Lindsay Van Gyn is a lot more than meets the eye.
The fourth-year UVic anthropology student ranks among the top five per cent of finishers at Tough Mudder, the world’s most extreme obstacle course, and has been invited to compete in the World’s Toughest Mudder event this weekend in Englishtown, New Jersey.
But in entering this 24-hour hardcore endurance race, Van Gyn, 32, is doing more than crawling under barbed and electrified wire fences, plunging into ice-filled ditches and climbing slippery mud-drenched hills, she’s overcoming obstacles in her personal life, too.
“Not only am I a full-time student, a personal trainer and doing the World’s Toughest Mudder, I’m celebrating one year clean and sober today,” says Van Gyn, just seconds after introducing herself at a downtown coffee shop.
I contacted Van Gyn after hearing about her world invitation, where competitors attempt to complete as many laps of an 8-to-10 mile course, sprinkled with as many as 40 obstacles, in a 24-hour period. Four hours later, we were talking openly about her more than 15-year struggle with drugs and alcohol, something she kept hidden from public scrutiny, until now.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about things and I’m ready to start talking about it,” says Van Gyn, who has been in and out of a 12-step addictions program for more than three-and-a-half years.
“I’m living in long-term recovery,” she says. “At this time last year, I decided I wanted a better way of living. I was tired of the struggle and I was extremely tired of staying in the shadows. I think a lot of the reason I had trouble staying clean was that I felt I wasn’t able to be honest with people. I felt there was stigma.”
Her close friend, an aboriginal woman she met in recovery and who introduced her to First Nations spirituality, passed away suddenly a year ago and her death ignited a fire to get clean.
“I thought ‘how can this disease take such a beautiful woman?’ and then I thought, maybe it’s time for me to start looking at myself as that beautiful person, too.”
Van Gyn began focusing on both her physical and mental fitness and, eight months ago, she was certified as a personal trainer.
“I’ve always had a passion for fitness. It was actually at a recovery-based get-together that I found out about Tough Mudder, and I’ll tell you something, that was an amazing moment because someone showed me a video on the computer and my heart raced and I got goosebumps and I was like, ‘this is what I’ve been training for my whole life.’”
Van Gyn registered for the Whistler event with a team of 10, made up of family and friends. They completed the course in three hours and 45 minutes.
“It was fun for me, the sense of camaraderie. I got teary halfway through when I realized ‘I get to do this today, with my family, What?!’ Seven months before that, something like that was so far from my grasp. I relished every second.”
Three months later, she entered the Seattle event with a close friend. Not only did she beat her previous time by two hours, she was the first woman to cross the finish line.
“I wanted to do physically every bit that my body was capable of doing. I wanted to stretch every last ounce of muscle strength, every last breath. When I was crawling and dying, I wanted to keep reaching and power myself through it. I competed against myself and it was awesome,” she says.
Because of her impressive finishing time, Van Gyn was invited to compete in the world event. She was interested, but knew she couldn’t afford the trip, so she decided to start a campaign at indiegogo.com to raise the money she needs for transportation, entry fees and equipment.
“When I got invited, I kept it to myself for a couple of days. You don’t just throw something like that around unless you’re going to do it. So I had to figure out a way to do it, but I also needed the money.”
Any money raised over and above the approximately $2,000 she needs to get to New Jersey will be donated to the iBelieve Foundation (ibelieve.com). Created by her childhood neighbour, Simon Ibell, iBelieve is dedicated to finding a cure for Mucopolysaccharidosis II (MPS II or Hunter syndrome), a rare disease Ibell has lived with his whole life.
“I’ve raised $700 already, but I’m really hoping to give him something with three zeros at the end of it,” she says.
Van Gyn has also seen support from businesses in the community, donating nutrition support, a wetsuit and even some of her favourite snacks to take along to the event.All that help means she can spend more time and energy training.
“The Van Gyn way to do things is never half-assed. It’s like it’s always extreme and then crank it up a little more,” she says. Van Gyn works out five days a week, both indoor and outdoor, in a mix of cardiovascular endurance and anaerobic training. “That’s that awful threshold where you feel like you’re going to puke,” she says. “Get there and then crank it up.”
Van Gyn says it’s important to focus on upper body strength and explosive power for Tough Mudder events, the opposite of how you would train for a marathon.
“I would run a marathon if the people on the sidelines were trying to stop me from finishing,” she says. “When everyone is just cheering you on, it’s boring. I have no desire to do that.”
Her goals for the World’s Toughest Mudder event are twofold: complete three full laps (almost marathon distance, with more than 100 obstacles thrown in), and stick it out for the full 24 hours.
“Last year, there were 900 participants. Only 100 finished,” says Van Gyn. “My first lap is a test. I need to figure out which obstacles I’ll spend the most energy on and think about what the course is going to look like at three in the morning and where I can conserve energy.”
Van Gyn also wants to help her community with this opportunity to compete on the world stage.
“There’s a responsibility that I have to use this opportunity to help others benefit. If it’s just me that benefits, what’s the point? Big effin’ deal, I completed an obstacle course. What I’m saying now about addiction takes more courage than going to New Jersey to compete in Tough Mudder ... For the rest of my life, I can look back and say ‘This is what I did in the first year of recovery, what do you want to do?’” M
The World's Toughest Mudder 2012
Englishtown, New Jersey
Nov. 17 and 18
Watch the official video here: