The summer of 2016 was a pivotal one in my young life. It was my first year competing at the senior level in athletics, my first Canadian Olympic Trials, and my final summer spent living at home before leaving the nest permanently (I hope). It’s also the summer where I blew up my sister’s Volkswagen.
I was on my way from Kelowna to Nanaimo for the BC provincial championships. All told the trip is typically about a 7-hour journey complete with a ferry and two mountain passes, including the fabled Coquihalla Highway (or, to avid viewers of the Weather Network or Discovery Channel, the Highway Through Hell). The route is a mainstay for any British Columbian heading Westward to the Pacific and, despite my few years, was one I’d already traversed many times before. While the summer weather lends an approachability to the otherwise dicey climbs and descents of the Coq, it still remains a section of road that requires real focus, keeping a close eye on the tachometer, engine temps and speed.
I’ve done the journey countless times and behind the wheel of close to a dozen vehicles now, but on this particular occasion I was strapped into my sisters early-2010s VW Passat, a car she’d been gifted from neighbours on the condition that she address some direct-from-the-factory mechanical issues that had hitherto rendered it a lemon. Fresh out of the repair shop, my Dad insisted I take the larger and ostensibly safer Passat for my journey rather than my beat up 2001 GTI, though it was a car that had already valiantly held up to the rigours of twin teenage boys learning to drive stick shift and then exploiting that newfound skill on its little 1.8L turbocharged engine.
I hit the road mid-morning with the aim of linking up with some university teammates at the ferry terminal for a 4pm sailing reservation. From the get go I was a bit surprised by the sluggishness of the car’s engine, but shrugged it off and made my way onto the open road and westward towards the coast. The journey out of the Okanagan begins with a gruelling 33km climb gaining over 1000m of elevation, followed by rolling rangeland, a long descent into Merritt, and yet another mountain pass with similar vertical gain. The further I got from home the more it felt I was in a battle with the car. One moment I’d be humming along problem free only to have my power drop out without warning, flooring the accelerator just to maintain highway speeds. After three hours of white-knuckle driving I finally spilled out of the mountains and into the Fraser Valley, hoping the relatively flat roads from there on out would spare my set of wheels (and me) any more exertion.
While there’d been a warning message on my dash for most of the journey I stubbornly pushed ahead, determined to make my sailing (shoutout BC Ferries). While I felt that if I could just keep moving I’d be alright, the inevitable gas-stop arrived and I swung off Highway 1 and into a PetroCan in Chilliwack. After filling up, the car refused to turn over, perhaps begging me not to impose any further torture on its lagging engine. I popped the hood and gave the engine bay the bewildered once-over of someone who clearly had no idea what he was looking for, concluding that the absence of anything glaringly wrong was a greenlight to continue my trip. After several more attempts at starting up, I finally got combustion and the poor engine groaned to life. As I pulled out of the gas station, a sense of impending doom creeping over me, I could tell the car had not miraculously recovered from its woes. Nevertheless, I had somewhere I needed to be and figured that, if I’d gotten this far, I could make it all the way.
As side street turned to on-ramp I gingerly started depressing the accelerator, piloting my craft down the quickly disappearing runway. 50-60-70-80km/h and still straining in first gear. As the on-ramp came to an end I glanced in my rear view to see a giant semi bearing down on me, my car yet to reach highway speeds and my indicator light keeping tempo to my rapidly climbing pulse. Still stuck in first gear, the revs climbing dangerously high, and the sound of the trucker’s air horn blasting in my ears I began screaming at my car, willing it into one final act of self-preservation before both car and driver became pancake. At what seemed like the last possible moment it lurched ahead, the transmission finally shifting gears, sending the RPMs down and the Speedometer up and into those sweet, sweet triple-digits. For a moment a wave of euphoria washed over me as we raced along, a normal car doing normal car things. I’d never been so happy to go the speed limit in my life. Moments later, however, the sense of doom returned with a vengeance as the car began to buck and shift underneath me, the RPMs dropping precipitously, carrying my momentum with it. I kicked at the gas pedal, hoping to spur my steed onwards, but with a final shudder it breathed its last and uttered its final parting words to this world, illuminated in bright red letters flashing up at me from its soul somewhere deep in the dashboard display: ENGINE FAILURE
At that moment all my auxiliary power cut out and the car became an oversized soap box racer. With what little momentum I had left I wheeled myself onto the shoulder and sat slumped dejectedly in the cockpit, defeated. As I sat on the side of the Trans-Canada I did what any teenage motorist in distress would do and called my dad. A few moments later I started to smell an acrid burning scent and smoke began billowing into the cockpit through my air-vents. With my dad still on the line I stepped out of the vehicle and moved to the front of the car, fumbling with one hand to open the hood while I narrated the experience through the phone. I lifted the bonnet and was greeted by bright orange flames jumping out at me from the engine bay. Fast forward 8 minutes and I was stood between freeway and cornfield watching as the Chilliwack Fire department doused the blackened remains of my sister’s Passat in fire retardant; sorry Maya.
