What can you do with lemons?
Mind over matter and obstacles can be crushed – Jaime Gonek proves it.
By Michelle Lindstrom
Photos supplied by Jaime Gonek
I met Jaime Gonek at Steele Heights Junior High, a north-end Edmonton public school that, at the time, felt massive, intimidating yet full of potential. We played on the school’s volleyball team together and were both in Concert band – she played the flute and I, the clarinet. Those were the two worlds we crossed paths in but otherwise, we didn’t know each other very well.
Coincidentally, we re-connected in the spring of 2014, some decades after junior high, at a Running Room product info session. And from what I have learned since last year, I regret our paths not crossing more back in the day of slouch socks and big hair.
Today, Jaime is the mother of four boys – twins Jacob and Hunter, 14, Cole, 12, and Samuel, 8 – who she co-parents with her ex-husband James (meaning the kids spend a week with each, and switch to stay with the other on Mondays). It’s the most amicable way Jaime and James could figure out how to split while remaining hands-on and involved in their sons’ lives.
“I still don’t like being home alone without [the kids] but I’m better than I used to be,” Jaime says. “To go from five people to zero was a huge adjustment.”
It was young love, and a mutual friend, that drew Jaime and James together two days shy of Jaime’s 21st birthday. The university year and exams were done and Jaime was celebrating with friends at a bar when James showed up.
“Liquid courage” towards the end of the night brewed in Jaime. “I was the shyest of shy people back then,” she says. “It was considered overly aggressive by all my friends that I said to him, ‘I think you need to call me.’ ” And he did, two days later on her birthday.
Full of contradictions to the naked eye, Jaime is a self-proclaimed science-geek who played rugby in high school and learned how to French braid hair like a pro during bus trips to away games – a talent I immediately envied when we met again last year, knowing my abilities could not even compare.
She credits her love of the science lab mainly to her high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Bereton at M.E. LaZerte. “He was like a mad scientist,” she says. “I already liked science but between my bio teacher and him, I was sunk.”
After a chemistry test, she would wait outside of his class listening to the multiple choice forms being fed through the marking machine, hoping not to hear any clicks – those meant errors. “I’m sure he thought I was going to be a doctor,” Jaime says. “Why I never thought about being one, I don’t know. It never occurred to me that was even a possibility.”
Instead, she earned a Bachelors of Science in Medical Laboratory Science from the University of Alberta. That led to her career starting at the U of A Hospital as a lab tech, before moving to a private dermatology practice in 2007 in a part-time role after Sam was born. The practice works with a lot of skin cancer patients and Jaime reviews skin samples removed during in-office surgeries confirming if the doctors got all of the cancer out.
Life as a rugby player continued into her last year of university. Her schedule got too busy by then to keep playing, but also, James repeatedly shared his sarcastic vision of their future children climbing up on their mother’s wheelchair after the multiple concussions she suffered from the sport. She couldn’t deny experiencing a few too many knocks to the head.
She stuck with Taekwondo instead. “That was a good stress relief,” she says, adding that as a rugby player you get itchy in the spring to hit things. Taekwondo still allowed that.
Jaime was 22 when she and James got engaged, 23 when they were married and almost 25 when she delivered their twins.
To go from all that freedom with a young, naive perception of what is “hard” (i.e. university and working), to having two screaming babies, she says the experience was humbling and overwhelming. Yet, she was certain she could do it all even while James’s work frequently took him out of town.
“I kept trying to get active again,” Jaime says. But after being put on bed rest during her last pregnancy and feeling guilty for asking for “me” time to exercise, fitness died for her.
Sam was just over two years old when Jaime felt her marriage struggling. She needed an outlet. When James was in town, she began taking night shifts at the hospital (former job) after working her day job. “It was a great way to avoid my situation,” she says. “All of the factors for weight gain were there.”
Someone at the hospital mentioned the Running Room’s Learn to Run clinic and it was intriguing enough for Jaime register and convince a coworker to come, too. Day 1 included repeated sets of walking for two minutes, running for one. “Even though I felt like my lungs were going to burn out of chest, I felt good after.” Her coworker didn’t share the same joyous experience and dropped out weeks later. Jaime continued, which led to her first five-kilometre race and a new, sustainable stress-reliever.
“Those were the days of a lot of running and crying after dark,” she says. “I’d put the kids to bed and go for a run and bawl my eyes out about my life and what was probably going to happen.”
Like many overzealous, back-on-the-bandwagon exercisers, Jaime injured herself late in 2009. She did three, 10-kilometre races in three days, back-to-back, and suffered a fractured foot.
She and James separated around the same time of her injury and she moved out in May 2010, switching to full-time work at the dermatology office.
“Right after I moved, was when I decided to do a half marathon.” The Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll race was in November. She knew she had the time to recover and train, so she registered, booked the flight and thought, “Well, I’m stuck now. I have to do it.”
Things took off from there with more goals and races.
During the move, Jaime unknowingly packed a journal full of goals, much like a bucket list, she wrote when still with James. It included running a half marathon, completing a triathlon, going sky diving and more. She only found the journal a few months ago, chuckling that she already has many of those goals checked off, and simply forgot she wrote so many of them down.
Goals matter and she’s very conscious of what her children see her doing, not only what they hear her saying. “I want them to see someone taking their stress and channelling it into a positive venue,” she says. “Set a goal, work for it and achieve it.”
She tried anti-depressants for a few years but found regular exercise was much better and effective for her moods. She is very open with her sons about coping strategies and how exercise works for her. Some days, she tells them she has to step out for an hour for a spin class or she’ll even hear them say, “Uh Mom, do you need to go for a run?”
