August 18 2017
One runner shares her long history with ultrarunning and explains how the sport helped her heal from a major surgical mistake.
Born in Canada and raised in Israel, Leah Goldstein is not your ordinary woman. With titles like world champion kickboxer, cycling champion and Israeli undercover police officer, Goldstein has faced many battles and fought harder when some told her she could never do it.
At the age of 9, Goldstein stepped foot into the martial arts world and quickly developed the skills she needed to win the world champion kickboxer title by the time she was 17.
With dual citizenship and many trips to Israel, Goldstein felt the urge to join the Israel Defense Force (IDF) where she became an instructor for the Elite Commandos (a special fighting unit). With constant running and fighting, Goldstein pushed past her physical limits—she had to do whatever it was to survive. Eventually she fought her way into a male-only special-ops police course and joined the Israel’s Undercover Police Unit (think: Navy Seals). “It was critical for us to be in top shape. We had to be able to do anything,” explains Goldstein.
“I met a triathlete who introduced me to duathlons and I got hooked on it. I discovered my talent on the bike when I did a few races and I was national champion very quickly. But I never thought I would pursue a cycling career. My goal was to be an agent and to work for the government,” Goldstein says.
At the age of 29, Goldstein left the unit and came back to Canada to become a pro cyclist where she rode professionally for 12 years.
“It was a challenge because in running, cycling is a huge no-no and in cycling, running is a huge no-no. I knew that just cycling would be a danger to my body. I had to sneak out and run. I knew this would keep my body healthy.”
“For me, running isn’t physical, it’s mental too. If you’re not having a great day, it’s a great way to always feel better, and I could always figure out things after I got for a 10K run.”
But what helped her win her races was running. “I wasn’t a great runner, I was a great cyclist. But running is what helped me win.”
Fast forward to 2005, it was the first stage of the 2005 Cascade Classic in central Oregon. Goldstein was clipped by another rider on descent at about 50 miles per hour and landed face first on the asphalt, with several other cyclists falling on top of her. Her injuries included a broken pelvis, several broken ribs, a broken cheek, ankle and right arm, a dislocated and broken shoulder, the loss of teeth and near loss of the tip of her left thumb and her top lip, as well as road rash over most of her body.
With two weeks of multiple surgeries in a hospital in Bend, Ore., she was finally able to moved back home to Vancouver, Canada, where she was admitted to hospital for more observation.
“I was told I would never get back on the bike and be able to ride again and the doctors also questioned my ability to walk without a cane or a walker. It was not a good diagnosis. To be told something like that is devastating, especially to someone who’s so physical like me,” says Goldstein.
“I didn’t want to hear that, I blocked it out. And that’s what I used to overcome this. I used my mental toughness.”
From the minute she could move, which was only her ab muscles at the time, she started doing ab contractions. “Within two weeks I asked to be put in a wheel chair. They thought I was crazy. I remember moving 5 feet and then falling asleep because I was so heavily medicated. But I slowly would go from 5 feet to 10 feet and then 15 feet and so on. I started my therapy on my own,” Goldstein remembers.
At the age of 39, Goldstein came back to cycling the strongest she’d ever been in her career. “I dominated everything, smashing records,” she says. “I had no support coming out of this. I know this sounds bananas, but I don’t know if having a healthy lifestyle had anything to do with it. I mean I never did drugs or anything, I always stayed fit and healthy, so maybe this had a little to do with my comeback, but the mental part played a huge role.”
Mentally she convinced herself that she would come out of this stage. “Physiologists and doctors came in and removed all the mirrors and sharp objects because they thought this was suicidal, it wasn’t good. But I used that to prove them wrong.”
“I just looked at them with a blank look and said I don’t accept this diagnosis. But when you have a professional trying to convince you of your faith, it’s very difficult. But I would not accept it. But you have to use the voices in your head—the ones that will help you, not hurt you—to push you back.”
Not having anything else but the attitude to fight, Goldstein fought through the flashbacks and fears of her accident to train harder than ever.
“The progression and little goals helped me get through this. Taking my wheel chair on the track and seeing the body achieve these little goals helped me mentally get over this hump,” says Goldstein. “If you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t matter what gets in the way, you will use that hunger to get there.”
Never accepting the word “no” or “I can’t,” Goldstein went on to win Race Across the West. “I was up against the power house, Seana Hogan, so going into that race not feeling well trained and like the bottom of the barrel, it taught me mentally that it’s not over until it’s over.”
Losing in the race and mentally telling herself she was going to lose was the bad voice that kept Goldstein from performing her best. “I was tearing myself down. But after 38 hours of mentally abusing myself I was like, ‘What are you stupid?’ I was falling in this trap and making up excuses as to why I wouldn’t win this race. But something clicked in my head and I said, ‘No, I am going to win this race.’ And in 30 seconds, I flipped like that.”
The mind is powerful, and that’s what helped Goldstein win first for the women and second overall—crushing the previous women’s record of 2 days and 22 hours.
To learn more about the courageous Leah Goldstein and how she battled through so many life difficulties, you can read her story in her new book No Limits, which shares her fascinating life story of all her tragedies and triumphs. A true inspiration.