Let's set the scene, what does a normal day look like for Kelly McLay?
You would think I get up at the crack of dawn and start working out, grab a coffee and sit with the newspaper before the first child chirps. In reality, nope, I am not an early morning person; far contrast. And as soon as that first little baby cry shatters my sleepy silence – it's go go go.
A day in the life for me is full of fitting in everything I can and spans from coffee (always iced regardless of our cold winters) to wine when John and I wind down our day. Outside of COVID, it was wake up, nurse baby, 2 second shower, ready 3-year old, daycare drop, local coffee shop, fit in Fitness International Travel work, feed baby, grab the Thule for an afternoon run, then nurse, work, daycare pick up, family time. Outside of maternity leave – added is a commute in and out of Boston to my full-time work as Director of International at Spartan.
"Notice theres no mention of where I eat… it happens in there somewhere."
What aligns it all is that my days are full of spontaneity – I make room for and embrace that. It’s life.
If I was standing 1.5m behind you at the supermarket, i'd never guess what you've achieved. Can we talk about what you're really proud of achieving?
You truly would not know the places I have been or the things I have done. 20 years ago – I would never have imagined “all the places I’d go." And it was jump started by one simple decision; the choice to run the Boston Marathon. The dominos of opportunity and accomplishments seemed to fall after that.
I am most proud of trying to prove that the impossible is possible. What does that mean? After a post-menopausal diagnosis in my 20’s, I was in desperate need of a goal. The diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence, but was physically and emotionally devastating, and with the knowledge of never being able to have kids – I truly felt like a piece of me had died.
"There have been many finish lines that I have crossed that I never imagined I would – 70+ marathon finishes in fact, and they’re all scary firsts, right?"
I was told I wasn’t smart enough and would never own a company – I do.
I was told I wasn’t strong enough to finish a marathon in Antarctica – I’ve done it twice.
I was told it was impossible for me to have children – through many steps and a lot of failures and intervention – I have been able to carry and birth two children.
I was told having children would ruin my career – it’s only propelled it.
Yes, there is a list of accomplishments. Proud to have completed over 70 marathons around the world as a two-time seven continent runner – running from the unforgiving frozen glaciers of Antarctica to the stunning red sands of Uluru, Australia. I was part of a team that ran from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean across Italy. Proud to be one of 49 women in the world to complete the World Marathon Challenge finishing 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. Proud to be the first woman in the world to finish both the World Marathon Challenge and all six World Marathon Majors. Proud to work full-time for Spartan, the world's best obstacle racing lifestyle brand, and to be CEO of Fitness International Travel. But most of all - proud to be a woman in sport and to help break down some corporate barriers for women behind me.
"And to that point – most proud to be a wife, mom, and to be surrounded by a village of friends and family members that believe in me and help me achieve these goals."
Life gives us so many obstacles – we are amid a long period of one now – and navigating these times can be extremely difficult. I am so proud that I have always taken one step forward, despite how beat down i’ve been. When I don’t know the answer or can’t find the way – I run.
I refuse to accept can’t, never, no, not going to happen…always trying to turn the negative into positive where possible.
OK, let's just pause for a moment and put some of that into perspective. How do you manage to do that stuff and have a couple of kids, and run a business, and I don't know, watch Netflix occasionally?
Sometimes I don’t know how. You just do – the days are long and full and require weekends – but it keeps me going.
A lot of it is just saying yes. Seeing how it all slides together and rolling with spontaneity. There are a million reasons, excuses not to do something, just say yes and see how the puzzle pieces fall. A lot of it is not putting too much pressure on yourself to be amazing at everything, but to do your best. A lot of it is being okay with the potential to fail. And most of it is having a village to support you – especially my husband who has his own full-time career.
"I like to think that I am paving a path of perseverance for my children – and especially setting an example for my daughter."
So it's actually clear that you're not just the person standing near me in the cashier line after all?
Well, I am, at the end of the day, I live in a small town in Massachusetts, live passionately, and buy the milk.
Well that's good to know, so you're saying that anyone has the potential within themselves to achieve more than they thought they could?
Absolutely. It's just hard to see it and scary to think about it until you try. The mind is a tough muscle to train. But it does need lots of training to prove it wrong. Once you exercise that muscle a bit by doing a few things you never thought you could you look back and see how all those small decisions led to big accomplishments.
"I struggled to exercise – my legs stung, my lungs burned – I was in my early 20’s and the thought of the marathon seemed stupid and like an absolute failure waiting to happen. But it wasn’t."
So what's most important is; ask yourself a question… What do you want to do? – and although scary, if you just take some baby steps, you'll surprise yourself when you reach the finish line.
Was there a moment when you felt like you had to keep pushing, like, did you want to give up ever, or has the momentum continued for as long as you can remember?
I have felt defeated so many times. How do I get through this? These moments have happened mid-race, career, and through my infertility journey.
That first marathon I ran – was after months of losing my identity, weight gain, loss of friends and employment. That finish line felt like the only thing I had left to hang on to.
