An IN HER SHOES trailblazer – Women share stories of stepping up and out in Life Part II.
Barb Sweeney at age 56 is one beast of a cyclist. Fit and strong, she challenges herself to feats most of us can’t even imagine, taking on unforgiving terrain and pushing through the tough parts. It turns out cycling was and is her navigation device for life. It’s where she escapes and is anchored. Where insights dawn, understanding happens and life is explored.
But that’s jumping ahead….
Barb began her professional life as an accountant for a mining company. That changed when her first child, daughter Colleen, was born 30 years ago and she and her husband agreed she would stay home to raise the family. Two years later she was cradling newborn son Cameron and in hot pursuit of a very busy toddler. Life as Mom was well underway!
To grab slivers of solitude Barb would lace up her running shoes and dash out the front door. Little did she know how significantly fitness would factor into her life, how it would be her shelter in life’s storms, take her on adventures all over the world and ultimately how she would contribute, give back and create a legacy.
Cheryl: Running and cycling has been your escape and your anchor…how so?
Barb: When the kids were small, running was a quick and easy way to grab a few minutes of “me time”. A half hour of complete silence (except what was in my head) did wonders for sanity and stress levels.
Cheryl: It soon blossomed into much more….
Barb: Yes…I’m a person who generally likes structure and some routine, so when I discovered races (my first race was the second Vancouver Sun Run) my running had more than one purpose – win/win. When we went on holidays, I would do a quick run in the morning and check out the neighbourhood for family friendly things to do. When we moved, I could discover new walking routes, parks, neighbour’s gardens, etc. Running gave me an identity outside of the home. We moved to Williams Lake in 1993 and I decided that training for, and running the Vancouver Marathon the following spring would be great way to get a weekend away by myself. I think that’s how I started a “race/event + reward/destination” travel idea. Train, race and reward yourself with a little treat or holiday of some sort when you’re done. My friends and I continue to do it now. An added benefit of physical activity – PMS and menopausal symptoms lessen considerably- for me anyway!
Cheryl: Running eventually led you to cycling…..
Barb: I ended up with some nagging aches and pains from running so took to riding my bike. The kids were older so I had lots of “me time” while they were at school. I liked to be active so I started doing a lot of little errands on my bike. Wanting to be a little stronger soon followed and I found myself at a gym. There, I discovered people with similar interests and together we started doing things that took us out of our comfort zones and I haven’t looked back.
Cheryl: Living ‘in the moment’ has to be one of the biggest challenges of life …you’ve found a way….
Barb: Whether I’m on my bike or hiking or running or my new skill of swimming, being active puts me in the place described as “the now” or being in the moment.
I can shut out the outside and focus on a breath, a thought or a movement – it’s where I meditate. The human body is an amazing thing and I never tire of self-awareness. I can go for a 4 hour ride and come back and wonder “what did I think about?”I feel and smell the air, I feel my body move, I think about my breath and a million other things or nothing at all. Nothing else really exists during that time – I’m just me and I just “am”.
Cheryl: You’ve taken on some pretty amazing challenges. What are some of them and how have they impacted you?
Barb: The Coastal Challenge Rainforest Run was a 265 km, 6 day stage race running through the jungles of Costa Rica.
I crossed the Grand Canyon South Rim to North Rim – we left at 9pm and hiked through portions of the Grand Canyon with only the light of small headlamps. I reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro.
I attempted a race called Furnace Creek 508, it’s 508 miles in California with a time cutoff of 48 hours. I made it 382 miles in just less than 30 hours and had to pull out…I learned that sometimes quitting is the smartest thing to do. Overall I’ve learned that preparation is key – no detail is really too small – good preparation takes away a lot of uncertainty and fear. Training, nutrition, mental prep, logistics are all equally important in any adventure. And no matter the circumstances having the right people around you is THE most important thing!
Cheryl: You seem completely fearless. Are you?
Barb: No way….far from it!!!! There are a lot of things I fear. I would rather go for an 8 hour bike ride than go to the dentist-it always feels like I’m going to drown in my own saliva if I can’t swallow. Heights, water (it took me a year of water running to progress to putting my head under water and now I’ve just spent another year getting comfortable with being able to swim a couple lengths of the pool), suspension bridges, snakes, walking into a room of people by myself, travelling on my own – but if I let those things stop me I’d be at home by myself all the time. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath (or a hundred) and dive into the deep end (not literally – at least not yet!).
