The Steep 100 ultra race was cancelled this year, but Tanya Joy was determined to cover the course alone; it turns out she wasn't always by herself
She’s just 5-foot-2 and 118-pounds, but Tanya Joy has carried a pretty heavy load throughout the years.
Having experiencing trauma early in her life and suffered through two failed marriages, it’s been a rough road for the 44-year-old, and she struggled to find her way.
The biggest blow hit in July of last year when her brother, Jody, took his own life.
“I can’t describe to you just what that was like,” Joy said, who lives in Paradise, but grew up in Freshwater, Placentia Bay. “I just wanted to die.”
But what she thought was the end of the line for her was actually the beginning.
Walking along a trail in Paradise on a crisp evening as the sun hung low in the sky, Joy told The Telegram of how long-distance trail running helped her find her way and transformed her life.
“I absolutely love it. It was exactly what I was looking for and the trails became my healing place,” said Joy, who had been road running on and off for 25 years after having her first child.
“The quietness (of) running in the woods, dodging roots, and the smell of the earth and the trees, the natural beauty …
“It literally lit up my soul.”
After months of doing trail runs of 30 kilometres, then increasing them to 40 and then 50 kms, Joy decided it was time to set the ultimate goal and participate in the Steep100 trail race — a gruelling 100-kilometre trek through the backwoods of the province’s west coast and some of the most challenging terrain in Atlantic Canada. The first of its kind in the province, the race, beginning at the Margaret Bowater Park in Corner Brook, would see runners climb ranges that reach elevations of 13,000 feet.
“The quietness (of) running in the woods, dodging roots, and the smell of the earth and the trees, the natural beauty ... . It literally lit up my soul.” — Tanya Joy
She was disappointed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the race, but Joy decided she was still wanted to do it.
She continued her vigorous training, determined to conquer this quest. She was buoyed by the support of her three children — Erik, 25, and daughters Calista, 19, and Macy, 18 — and her partner David Sturge of Corner Brook, who is the head coach of the Marble Mountain ski team and whom she met while training on the west coast,
“When it got cancelled, I was debating what to do. Should I just do the back 50 Ks? I said no way Tanya, you need to do this …” she said.
“I wanted bigger. I wanted more. I wanted to push myself to see if I was capable of doing it.”
At 6:47 a.m. on Sept. 5, with food, water and a few other supplies in her hydration vest, Joy kissed Sturge at the gate of the park and set off to face the biggest physical challenge of her life.
Running through the woods, up by a pipeline, through a gorge, back trails, through a quarry, by power lines, on mountain-bike trails, a puddle path, on the road and climbing mountains at Steady Brook, she felt fairly strong as she reached the halfway point and started her way back.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” she said. “I told myself all day that the pain will come … And it did. When it came, it came hard.”
At the 58-kilometre mark, Joy started experiencing severe cramping, but with a friend, Karen Stacey, running that section to help her keep the pace, she managed to get through it.
“They call this the pain cave, when you question what you’re doing. You’re in so much pain, you don’t know if you can bear it. But I was prepared. I knew it would happen and when it did, I wasn’t scared. I just kept trying to eat and drink and keep moving.” — Tanya Joy
At 64-kilometre mark, she hit a wall. In excruciating pain — with muscle spasms so severe they were popping out of her quads — she felt weak. She was vomiting, shaking, was disoriented and hallucinating.
She was mentally and physically drained.
“They call this the pain cave, when you question what you’re doing. You’re in so much pain, you don’t know if you can bear it,” she said, noting she recalled watching documentaries about it happening.
“But I was prepared. I knew it would happen and when it did, I wasn’t scared. I just kept trying to eat and drink and keep moving.”
Joy was able to shift into high gear and found the strength to carry on with the help of friends and even some strangers, including Gavin White. He’s an Irish doctor practising on the west coast and he ran alongside her over the most gruelling portions of the course, even sang “Waltzing Matilda” to her.
Shortly after, near the last section of the route, she was overwhelmed to see dozens of people from the community of Steady Brook, including runners and children on their bikes, waiting for her along the course, cheering, with many moving alongside with her in that portion of the route, which was along the road.
“I can’t tell you what that means to me, for so many people in the community to show me that kind of support,” Joy said, holding back tears. “It was absolutely amazing and gave me so much strength.”
As time passed, well after darkness set in, Sturge waited at the finish line, where he was admittedly worried.
"She’s damn tough, both physically and psychologically. She just amazes me.” — David Sturge
“It was nerve-wrecking because this was the longest distance she had ever run and it was dark,” said Sturge, who was thankful some friends were running portions of the race with her.
“But she’s damn tough, both physically and psychologically … She just amazes me.”
Sturge was both excited and relieved to see the headlamps in the distance.
“I could hear the chatter. That energy was starting to come through their voices (indicating) that they were almost there,” he said. “It was an amazing sense of relief, not just she was back, but she had met that goal. It was a hard day, but she crushed it.”
After 14 hours and 20 minutes of running time and covering 100.78 kilometres, Joy touched the gate to mark the finish.
“She literally just melted in my arms,” said Sturge, who had followed her progress throughout the race, appearing at various points of the route. “After showing so much strength for 100 kilometres, she instantly collapsed into me. She was barely able to walk.”
With some time to think about just what she accomplished, Joy was humble, crediting Sturge, her children and her friends for giving her the push she needed to fulfil her dream.
But Joy thought of her brother, Jody, too.
“He was with me on this run. I felt him there. I carried his pain. I spoke to him,’ she said, breaking down in tears. “But it’s helped my pain and helped me heal ...
“He carried me in the beginning and over time. Now, I know I can carry my own …
“When I finished (the 100 kilometres) that night, I lay down and realized I didn’t conquer the mountains. I conquered me.”
She gets emotional speaking about her journey, but wants to share her story, with the hopes of helping others struggle in life.
“When I finished (the 100 kilometres) that night, I lay down and realized I didn’t conquer the mountains. I conquered me.” — Tanya Joy
“I just want people to know that everyone is fighting their own battle. I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life, but I’m still here. It’s made me strong …,” she said, her voice quivering.
“It’s really easy to quit challenges in our life, but we have to face them and we have to keep going …
“Don’t ever, ever give up.”