When the World Marathon Challenge opportunity came along my heart was screaming YES but my mind was hesitant. Coming out of having a baby I had done little to no training. When I received the call I had run 300 miles in total over the past year and the event was the next month. My husband and I knew I was not trained – he said what if you don’t make it – I replied – then at least I tried. I knew though that I would jog, walk, crawl …scrape my way to that finish if I had to before giving up. And there were a few moments – in Lisbon one night 5 marathons in – cold rain running along lonely piers, slippery stone, and dirt paths I thought I may break. I was crying. I was tired, alone, worn, physically depleted…my achilles were both shredded and I still had 10+ miles to go and it was 3am. I knew sleep and food were far off and recovery included packing bags and getting to the next flight to start the next marathon. But it's amazing if you break it apart step by step how you can negotiate your way through giving up.
I said earlier you have to train your mind as much as you train your body. And your mind is the hardest to prove wrong – especially when others help fuel the negativity.
Have you found that your community has played a part in your personal journey?
Yes, yes, YES!!! This is by far the biggest key to these accomplishments – too many people to thank. It is so truly important to be kind, pay it forward, give back and I am grateful for the support along the way – I would not be where I am today without it.
From a good friend and mentor, Michael Clinton giving me the opportunity to tell my story in his inspirational running collection, Tales from the Trails, to Richard Donovan, another incredible mentor and supporter, who believes in me and gave me the confidence to know I could…The opportunity to race in his events at both the Antarctic Ice Marathon where I first finished my 7 continent journey and the World Marathon Challenge where I finished the 7 continents again, becoming just one of 49 women in the world to do so - i'm so grateful for his friendship. To my partners at the Berlin and London Marathons who have collaborated with FIT – we are truly grateful.
I was also super lucky to become an ambassador to my tried and true favourite brand of running socks – Balega – who's giving back spirit to their company and ubuntu mantra is something that inspires me. I so believe in their cause and swear by their socks (no blisters across 7 marathons around the world!)
"There are also some amazing women on my team, Danielle, Kayley and Hadassah, who have helped pave the way forward for FIT."
I mentioned it before – my village at home – has always picked me up, helped dust me off, and supported my crazy endeavours. Hubby, Sister, Mom, Dad, kids, friends…colleagues (I thank you all for entertaining these ideas, cheering along the sidelines and moving me forward). Mr. Rogers – he was so right - “Look for the helpers” because they are truly around.
Aside from being a superhero on your feet, you've managed to build a very reputable business, let's talk about that.
FIT is my work baby. There is nothing I love more than traveling and running marathons (although I am petrified to fly – secrets out of the bag). I love that my passion is my profession.
There is nothing like being at the start of a race, surrounded by so many different cultures – hearing multiple accents sending congrats to one another – nervously stretching, jumping, and peeing together – and all speaking the same language – run! And then coming together after and celebrating – wins and losses – lessons we all got along the way.
For FIT – we want to ensure that we are celebrating these moments with the clients – bringing them to see unique places, providing a community for them to get ready with – supporting them before, during and after the event and adding an intimate connection from us to them for the entire journey.
We are also experienced with the event and course, many of us having run the event in the past. As such our team is experienced in helping answer crucial questions for race day and quell any race day nerves as a runner preps for their event!
We've heard it time and again, there's a significant difference between travelling with a specialist business rather than one that isn't. Without being too biased, why do you think that is?
Using a specialist business focused on fitness, marathons specifically in this case, takes away the worry of getting a reservation for pasta the night before the race when everything will be packed – it removes the extra stress of how to get to the start or home from the finish line when you are delirious having already physically exhausted your navigation for the day! If you are travelling alone, it gives you a supported community to celebrate – and we take care of the checklist of items that would be most important to you – ease to get to the start, proximity to the finish, post-race celebration or a shoulder to cry on, quick familiarisation with the culture on our city tour and bib pick up at the expo! We want you to focus on the race and enjoy your time abroad!
"We work hard to truly make it so the client just has to worry about training for the race."
We are runners, so we think like runners, and that is important!
I have a strong feeling we'll be talking to you again, before we go though, what does the next 6 - 12 months look like for Kelly McLay and FIT?
“We are in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat” – Author Unknown, Poem amid COVID Times.
I envisioned 2020 as the year of vision; the year of opportunity & reflection. While not nearly what I expected, and I imagine not at all what most people expected, in some ways it will be the year I see things with the most clarity. Priorities have shifted once again and new challenges have presented themselves bringing forward, albeit hard lessons, lessons of growth.
While we have experienced a lot of devastation through this time, there has been a whole lot of creativity, goodness, and outreach. We will navigate the pain and focus on the good things now and on the horizon.
Times have been hard on everyone and of course international travel, travel in general, and mass participation events have been hard hit. FIT is taking it one step at a time and trying to make the right decisions, as difficult as some of those may be.
"Nothing can replace the camaraderie of these events or the power of ambiance of the streets, spectators and finish. But I can still run. At the end of the day, the ebb and flow still awaits."
What I do know, is that I can’t wait for the day when the world heals and our FITfam can safely reunite at the next starting line, wherever and whenever that may be…
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