Cheryl: You’ve talked about having the ‘right people with you’ …you’ve found people, who like yourself, like to push and challenge themselves. How do these relationships impact you?
Barb: They’re the most important relationships I have (second to my kids of course!). It’s not important to have a lot of people in your life – it’s just important to have the RIGHT ones. They’ve showed me that anything is possible – just start slowly and break any challenge down into manageable pieces. They’re the kind of people that, instead of saying “that’s impossible” or “you’re crazy” – say “how can I help?” or better yet “when are we going?” They’ve shown me that if you want something badly enough, and you’re willing to work for it, nothing is out of reach.
Cheryl: In 2009, 2010, and 2011 you cycled across Canada as a member of the CYCLEBETES team, raising funds and awareness for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. You’ve called it a life changer. How so?
Barb: Over a million dollars was raised for diabetes research but it was more than a fundraising venture…we were a team…diabetics and non diabetics…we all learned so much about ourselves and others.
Diabetics shared management stories and tips, we all learned to push through when conditions were less than ideal (we started off during Hurricane Bill), getting along in confined quarters, managing on little sleep, learning to share responsibilities etc. etc. Again, it came down to who you’re with when times are tough AND, finding out that the majority of the time, most people are up to the challenge. We learned to communicate with each other – positively and negatively :). There was no running away or leaving the room in a moving RV!
A community of people can accomplish great things when they work together.
Cheryl: You really push yourself. What motivates you?
Barb: I’m a Scorpio and I think that’s how we’re programmed! I guess I’ve never liked sitting still for too long and I just get bored (it took me a while to get through these questions lol). I’m happy to do things on my own and there are so many things to do in this life. The world is like one giant candy store!!! I like to work out and train for life. I want to be ready to go whenever someone says “let’s hike for a week, or ride for a week” or if I find an interesting adventure that pops up in my research on the internet. I want to be able to carry my own groceries when I’m 85 or 90. I’m sad to hear people say “I wish I could do that” knowing that they could if they really wanted to!
Cheryl: At various junctures you’ve stopped and asked yourself, “is this what I want to model for my kids” how has this influenced your life? What do you want your kids to know?
Barb: I guess I’ve just wanted to set a good example for my kids. I try not to be hypocritical and prefer to lead by example.
If I wasn’t physically active how could I tell my kids to get outside! I think they’re getting ready to join me on some adventures in the near future and nothing would make me happier to pass on what I’ve learned much like my Mom taught me to sew and garden.
Cheryl: Many of your greatest insights dawned when you were riding. What have you learned from the seat of a bike?
Barb: One of my “aha” moments came when I realized “it” was not all about me. I like to wave and smile when I’m out on my bike or running and it would sometimes bother me if the greeting wasn’t returned. The light went off when I started asking myself why that person might not have responded. Maybe they were out running because they had just been told they had cancer, they were getting divorced, their cat died etc etc etc. Maybe I’ve been lost in thought when someone greeted me and I didn’t respond. I’ve learned to try and see things from the other people’s points of view first and not to judge. EVERYONE has a story behind them…something we know nothing about.
I’ve learned its okay to say no and to be selfish about how I spend your time and with who. I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings just as no one else is responsible for mine! Being polite and honest may not always win friends, but people will always know where they stand.
Cheryl: What do you most look forward to?
Barb: My next adventure…..there always is one or two in the offing. I always make sure I have something to look forward to – big or small, near or in the future.
Cheryl: If you could offer inspiration or encouragement to other women what would it be?
Barb I’d like women to know that you’re never too old to become strong (or show evidence of it) whether it’s of character, body or mind. NEVER compare yourself to others!!! (I saw a quote once that said “never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle) don’t dwell on the past (it’s over) and get rid of the scale!
The best way to describe Barb Sweeney is energetic, positive and upbeat. Her eyes sparkle when she talks; her voice full of expression. Her active life style has imbued her with health, self awareness and insight. She found something she loved to do and welcomed the lessons it brought. She’s still following the same roadmap. It continues to lead her on amazing adventure allowing her to become all she was meant to be.