Throughout her youth in Elliot Lake, across her three years of post-secondary studies at College Boreal, and on to career, family and life in Ottawa, Annie Robitaille has maintained a singular constant — and that is running.
“I started running when I was probably 11 or 12,” said the 36-year-old registered massage therapist and osteopathic practitioner, who captured a silver medal at the CCAA cross-country nationals in 2003, and twice mounted the podium on a provincial collegiate level.
“It was just something I did on my own, out of personal interest. Running has always been kind of a tool for me to manage my feelings, my emotions, even while growing up.”
By the time high school arrived, with Robitaille attending ES Villa Francaise des Jeunes, an institution of but 40 students or so at the time, her potential had become apparent, a progression spurred on by the landscape of her hometown.
“I started running around the streets of my neighbourhood, but Elliot Lake is very hilly,” she said. “I give Elliot Lake a lot of credit for helping me become such a good runner, because I had to run those hills every day.
“And we had a coach at the English high school, Peter Shipman, who was a really good runner and taught me the importance of doing interval training. He would always invite me to go out and practise with his students.”
Throw in a very strong support system at home — Annie is the second youngest of four children in the family, whose father, Daniel, is a five-time Canadian weightlifting champion, former national team coach and physical educator by trade — and one can see the possibilities.
Yet despite finishing fourth at OFSAA in 2000, a year before moving to Sudbury for schooling, Robitaille decided that her sport of choice needed to be bumped down the priority list, as she moved on to the next phase of her life.
“When I was in high school, there were a few schools that had approached me about visits to their campus,” she said. “But I knew the demands would be quite high and I wasn’t sure that my heart was into it. I was also passionate about the human anatomy and physiology, and knew that massage therapy was something I wanted to do.
“I was thinking I would just run for fun, focus on my education, and maybe pick up competitive running later.”
Much to her surprise, the ability to combine both academics and athletics became available in Year 2 of her three-year program, when College Boreal decided to field a cross-country team — of sorts.
“I think we were three runners on the team,” Robitaille recalled with a laugh.
Thankfully, her background had created a foundation for success, an ability to both self-motivate and self-coach, all while striding step for step with the very best in the province.
Fast forward 15 years or so following her graduation from college, with her strong personal character traits still evident, as Robitaille balances between career, her two young children at home (a son who is seven and daughter who is three and a half) and the constant that has been running.
“I wouldn’t say so much competitive anymore, but I still make sure that I run every day,” she acknowledged. “I don’t run with the same intensity as I used to. I do it now just for well-being.”
And in the nation’s capital, she has found a nearly ideal setting for her outlet, on so many different levels.
“In Elliot Lake, you almost never would see people out running,” she said. “In Ottawa, everyone runs along the canal. I would run with my kids, pushing them in the stroller. I think this is the time I’ve enjoyed running the most — it forced me to slow down a little bit. I even ran through my pregnancies, right until the very end.”
If a five-kilometre cross-country trail was the standard in her early 20s, Robitaille has bettered with age.
“I have done a lot of half-marathons after moving to Ottawa, but a marathon is still kind of on my bucket list,” she admitted. “I think with a marathon, you have to train with such intensity and I still have that competitive side of me, so once I sign up for a marathon, I want to really invest my time into training.
“With a marathon, you have to put in your mileage — there is no cheating. But I would be happy to do just one.”
Understandably, Robitaille looks back fondly at her time spent at the New Sudbury campus of one of only two completely francophone colleges in Ontario.
“Running at Boreal was a very positive experience,” she said. “It wasn’t a very big school. Because the college community was quite small, I would have a lot of support for my running.
“People would stop me in the hallways and congratulate me.”
To do the same today, best that you stop Robitaille while she is running, given that she will be doing just that, virtually every day of the year.
Still with running, the Cambrian Golden Shield men’s cross-country team struggled to find their rhythm at nationals, with Eric Leishman finishing 23rd overall, covering eight kilometres in a time of 30:22.72, with teammates Erich Mundt (90th, 34:09.69), Brandon Murray (94th, 34:46.37), Marc-Andre Maisonneuve (97th, 35:22.77), Aurel Fox (99th, 36:05.56) and Brennan Gregoire (104th, 37:37.56) well off his pace.
The Boreal Athletics column is presented by Cambrian College. It runs periodically during the OCAA sports season.