Canada's Kate Van Buskirk had to walk the darkest of paths to get back where she is today – healthy, happy... and fast.
All she could do was lie there. It was the autumn of 2015, and Kate Van Buskirk, one of the world’s best middle distance athletes, couldn’t get out of bed.
The Canadian had won the bronze medal over 1500m at the Commonwealth Games in the summer of 2014, but a year later her running career – and indeed her life – started to unravel.
Each morning, she would wake with a mysterious and debilitating pain in her pelvis, one which would require her to call for help just to start her day. “I couldn’t roll over without pain,” she recalls. “It was a really helpless feeling.”
It was a dark, depressing period, one Van Buskirk is able to reflect on now with clarity from a far brighter place, her tale offering living proof that if you’re going through hell, you should always keep going.
The fall was that much harder because of how high she climbed.
To understand why, we need to go back to Glasgow, July 2014, where Van Buskirk is standing on the start line for the 1500m final, savouring the atmosphere at a packed Hampden Park. She’s the fittest she has ever been, and despite the calibre of opposition, she knows a medal is possible.
“Walking into the stadium was the least nervous I’ve ever been and it was because I found a way to embrace the whole experience,” she says. “I was so grateful that I was healthy and fit and wearing the maple leaf on my chest.”
In a race won by Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, who would go on to become Olympic champion in 2016, Van Buskirk finished just half a second behind in third, her parents watching on proudly in the stands. “It was the best athletic experience of my life,” she says.
That’s when the problems started. Buoyed with confidence, Van Buskirk returned to Canada to prepare for a series of races where she planned to smash her PB of 4:05.38.
“I tore the hamstring that connects to your glute, a 5 millimetre tear,” she recalls. “When I got back training, I had a hamstring tweak and I was being a little bit too greedy, overdid it, and that ended my season.”
Her health issues were only just beginning. Van Buskirk needed three months of rest and two rounds of platelet-rich plasma injections to allow her hamstring to heal. In December she resumed light jogging, but a piercing pain soon emerged in her sacroiliac joint.
“That intensified for the next year and a half to the point where it was incredibly debilitating,” she says. “In the fall of 2015 I was in so much pain – I had moved to Victoria to train with our national team – and I couldn’t get out of bed on my own.”
MRI scans proved inconclusive and Van Buskirk spent much of the year in crisis mode, trying to stay on top of the pain through hours of physical therapy only to see it re-emerge worse than before.
One day her doctor suggested she undergo blood testing for a rare disorder, which potentially could cause the repeated inflammation that Van Buskirk was dealing with in her joints. The test came back positive and Van Buskirk was diagnosed with spondyloarthropathy, a genetic disease affecting approximately 1% of the population.
She didn’t have an obvious cure – truth is, there is none – but at least she had an answer.
“We think what happened was my biomechanics were sound until the hamstring tore and that offset these inflammatory patterns,” she says. “At its worst, it was present all the time, sharp and very deep in the centre of my pelvis.”
Her emotional state worsened, and Van Buskirk made sure to seek the help of both a clinical and sports psychologist to look after her mental health. “I wasn’t working and yet I wasn’t able to walk or move,” she says. “I reached a point that fall where I thought: ‘forget running, I just want to live my life without pain.’
“It was a combination of physical and emotional stress. I would wake up several times in the night with pain, but also it was a pretty dark period emotionally. I was in a city I’d never lived in before. I had some friends but didn’t know many people. My whole purpose in being there was to train and that was the one thing I couldn’t do. I felt isolated and was definitely depressed.”
In the months that followed her diagnosis, Van Buskirk experimented with her diet and lifestyle, learning to avoid the things that triggered her symptoms.
“I made sure I didn’t eat a lot of processed foods or sugars and I’m on an almost completely dairy-free and gluten-free diet,” she says. “I have a lot of fermented foods to improve gut flora, and always make sure stress and sleep patterns are in check.”
She adopted an extremely short-term outlook with training, waiting to see how her body felt before deciding what was possible each day. “I had to do a lot more preparation before I could go for a run,” she says. “There were days I’d wake up and know I can’t run, or had to wait until the afternoon.”
With the 2016 Olympics looming, Van Buskirk rushed her return to hard workouts last year, but in the end she overcooked it and had to pull the plug on her season in late May after developing chronic fatigue. “I was burnt out mentally too,” she said.
It was then that she decided to return home to Toronto, where Van Buskirk now lives in the basement at the house of her assistant coach, Eddie Raposo, who oversees her career along with her primary coach, Dave Reid.
After a below-par season she was cut from funding by Athletics Canada, and her shoe deal with Brooks was also not renewed, so Van Buskirk juggles three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
“I’m a group trainer at a gym, do some private coaching with some high school athletes and coach in the city with a team called Pace in Mind,” she says. “These are lean times for a lot of runners, post-Olympic year, and I’m just hoping to find sponsorships to help support my dream.”
She certainly made a convincing case for potential sponsors at the Millrose Games this year. The 29-year-old smashed her indoor 3000m PB by 20 seconds to win in 8:52.08.
Before the race, Van Buskirk wrote a note to herself on both wrists, a little reminder not to fret, given the challenges she had conquered just to get back there. On the left wrist: 'don’t worry'. On the right: 'be happy'.
It’s how she seems now, explaining with the boundless enthusiasm of a typical Canadian that the effects of the inflammatory condition are minimised, though not quite eradicated. She still has to pop the occasional anti-inflammatory pill, but not nearly the number she needed when things were at their worst.
In the harsh conditions of the Toronto winter, Van Buskirk logged 120km a week in training, and as she now looks forward to the summer, a tilt at the IAAF World Championships in London is back on the cards.
The health problems may have sent her to a dark place, but these days they serve as a reminder just how much of a gift it is to be healthy.
“It’s the silver lining to any injury,” she says. “You learn a lot about your body and develop a huge amount of appreciation and gratitude. It sounds cheesy, but I approach every day I’m not in pain with tremendous gratitude. There are always days where it’s work and you don’t want to go out for another 10-miler, but I never complain any more. I’m very, very grateful.”