Elite runners make a lot of sacrifices to reach the top and even more to stay there. “Run, Eat, Sleep, Repeat” may sound fun for the average runner, but if that means missing out on birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, weekend getaways, etc., it becomes less attractive. Many people wonder where these athletes get the motivation to keep pushing themselves for 10, 15 or even more years. Often it comes from a personal experience that shapes their lives and way of thinking. I cannot testify for others, but I can share my story.
My entire upbringing revolved around sports. In his youth (this was way back in the 50’s), my father played football during the winter months and ran track during the summer. As a 16-year old he was invited for a try-out with a division 1 team as their backup goalkeeper. Sadly his nerves killed it for him and he made 1 big mistake in the game. On the track, he ran an impressive 11-second 100m on a GRASS track. A motorbike accident that put him in a come for 2 months at the age of 22 ended his sports career early. He made up for that in his 40’s, but that’s a story for another blog. He never lost touch with sports as for as long as I can remember, we only watched sports on TV, be it football, running, cycling, skiing, tennis, … you name it, we watched it.
This, of course, led to me being a very active kid, imitating all the sports I saw on TV (and no, stairs are not a good place to do downhill skiing on 2 strips of cardboard as skis). My biggest dream was to become a goalkeeper. But breaking my collarbone during my personal “Tour de France” biking trips in and around town at the age of 8 meant no goalkeeping or any other sports where impacts on the shoulder are common for at least 2 years.
So I started running and creating my own races against other boys in the neighbourhood and winning most of them, even against kids who were a few years older than me and this eventually brought me into athletics.
My mother, on the other hand, was not into sports at all. She never did any sports and did not watch it on TV. But from the moment I started running competitively, she was my biggest supporter and started to get more into sports and joined me and dad binge-watching the Olympics or any other sporting event on TV.
Around age 11, I already became faster than my father in the middle distance (but it took me another 7 years to beat him for the first time over 100m). My mother then decided to get her bicycle out and ride along with my runs. No matter how busy she was (my parents ran a garment factory), she always made time for my practice and she didn’t care about rain, snow, or intense heat. She never skipped a session and had to deal with a teenager who complained about every single thing. As she was not the thinnest woman out there, she started losing weight and was pretty happy about it. A few years later her appetite also started waning and after going through a whole bunch of test and passing by a slew of doctors, the verdict came in a few days after her 48th birthday… Cancer… and it was terminal, only 6 months to go.
While me, my dad and the rest of the family were devastated by the news, she laughed with it, and told the doctors she would outlive them. She insisted on continuing her life as if nothing happened. That meant that she was riding next to me 3 or 4 days a week. She did this for the next 6 months… and then for another 6, and 6 more, again and again. Even with osteoporosis setting in, causing a fracture in the dens of her C2, she would not quit. For 5 years she kept going and fighting until the disease took finally over a few months before she turned 54. She passed away half a year later.
So, if my mother, being terminally ill, kept on going, how could I start slacking… She fought to stay alive, therefore I was obliged to push myself as hard as possible. Her motivation was mine,
Even now, more than 20 years later, she motivates me. Who am I to complain about a bit of rain to run in, when my mother, 6 months before passing away and with a broken neck, would ride her bicycle in the snow with a smile on her face, going over 15km/h for 12k.
What keeps me going? What makes me the person I am now? What makes me push myself and my athletes to be the best version of ourselves?
The determination of my mother to go on and fight the worst of all diseases.
And if you are wondering… yes, she outlived the doctor who started her initial treatment…
By Gert Rijkx, founder and head coach of Jayaruwan Running and Independence Pacers Running Club Colombo. Former athlete and certified athletics coach with over 25 years of experience in coaching, training and motivating runners of all levels