How to Get to Where You Want to Be (and how that place will change as you go)

 PC: Chris Brinlee Jr

PC: Chris Brinlee Jr

Here's a little secret: you'll never "arrive" there, because you'll always realize that the process of getting there has opened up new possibilities you never even considered. And that's what keeps life from being boring. ;)

So I get lots of questions about how I got "here". How did I become a freelance photographer, graphic designer, and writer? How did I get into ultrarunning, and have I always been a runner? (mm, nope). How did I gain the technical experience and skills to do these epic trips in the mountains? Or how did I become an "influencer" (whatever that is), and how the hell am I able to do so much traveling and adventuring?? The answers to all of those things are intrinsically related, and I thought I'd start by giving you an overview of how I got here.

From there, get excited: I'm going to start breaking things down further in a new series of blog posts (annnnnd videos, coming soon!!)...because if there's anything I've learned along my journey, it's a whole lot of what NOT to do. And if I can save you from making some of those same mistakes, then yay! 


In the beginning, there was Ultra Running.

Alrighty. So my whole life really changed because of ultra running, if you want to boil things down to their essence. I was homeschooled for much of my childhood, graduated highschool at 16, and was what you'd call a "late bloomer".

I had quite a rocky start to adulthood, and I spent a bunch of time in hospitals when I was 18/19 being fairly sick (I'll get into more of that in later posts). When I finally emerged from that scary period of my life, I had a whole lot of muscle atrophy and a medical withdrawal from university to deal with. I decided to get a temporary job for "a little while" to pay off some student loans, stumbled into a great job in government road safety where I stayed for the next 7.5 years (so much for temporary), and then once I was back on my feet I began to rebuild my fitness and my life over the next few years. 

I started doing a lot of hiking in 2011, and discovered that I was MUCH happier working out in forests than I was on treadmills. That realization soon led to a lot of "hike up, and let gravity help me shuffle downhill", and I decided to enter my first trail race in 2013. I should note that up till then, the longest I had successfully run to date was the Vancouver Sun Run, a 10km road race, for which I trained for exactly once a year... aka just long enough to give myself a good set of shin splints, and then I'd quit running for the rest of the year. Trail running was a game changer, as the dreaded shin splints never made another appearance, and I found myself making trail friends and feeling like I was part of a community. It was a pretty awesome feeling.

Being the contrary and highly stubborn person that I am, all it took was one person telling me casually that there was no way I could run an ultra... and that was it. I signed up that night for the Squamish 50km in 2013, which was incidentally about two weeks away at the time. Let's just say I made every mistake in the book, and then some. I wore brand new insoles (meant for dress shoes, no less) in my runners, decided that I was nauseous and just wouldn't eat for the whole race (not like I knew what a gel was then anyways),  and pretty much crawled the last half of the race due to the GIANT blisters that my dress shoe insoles gave me. And yet, as I crossed the finish line and collapsed in the fetal position, I was hooked.

Over the next four years, I went on to run 18 ultra marathons of varying distances (from 50km way on up to 120 miles). I continued to make a lot of mistakes, but eventually I stopped making the same ones twice, and I slowly started getting stronger and faster. Being coached by the epic Gary Robbins and Eric Carter for three of those years probably had something to do with it too ;). Some fun highlights include a bunch of top 10 finishes, winning Fat Dog 70 mile, and placing 3rd at Fat Dog 120 mile. The crazy part is that not even five years before that happened, I literally couldn't run 10km without stopping to die a bunch of times.

So for those of you who tell me: "I really want to get into ultra running, but I was never a runner when I was younger so I think it's too late for me to pick up such a crazy sport", I'm here to tell you that you CAN if you want to. For me it was all about chipping away at these giant scary goals, and they slowly became more manageable as I went. 
 Only slightly delusional after 34 hours of running at Fat Dog 120 Miler

Only slightly delusional after 34 hours of running at Fat Dog 120 Miler

But enough about ultrarunning (only for now!). Like I said, I'm going to be tackling each of these topics individually in the next little while, and I'll get into the nitty gritty then. I've also got some pretty awesome before/after photos to dig out of the archives, so this is going to be FUN.

Oh, here's what my blisters looked like after my first 50km, just for shits and giggles.

You're welcome.

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Climbing and all that technical stuff.

As my ultrarunning grew, so did my interest in expanding my technical skills in the mountains. I had a desire to push myself further, to see how far I could go with my own two feet. And perhaps the biggest thing that drew me into rock climbing (followed by ice climbing and mountaineering), was my boyfriend Jeremy -- who just happened to be a highly skilled climber, mountaineer, and who taught in-demand ice climbing courses in the winter for the BC Mountaineering Club that sold out in minutes. To be honest, I don't know that I would have been able to learn the skills that I have now without having him to teach and mentor me and lead the way on terrain that I would have been scared shitless (and justifiably so) to tackle on my own... and I recognize that not everyone can tap into that sort of on-demand resource. It's something I want to chat more about, as well as what options exist for furthering your own backcountry skills -- but that's a whole other topic...perfect for another post. ;) 

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And then there was Photography.

