Photo by John Ulan
Her childhood dream was to play Olympic soccer with Team Canada. While that never came to be, Natalie Shanahan, ’06 BSc(Kinesiology), ’09 MSc, did find her athletic calling in ultramarathons, including representing the country at an international event last summer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Shanahan ran almost 210 kilometres in one race — the equivalent of five traditional marathons in a row — and placed 36th out of 130 women competitors at the International Association of Ultrarunners 24-Hour World Championships.
“[Ultramarathoners] don’t have an Olympic sport because I don’t think people want to see us run in circles for 24 hours,” she jokes.
Here’s what Shanahan has learned about strength, stamina and stepping outside her comfort zone.
You Can Always Go Further
“It’s about setting a goal and working toward it one step at a time,” says Shanahan. “When I ran my first relay, I had such a sense of accomplishment. It seemed impossible, but it turned out to be totally possible. I began to excel at running and then I started racing. With amazing people surrounding me, I set a goal to make Canada’s national team, and when I made the team I knew I had to work harder.”
Turn Weakness into Strength
Extreme sports make Shanahan confront her own Achilles heel: a history of eating disorders. Running forces her to eat properly to achieve peak performance. “I’ve found a positive way to fuel that challenge,” she says. “Sometimes, I’ll ‘bonk’ [feel lightheaded or weak] in a race and have to withdraw. But the more I eat and train properly, the further I can go.”
Find Your Tribe
Teamwork, even in the solitary sport of long-distance running, is essential. “A good friend told me, ‘I’ll train you and crew you during [the national team’s qualifying race].’ If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be on this journey,” Shanahan says. Staying accountable and pushing through is easier with a support network, which includes her new husband, Liam Shanahan, ’99 BSc, ’99 BSc(SpecCert), ’05 BSc(CivEng). During the world championships, he camped out in the crew tent for the entire 24 hours. “His job was to check on me every lap, hand me water bottles and food, and provide moral support.”
Shanahan takes inspiration from her paraplegic father, as well as her physical therapy patients at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. “They’re my heroes. They have overcome incredible health challenges and have to work so hard just to be able to walk, breathe and live. When I’m struggling in a race, I think of them and how hard they had to push to overcome.”
Face Your Fears, Then Banish Them
Though new challenges can be scary, you never know what you’re capable of until you try, says Shanahan. For many years, her fear of gaining weight was so strong that she couldn’t eat. “During that time, my sports performance plateaued. But as I learned to deal with my fear of food, I was able to excel in my sports.” Shanahan gets butterflies before a race but once the starter pistol is fired and she begins running, the fear disappears. “I have proven time and time again that I can succeed.”