Welcome to our “Moments of Will” series, where we’ll feature community members who have faced adversity on their health and fitness journeys, only to come back stronger and better than ever. While they could have let their challenges keep them from their goals, each of them found the will to fight for their physical, emotional and mental health.
The problems started just before Tracy Forrest’s 40th birthday, when she started experiencing unexplained swelling and pain in her feet and hands. “Six years ago, I thought my life as I knew it was over,” says Forrest, from Ottawa, Ontario. Test after test came back normal, but the pain was becoming debilitating. “My doctor eventually told me I should start preparing for the day when I could no longer work,” she recalls. “Saying I was devastated was an understatement.”
FIT AT 40
While approaching 40, Forrest had strong health foundations. “As a teenager in high school, I was very competitive. I was on the long-distance running team, I did track and field, basketball, volleyball and swimming,” she says. While she wasn’t always winning races or earning MVP awards, she always tried her best on and off the field. But as she got older, health and fitness started to become less of a priority. “Your life gets busier,” she explains. “Sometimes you leave all of that behind — not always by choice but it just slowly evaporates.”
As an adult, Forrest wasn’t totally off the wagon. She stayed active doing physical activities with her daughter, encouraging her in sports and working a job that kept her on her feet. As her 40th birthday neared, Forrest began thinking about her health in a new way. “I think because it was a milestone birthday for me, I thought, ‘You know, I think I should look at my lifestyle,’ because as a teenager, I really did enjoy long-distance running and sports,” she explains.
But just as she tried to get back into a fitter stride, she started to notice the problems with her hands and feet, which progressively worsened. “I recognized there was something wrong but wasn’t really able to face up to it,” she says, adding that she tried to brush her deteriorating health off as simply the result of spending all day on her feet at work. With a teenage daughter to raise and bills to pay, quitting didn’t feel like an option.
For two years, Forrest pushed through the mysterious pain until finally, one day, she physically couldn’t get out of bed. “I just remember being on my hands and knees and trying to make it to the bathroom, which was not a very far distance, but seemed insurmountable,” she says. “I knew the time had come — there was something seriously wrong.” As soon as she was well enough, she drove herself to the doctor. “She took one look at me and immediately put me off work for a month,” she says. She even began paperwork to put Forrest on permanent disability.
Around this time, Forrest’s husband had taken a job 4,000 miles away; the stress from the distance added to the tax her mysterious illness was already taking on her body. “I remember going back home and thinking, I had to make a major change,” she says. “It was more than just my physical body. It was my mental body.”
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
While on medical leave, Forrest finally received a diagnosis for her mysterious health condition: inflammatory arthritis.
“I was put on medication, received physiotherapy and counseling and joined a support group for chronic pain,” she says. Her body — and mindset — started to heal, albeit slowly. It took two years before Forrest was able to do much more than walk her dog around the block.
So how did she find the will to keep pushing toward her goals? She says she can pin it on a single moment. While sitting in her backyard one afternoon, she was barely able to maneuver herself into a patch of sun. “I realized I had two choices,” she says. “I could just wither up and go on permanent disability and have this become my life. Or, I could figure out a new path.”
It was not easy. Gradually, she returned to work, working half days and shortened weeks to allow her body time to get stronger. “Slowly, I was able to get to the point where I could work five days a week and I thought, ‘This is a milestone. If I can do this, I know this is good [progress],’” she says.
As big of an accomplishment as it was for her to make it back to work, she knew her job couldn’t be the only part of her life. “For me to be able to continue, I knew I needed to put other things back into my life — happy moments, joyous moments, sharing, doing things,” she explains. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do a lot of stuff that I wanted to do with my daughter if I didn’t start to build up strength.”
She kept getting stronger. In May of last year, she was finally able to start running again. Serendipitously, around the same time, a friend asked her if she’d participate in a charity 5K. “At first, I didn’t think I could do it but I said I’d try. Worst-case scenario was walking the whole thing and I knew I could at least do that,” she says. While training for the race, she started at one kilometer and worked her way up, running the full 5K on race day.
“It was exhilarating,” she says. “It was something I thought was out of reach for me — the previous year, I never would have thought I’d be able to do that. I wanted to continue challenging my body in a way that was positive, strengthening and would allow me to continue to have the quality of life that I wanted.” After completing a 10K in the fall, Forrest knew she had been bitten by the race bug and signed up for her very first half marathon.
As she was training for her half marathon, Forrest and her now ex-husband ended their marriage. “Having this goal was an outlet for me to deal with some of the pressures and the stress of that in a positive way,” she says. “It put my mind to focusing on something else besides on what was happening in my personal life.”
Forrest felt better and better as she trained. Then, race day arrived. “Race day was a tough one — it was a long, hard race,” she says. Battling triple-digit temperatures, she started to flag around mile 11. “But I thought, ‘I can finish. I’m so close,’” she says.
Trudging toward the finish line, Forrest heard her daughter’s voice, cheering for her mom and her amazing accomplishment. “That was the best moment,” she says. Despite all the challenges along the way — even up to the last mile — she had done it.
A STRONGER MIND AND BODY
“Achieving that goal, has flowed over into other parts of my life,” says Forrest. Mentally, spiritually and emotionally, she’s felt the ripple effects. It’s improved the way she approaches everything from her career to her friendships.
As Forrest talks about the present state of her life, her voice is noticeably different — stronger, brighter, more optimistic — which is fitting because so many aspects of her life are stronger and brighter, she says. “It took achieving the physical goal to start the process of looking at me as a whole.”