Living

Animal instincts

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Animal instincts
Speed, sweat and the quest for natural grace–these are what keep Laura Robinson running, skiing and biking as fast as she can. She stops long enough to reflect on the pleasures and pain of pushing the body to its limits

By Laura Robinson
First published in Chatelaine’s February 2000 issue.
©Laura Robinson

I am writing this at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, though for me, it should be called the Banff Centre for Skiing, Cycling, Hiking, Running and Sometimes Writing. I come here winter and summer because I can feed two passions that never subside: the passions for movement and for words. My trips into the mountains inspire my mind and, when I return, stories find their way to the page almost without my help, as if they are the run-off from a glacial stream in springtime.

In a few hours I will shut off my laptop, gather my skis and poles and run to the Spray River trail. Once there, I’ll trade my running shoes for the ski boots I’ve jammed into my fanny pack and put on my skis before the warmth from the run starts to dissipate. I do not like to start skiing cold.

I have followed routines similar to this since I was 14 and had saved up enough babysitting money to buy my first 10-speed bicycle. As soon as I was perched on the saddle of a bike that was a good seven centimetres too big for me, I knew I’d found the place my body was meant to be. My brother and I joined our local cycling club and I don’t think I ever looked back to the world that had lately begun to spread its influence around me and other girls I knew–the world of makeup, dieting and wondering if the boys at school would like me. I was a cyclist. And I found out I was an animal too.

In the winter we traded the bikes for Nordic skis and my body, heart and spirit found another place to call home. A deeply primal part of me revelled in the speed and strength that all girls have deep inside, but too few find. By the time I graduated from high school, there were five women in Canada faster than I on a bicycle and, though I wasn’t as fast on skis, I still remember winning a bronze medal in the Ontario championships before I turned 20. I can’t recall a single date with a boy from high school. I was the first to leave my grad prom. In two days I had a bike race and even the laughter and fun of one last night of celebration couldn’t compare to the euphoria of riding 80 kilometres and then contesting a tight sprint. Summer or winter, I couldn’t get enough of this new world I’d discovered.

Six months after graduation, I was walking through an early winter woods on the Bruce peninsula in Ontario. I happened upon a deer, and as she ran away she leaped perfectly and swiftly through the bush. I was awestruck. I promised myself that I would try to move in sports as gracefully as she did. That was 21 years ago, and I still try. Unlike gyms where people strain for better bodies, there are no mirrors in nature. One must sense how the body is moving in the animal world.