever challenges lay ahead. I found that I became more powerful in controlling my thoughts. I became a better me. It showed me that failure can give you hero strength. I believe things happen for a reason, it makes us stronger. It made me stronger.
In reflection, why do you think you came up 4 minutes short of making transition in New Jersey?
The completely honest answer is, I counted on someone else to get me to the transition area at the half way point. I went with my Spartan family but we were separated at the start line. I noticed that there were quite a few Ultra runners out there in pairs. I’m not going to lie, I was dying for a running buddy. The first 12 plus miles were grueling for me. I actually panicked the whole time because of the transition cut off. 15 miles in I saw my Ultra Beast Junkie friend, I was in heaven. I asked if he could keep time and pace me. We both agreed to get to transition together. I stopped thinking about the transition because my friend was going to get us there. When I asked about the time and transition one last time the answer was devastating.
WE RAN OUT OF TIME.
The lesson is don’t count on anyone to get you through things in life or on the race course. It’s not their job, it’s up to you to get yourself to where you need to be. Counting on friends for their wisdom, constructive criticism, love and support are blessings but I counted on someone else and I became lazy in a sense. On the positive side, we did have some badass conversations about life and I was so happy to have someone to run with. Thank you my friend.
With all the incredibly hard and painful things you have been through, why do you think you drowned in self-pity after the Jersey race?
I drowned in self-pity for many reasons. Even though it wasn’t a death, it was an end to something that I wanted to finish badly. I was mortified and I felt like burying my head in the sand like an Ostrich. This race was in my control and I lost it. I was a loser in my mind. When I reflect back now or even before this interview I discovered that much like watching a death or someone leaving my world, there is a process of mourning. I went through this process unaware of really what was happening to me by getting a DQ at transition. I admit I was not fun to be around, I was quick to answer questions with snappy returns towards my most beloved OCR family. It was humbling to know they understood I was hurting and that they all hoped the process I was going through would end. Later that evening something happened to me and I saw the light of hope. I shot right up after laying in bed for a couple of hours, I found me again. The feisty badass. I went upstairs to where the celebrating was happening and joined in, as these words spilled from my lips,
“Who’s up for an Ultra Beast before the year ends?”
Guess what? Everyone was in. I know they did it for me. I thanked my friends that weekend for understanding my grief and being so kind in my recovery. Tanya, Marcia, Mike, Todd, Tony and Rich I will never forget your love and kindness, it’s forever embedded in my soul.
I found myself again.
Do you bring your grandchildren to races so they can see gramma kick ass?
No, not yet. I race out-of-town so it’s difficult to organize. I’m signing both grandkids up for a Spartan race in Toronto this summer. My grandkids have trained with me and know that doing push-ups anywhere is acceptable. I’m always challenging them, I’m sure they both know I’m definitely not a stereotypical Gramma.
What is your favorite sound?
My favorite sound is lying on the beach closing my eyes and listening to the family’s laugh and play, this slowly becomes a background sound when all I hear is the waves hitting the beach shoreline. So peaceful and fulfilling. I’m sure I’m smiling with my eyes closed.
What does joy look like to you?
Joy to me is the connection with something beyond myself.
If you could be reincarnated what would you come back as?
Are you ready for this one? I would want to come back as me. Heck, it took me so long to find me, I want to keep on finding me. If I could come back with what I know now, it would be like heaven on earth.
What is one flaw you are trying to change in yourself?
The one flaw I’m working on is realizing that everyone is not like me. People wear their hearts differently. I lose my energy around people who act inappropriately towards others. I need to practice to just let things go when I see things that I don’t believe in. I’m not confrontational, it all happens in my head. It doesn’t happen often, because I am blessed and surrounded by amazing people.
You are on your deathbed and it is being broadcasted around the world. What do you say?
I have loved my life. I have lived my life to the fullest. I have filled my life with good and positive things, for this I am truly grateful. I hope that each and every one of you will find the magic life has to offer and forever walk around with a smile on your face that lights up the universe. I found that life is all about survival, challenges, tragedies and obstacles. We all are given them. We either grow, survive and get stronger, or we die way to young inside. I chose to get stronger. To become the best possible version of me. Since I was little girl I knew I had a purpose in this universe, I wasn’t sure what it was, but I kept searching. First was finding that little girl inside of me again, it took me until now but I never stopped looking. I’m growing as I say this WORLD. Please never stop growing. Take life and live, I promise you will flourish in a way you never expected. You will become something more powerful than you ever imagined, finding yourself is a different and beautiful universe. I love each and every one of you, now go get it. I can’t wait to stand in line for my reward for passing through this life. I’m going to be a proud finisher when I get my angel wings.
Reminds me of my Spartan races and the finish line, the feeling when you’re in the home stretch and you didn’t give up. The end of new beginning.
Karen Leblanc, Mother, Spartan, Survivor, and deep soul.
Follow Karen @ https://www.facebook.com/karen.leblanc.313