As I got more involved in the ultrarunning and climbing communities, I realized that most of the sports photographers that I knew were male. In fact, I couldn't think of one local female sports/adventure photographer, when I stopped to think about it. This was very obvious when I helped put together the first Run Wild Vancouver fundraising initiative, and all 12 calendar photos were taken by male photographers, simply because we couldn't find any female photographers to submit work. I had begun dabbling in photography prior to this, teaching myself to use a DSLR because my iphone just wasn't capturing the grandeur of where my adventures took me. Once I realized how few female photographers were willing to haul heavy camera gear into the backcountry to capture some of these crazy sports, I decided that I was going to buck that trend. I spent hours and hours and hours reading every book I could get my hands on (my first book was literally "How to Use a DSLR For Dummies", watching youtube tutorials, and chasing my friends around on our long runs with my camera in hand, trying to get as much practice in as possible (bonus: carrying a 6lb camera in your hand while running for hours or climbing up a multi-pitch route makes you super strong on half of your body, and only a little bit lopsided). 

 PC: Antonio Villalobos

PC: Antonio Villalobos

Somewhere in here, brands started reaching out to me, and I realized that there was a demand for this style of inspiring adventure photography. 

My photography continued to grow, which led to...


Travel and Influencing, and all that fun stuff

It became harder to balance working my 9-5 corporate job with this new world of exciting freelance opportunities, and I found myself stretching and teasing my vacation allotments to let me take advantage of it all. A trip to Kenya with Lifestraw in 2015 was quite simply life-changing, as we spent ten whirlwind days working in the most rural areas possible to provide clean water to schoolchildren. I can honestly say that that trip changed my life, and made me realize that in amongst the shallowness of social media, there was a real opportunity to use it as a platform for positive awareness and change as well. I decided that I would try to use it as such, whether by inspiring other people to get outside through my photography, or just by being as real as possible with my own muddlings through life. 

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Other trips popped up after that: a weekend of running, camping, and photographing an extreme adventure trip for Under Armour in the desolate Death Valley;

 Squad life.

Squad life.

Then there was a whirlwind three day trip to the Lake District in the UK with Inov-8 that I crammed in between school exams (more on that shortly), and numerous trips around the States, mostly with Lifestraw. 

 My foray into fell running. PC: Stephen Wilson

My foray into fell running. PC: Stephen Wilson

Side note. The key to being an influencer, or building a brand that people respond to, is all about consistency. You have to know what you want to talk about and be passionate about it, have a strong and consistent voice (ie don't post shots of your breakfast if you want adventure brands to hire you), and be genuine. Remember that when you work with brands and vouch for their products, you are putting your reputation out there... so unless you genuinely love it, don't say you do.  

I was getting more and more freelance work as my photography and brand grew throughout 2015/16, and it got harder and harder to balance my passions with holding down my corporate job, so...

I quit, at the end of the summer in 2016. And then I stepped back from all the work I'd been doing on the side, said no to most of the cool opportunities, and went back to school. Because here's the thing: I was entirely self-taught up until that point, and I recognized that I was limited in the scope of what I could do. And I still had big dreams of where I wanted to go. So I signed up for an intensive graphic design program jointly run by Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the BC Institute of Technology, and threw myself completely into this crazy 2-years-in-one, fulltime-at-two-schools-at-once program. Except for, you know, the occasional blitz trip to Europe to try out fell running on weekends, which I couldn't quite resist. 


Striking out on my own

Six days after I graduated from school in October 2017, I found myself on a plane to Nepal, as part of a team of five heading into the Himalayas. I was the only girl on the team, and I was ridiculously excited. You can check out some stuff about that trip here.

When I finally got back from that trip at the end of 2017 (and after a 'lil blitz climbing detour to Thailand to thaw out after the Himalayan cold), I hit the ground running. I've spent the last six months pitching brands left, right, and center on project ideas, writing for magazines, taking on graphic and web design projects, and trying to establish semi-regular partnerships with brands to create a foundation that I can then layer one-off projects on top of. The key is to expect to hear a whole lot of crickets even when you think your idea is awesome, and to continue believing that your ideas are awesome anyways. Because that's part of the game, but you will also slowly get a sense of how to improve so that your work gets seen, and if you persist long enough, it'll start to pay off. Ideas that I pitched 6 months ago are now finally taking shape, but by the time I execute them it will have been nine months since I first floated them. You just have to go with the flow.

I've discovered how challenging it is to manage your own business and continue to drum up new projects while you are in remote areas with very little wifi for weeks at a time. I've realized that I don't think I could live on the road full-time, and I actually like having some structure in my life, at least some of the time (and it makes it a lot easier to train consistently for my own races). 


So, that's the short version of how I got here. I think the key thing to remember is that change doesn't happen instantly. You have to look at where you want to go, and then figure out how many steps it's going to take to make those changes. It's always more work than you want it to be, and it's always harder than you think it should be. But if it were easy, everyone would do it ;).

Like I've said, I've learned a LOT as I've muddled along on this little adventure of mine... and while some of it has been just pure luck or the right timing (and I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had), a lot of where I am today has come from putting my head down, working hard even when life has tossed some huge hiccups at me, and refusing to quit. There are no shortcuts. Truly. So stop looking for the quick fix, and start planning your end game.

I'm looking forward to getting into more nitty-gritty details over the next little while -- so stay tuned, and let me know if you have specific questions you want me to answer!

Hil

 Circa 2012? This hurt a bit. (On this fine day, I had decided to spontaneously go for an ultramarathon-length 12 hour, 46km hike... long before I ever ran or trained for those distances). We all have to start somewhere!

Circa 2012? This hurt a bit. (On this fine day, I had decided to spontaneously go for an ultramarathon-length 12 hour, 46km hike... long before I ever ran or trained for those distances). We all have to start somewhere!