When Denise Coffield’s husband died suddenly in an avalanche four years ago, she felt lost.

“That’s a real game changer in life when you kiss someone and say, I’ll see you on Sunday, and then, they don’t come home.”

Looking for structure and meaning, Coffield fell back into triathlon training and in the intervening years, the endurance work has allowed her to move forward, to keep the sadness from taking hold, even in the darkest days.

“I think the biggest thing is, for my physical body, and mind connection is that you can’t keep grief out,” she said. “It comes at any time. But, I made a deal with grief that you can come into me and do what you need to do. But you have to get out. You’re not setting up shop and staying in there.”

Denise Coffield bundled up outside on one of her training days outside. Photo supplied

According to Coffield’s coach, Calvin Zaryski, many of his clients trains as a way to keep negative emotions in check.

“You can use exercise in triathlon training to manage and cope with life’s challenges or just dealing with grief,” Zaryski said. “I have two or three athletes that basically say that on a day to day basis, as it just helps them deal with stress.”

These experiences have been confirmed through research. A study published in 2021 explains that a way to improve mental health is through physical activity. Factors like depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder have all been reduced with the daily routine of getting active. The results showed “physical activity allowed a sense of freedom, to express emotions, provided a distraction and an escape from grief, whilst enhancing social support.”

The long road

For Coffield, the  specifics of triathlon training, which requires many hours on the road and in the pool, have been especially helpful. Coffield first started training in 2003 and later ran an Ironman in 2006 after her father passed away from a brain tumor.

“That was kind of the impetus that, you know, I needed an outlet,” she said.

Coffield decided after that she would take time off of the high intensity training and enjoy some time in the mountains with her family who were all avid mountain climbers, ice climbers, skiers and hikers.  

However, in 2019 Coffield’s husband Dana was skiing the Bow-Yoho Traverse when he died in a backcountry ski avalanche. Dana was a skilled mountaineer who had climbed Mount Everest, many other summits, and was a backcountry skier. 

Multisport coach Calvin Zarsky speaks into the mic that blasts throughout the Mount Royal University gym where his team trains. Photo: Brooke Palin

Losing her partner was a shock and every day Coffield looked for a reason to get up and roll out of bed. 

“Immediately after Dana died, I was living in Canmore and I just started trail running again. It was great when I needed to just stop and have a breakdown, or I needed to just yell into the mountains, and ask why? Like, we have so much living to do. Then I would just start running again.”

Coffield eventually reconnected with Zaryski at Critical Speed and began training again. She has also sought counselling and completed the Bow Valley College nursing program in recent years.

Community helps the healing

Zaryski has been training multisport athletes for more than 35 years and he continues to take on clients. He has trained Olympians, athletes who have climbed Mount Everest, Ironman competitors and those who are just starting out.

The goal in his work is building community, he says. This community of people allows the athletes to build relationships with each other to motivate and encourage their best performance. All of Zaryksi’s athletes have different goals and skills, but the community helps them stay focused and on track.

Denise Coffield paddles a canoe in Lake Louise. Photo supplied

For Coffield, being a part of the Critical Speed community has allowed her to be consistent with her training. She’s not trying to win races or set records, just to live by the guidance of her late husband, who had excellent advice for good living.

“At a very young age my husband had written in his climbing journal — Until my day comes, nothing can harm me and when my day comes, nothing can save me — he had written that at 14-years-old. I think that’s kind of the epitome of my husband’s life and it has translated into my life and our daughter’s lives of making the most of everything. We’re not here permanently. So let’s enjoy it. Let’s have a good time.”

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