Jaime’s childhood was quite different than what she hopes to create for her boys for them to be empowered by. She was adopted, which for some can a difficult journey in itself, but the adoption wasn’t really a problem for her. It was never kept a secret or made a taboo topic not to speak of. “I don’t ever remember not knowing about the adoption,” Jaime says. Jaime’s parents decided to adopt after a few miscarriages and five years following the birth of their son. In the ’70s, pairing strategies were based on looks, and Jaime’s blond hair and blue eyes made her a perfect match to this family of three, so they brought home the newborn right from the Calgary General Hospital.
Her family lived on a farm in a small town just outside of Smoky Lake and although her parents tried to be hands-on and bought all of the equipment, farming wasn’t their calling. Her dad was a teacher and it made more sense for them to rent out the land and then sell it in 1986 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. They moved to Edmonton then to be closer to cancer treatment centres and she has been cancer-free since. The move also allowed her brother to go to a city high school, instead of one in their small town, which their parents preferred.
The tough part of her childhood was not the adoption, it was that she never heard, “Good job,” “I love you” or “I’m proud of you,” from her parents. “I was raised in a pretty lazy family and when I ran my first half marathon, nobody cared,” she says. “I have to create what I want for me, for my kids and how I want them to grow up. I want them to feel valued and that I believe in them.”
When Jaime was pregnant for the first time and wanted some medical history, she connected with her birth mother Brenda through Alberta Adoption. Brenda warned Jaime that her birth father had twin brothers making Jaime laugh because of the twins she already had in her belly as they spoke. The two kept in touch via Facebook and actually met in 2013 when Jaime had a short vacation planned with a friend to Toronto. Jaime managed to squeeze in the Hamilton Half Marathon during the visit as well. “It was the first time I’d ever had anyone other than my kids at the finish line,” she says. “It was pretty cool to come around the bend with the waves from Lake Ontario crashing in the background and giving [Brenda] a hug.”
Fitting in races while on vacation, visiting friends or on work trips is a regular habit of Jaime’s. In 2015, she did all 10 of Western Canada’s Spartan races – eight sprints, the Super and the Beast – by purposely coordinating other trips with Spartan’s race schedule and also having a bit of luck.
So why Spartan and not yoga, biking or something less muddy and intense?
In 2011, Obstacle Course Races (OCR) made their way to Alberta with Mud Hero in Kananaskis. A few work friends put a team together and it was just so much fun to get that dirty and be kid-like again, Jaime recalls. It also satisfied her competitive side: “I related it to rugby where no matter what size you were or how fast you were, you still had strengths and weaknesses and no matter where you were in that spectrum, everyone had strengths and weaknesses.”
Spartan races, more serious and competitive than many other OCRs, intrigue Jaime as her strength and running experience enable her to place at the top or near the top of her age category quite frequently. Last year, after rupturing the plantar fascia in her foot from soccer, volunteering for Spartan came into the equation. (Soccer was meant to be the safer choice of sport; the same camaraderie of rugby without the same head injuries.) Jaime ended up in an air cast and was told that spring by her physio she would not be able to run five-kilometres by the end of the summer. This was a problem.
A newly purchased Spartan’s season’s pass was burning a hole in her pocket, which is a significant investment for anyone – falling in the mid-$200s – nevermind a single mother. She emailed Spartan to ask if her pass could be held over to the following year (2015), and that’s when volunteering first came up in conversation.
Since then, she and her sons have volunteered by pouring water, handing out medals, picking up garbage and more, in addition to participating in different levels of mud and/or OCR competitions. She beams with pride talking about her sons racing side-by-side with her, taunting her from the sidelines as a volunteer, or competing on their own through challenging obstacles.
Most friends and colleagues of Jaime’s ackowledge her endless energy and back-to-back errands, events and work shifts. She has her full-time lab tech day job, she takes on one or two retail shifts at the Running Room, she usually teaches one clinic a season at the Running Room (requiring a commitment of three times a week beyond her retail shift hours) and she works some Eskimo games and some Oilers games pouring beer. She also fits in working out at the gym, running or some form of exercise at least four times a week along with being Mom to her four boys and getting them to their extracurricular activities, as well. Sitting still is not something you catch Jaime doing.
Carrie-Lynn Allan, Jaime’s best friend since high school, now lives in Yellowknife, NWT, but still checks in with Jaime every few weeks to ensure her friend takes a breath and sits down for a minute. “We’ve always brought out the best in each other and we always had each others’ back,” Carrie-Lynn says.
Jaime brushes off the extra time she spends leading clinics at the Running Room as rewarding and worthwhile. “I recognize the more I put into it, the more they get out of it,” she says of clinic registrants. “It really doesn’t take that much of me for them to get a lot out of it and there’s enough of me to go around.”
“She is loyal and tenacious when she wants to accomplish something or to right something see sees as wrong,” Carrie-Lynn says. “She has what her and I call the ‘Pollyanna’ factor of seeing the positive in every situation.”
Her sons can attest to the “Pollyanna” factor after hearing about making lemonade out of lemons a few too many times. Lucky for them, their mom has a new mantra: Just because you get a flat doesn’t mean you have to slash the other three tires.
She repeats this to herself when faced with challenges as a mom, athlete, employee, friend and more.
“I struggle with food and always have,” Jaime says. “I was an overweight kid and I’m an overeater by nature so it’s one of the hardest things for me to manage and not eat the world!”
She remains focused on meal planning and scheduling in fitness and workouts. These purposeful efforts keep her on track and setting new goals, of course, provide direction for the future.
She has some time to decide what next year’s physical goal(s) to crush will be before the required training commences. She’s raised bar, though, and is talking about a full triathlon since completing a few sprints already, or a full marathon, or hey, why not an full Iron Man?
“She’s my person,” Carrie-Lynn says. “She is nothing short of amazing.”