In perhaps more ways than I’d care to admit, what happened on that fateful July day in 2016 is essentially the story of my 2023 track season in microcosm. For months now I’ve been straining at the wheel trying to squeeze power out of an engine and frame that simply had nothing left to give.
Despite some hopeful signs in early Spring, I was never fully able to shake the sense of full body fatigue that gripped me during my winter in Australia. Compounded with a stubbornly persistent piriformis/hamstring strain sustained during hurdle work way back in January, I’ve had the sense of limping along (quite literally) in second gear, straining to maintain what little momentum I had and hoping against my better judgement that something would finally shift and I’d be back to cruising along. At no other time in my career has running been such a chore both physically and mentally. What used to be the joy of moving along effortlessly and intuitively has felt forced to the point where every step seemed like a conscious decision that required full attention and analysis. The times in between sessions were no better as my body constantly twinged and grabbed, keeping my injury—and, by extension, my cratering season—front of mind at all hours.
All of this will doubtless sound melodramatic to anyone who has had to deal with disappointment and struggle, of which there is infinitely greater depths than what I’ve gone through in my narrow, selfish vocation this year. Admittedly, it probably is; the world will keep turning whether or not John Gay ever sets foot on a track again. Nevertheless, it’s taken me months to concede to myself that something was wrong and even more time still to allow myself to feel any degree of personal sadness at the shortcomings of my season, as trivial as they are in the grand scheme of things. For years I’ve built my identity as an athlete around the idea that where my talent fell short my work ethic could bridge the gap. Through that mindset I viewed injuries or burnout as something that happened to other athletes, a luxury afforded only to those whose natural ability would ensure their eventual return to form. Denying myself the privilege that I extended to others, I feared that to admit any setback was to concede defeat, a final pulling back of the veil to reveal an impostor hiding in their midst.
That narrative led me far deeper into a season that should have been abandoned for the sake of my health months ago. Even after a final humbling defeat at the Canadian National Championships that proved I was in no shape to continue pushing onwards I spent 72 hours trying to delude myself into believing things would turn around in time for the World Championships three weeks later. What followed was probably the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my athletic career, passing up a national team opportunity that I was otherwise qualified for on the grounds of injury and fatigue. To finally admit to myself that I was broken was to recognize that I would have to be rebuilt and to acknowledge that, in the rebuilding process, there are no guarantees. More powerfully, and less expected, was the breakthrough that came from finally extending the same grace and belief to myself that I extend to the countless athletes I admire who have given up the battle to preserve a shot at victory in the war.
Once I’d formally made the decision to pass up the world championships and focus on getting my body and mind right, there was an immediate sense of relief, like a weight being lifted from my shoulders. Paradoxically, admitting to myself that I was capable of falling low was also the realization that I could climb back up, it has filled me with a renewed sense of hopefulness and excitement for what lies ahead. After all, who doesn’t love a good comeback story?
Post script: Through this whole process I’ve felt incredibly supported on all sides, starting with my amazing wife and extending to my family, coach, friends, treatment/medical team, and federation support staff. Each of these people has shown genuine compassion and remarkable grace towards me, making me feel supported while also giving me the space to discover for myself some of the hard truths that are helping me grow through this season. Fittingly, as this story begins in part with her, I’ll leave you with a Bible verse as shared with me by my sister, Maya. While the verse itself is one that many will recognize, the translation Maya felt led to share with me is one I’d not encountered before, yet it struck so poignantly at the frame-of-mind God is calling me into for the road ahead, thanks for being a faithful witness Maya... and sorry again about your car:
The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush,
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness, which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind,
And His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret for His presence is here.
His timelessness, His all importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity.
By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility;
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours.
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord and dwell in His house forever.
Psalm 23 – From a Japanese Translation
John Eamon Gay