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the last hurdle

Trish McAlaster competed in the 2015 ITU Duathlon World Championships in Australia.Kathryn Thomas

What does it take to vault a personal obstacle? This is part of a collection of stories in which five Canadians reflect on leaping over the barrier that was holding them back. Read the other stories here.

Three years ago, when I started training to rejoin the triathlon community, I had no idea that the thing I was using as a distraction from my falling-apart life would become, in fact, a huge focus, leading to the fulfilment of a long-time dream.

2012 was a terrible year for me. My elderly dog died, a friend committed suicide and in the fall, I had to end a souring, seven-year relationship with my boyfriend. Since I couldn't afford the rent on my suburban townhouse on my own, I was forced to sell most of my belongings and move into a downtown condo close to work. Within six months, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of the big city, utterly alone and unhappy.

I'd always been active, and now, even though my demanding newspaper career kept me more than busy, I was playing organized ice hockey three times a week and spinning almost daily. I even took up soccer (well, I tried to). But I still had too much time to sit and be lonely. I needed a goal. I needed to find purpose. I decided to return to the sport of triathlon – a swim, a road-bike ride and a run, back to back – not an event to be trifled with. It was a fairly lofty goal, considering my obstacles included a crazy work schedule and limited finances, not to mention that I was no longer a spring chicken.

An athlete all my life, my dream had always been to go to the Olympics and compete internationally. I had no idea how far this whim would take me, but I knew that the first step would be entering a race. In the roughly eight months until the race season would begin, I couldn't follow a training program due to my erratic schedule, and I didn't have a club or a coach. During lunch hours or in any spare time I could find, I did spin classes with a vengeance, squeezed in a ride, ran or swam. I tried – unsuccessfully – to avoid ice-hockey injuries. And so the "training" went.

Soon enough, summer arrived, as did race day. I registered, set up my gear in the transition area, affixed my numbers and did some stretching. As I walked to the start area, I realized that my heart was already racing. Feeling less than prepared, I stood on the start line, took a deep breath. The starter's horn sounded. We were off. Pure adrenalin and discomfort for roughly 90 minutes. But I finished, and did so surprisingly well. I medalled, winning my category and in top five over all.

Drunk on my unexpected success, I started looking for bigger races that I felt might take me further in the sport. I found an Xterra Canadian championship cross-triathlon event (swim, mountain bike and trail run) that was a qualifier for a world championship cross-triathlon competition in Germany. I used to be a cross-country runner in my varsity years, and I had open-water swimming experience, but I had only mountain biked once – ever – on a recent trip to the Mayan Riviera. I used an old borrowed mountain bike, rented a wetsuit and took the plunge. While a constant rain provided the worst wet and muddy trail conditions I could imagine, I clawed my way through the race and emerged with some cuts and bruises but was elated that I finished. I wasn't one of the top finishers but did well enough to secure a spot to compete for Canada at the world championships overseas the next year.

I bought a new mountain bike and a wetsuit. I practised my trail riding, took the lumps and earned myself some stitches. Friends and family encouraged me, my docs patched me up and my instructors continued to push me through workouts. Sadly, despite throwing myself into preparation, I wasn't able to compete for reasons that were beyond my control. But that only lit a fire under me to requalify for the next season. Which I did. Not only did I make the team heading to Italy for the cross-triathlon, but I also raced my way to earn a spot in the World Duathlon Championships in Australia (a 10-kilometre run, followed by a 40-km bike race, then another 5-km run). Australia had always been on my bucket list to visit, so I turned my focus away from the trails and back toward my road-racing skills.

The next off-season flew by. A whirlwind of workouts, travel arrangements, sports med appointments, all squeezed in between the increased demands of a new position at work. And the money! I had scrimped and I had saved and then I watched it all fly away on team/race/uniform fees, and booking airfare and accommodations. I attempted seeking sponsorship to no avail. I couldn't afford this trip – but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The next step was psyching myself up. Not only for the competition. This would be the first travelling I'd ever done on my own, and I was going halfway around the world. I was completely intimidated. My friends allowed me to vent my anxiety, then offered me reassurance. I tried to prep by packing early, reading up on my destination online and asking advice of more well-travelled individuals. I squeezed in as many workouts as possible.

And then it was upon me. I was at the airport checking in my gear and bike, and shaking. Forty-eight hours and no sleep later, I arrived in Adelaide. Game on.

It wasn't the Olympics, but I had finally earned the right to don a Canadian team uniform and march in an opening ceremony with my fellow Canadian athletes. The race itself was a humbling, yet inspiring experience, but the middle-of-the-pack result doesn't matter. With the help of my family, instructors and "support crew" of friends, I had made it to the world stage in a sport that I loved.

– Trish McAlaster is a graphics editor at The Globe and Mail

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