Sarah: Hello and welcome to the Tough Girl Podcast which is all about motivating and inspiring you.
I'm your host, Sarah Williams and today we are going to be speaking with Robyn Baldwin about being an alpha female, an MS warrior and an OCR specialist.
Hi Robyn. How are you?
Robyn: I'm good. How are you?
Sarah: I'm fabulous. Thank you.
Now Robyn, you would describe yourself as an alpha female.
Robyn: I do and it's a really hard concept to get across and I've been calling myself that since 2009. I had a coworker call me an alpha female because I was doing so many different things and since then I have actually defined it.
So an alpha female is powerful and assertive woman. Her confidence is due to being an intelligent and intellectual problem solver and being an alpha female is a state of mind based on choosing ambition and being proud of it.
Sarah: That's fantastic. I love that.
I am definitely an alpha female and I hope all the women out there listening are alpha females.
But Robyn, let's just tell, can you sort of tell our listeners a little more about you and your background?
Robyn: So, I, although calling myself an alpha female, what that actually encompasses is a career woman. So I have several different careers, as I like to call them.
So, first and foremost, my full-time job is as a Senior Marketing Manager at the eReading Company, Kobo and then I'm a fitness and lifestyle blogger over at robynbaldwin.com.
I've done so many different things but now I call myself an author. I'm a sponsored athlete. I'm a brand ambassador and then I do all of these different physical activities so I'm an OCR racer. I'm a former fitness competitor so I used to strut around on stage in a bikini. I was a former CFL cheerleader.
Now I love running, lifting weights and yoga. And now I'm also calling myself an MS warrior. So I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in December of 2014. So I am now a part of the MS warrior family.
Sarah: How do you first get into fitness? What started you on your fitness journey?
Robyn: In university I was doing a bit of fashion modeling and I remember one day a photographer told me I was getting chubby.
I fully looked at myself in the mirror. I was dating someone at the time and he was like, "yeah, you're getting a little chunky around the thigh area." Was like, "okay. What is happening?" Cuz I never really watched what I ate. I didn't really work out. I was dancing so that kept me fit.
But when I started working full time after university I was working in the advertising world so I was working at agencies and I was sitting at a desk for eight to nine hours. Sometimes ten, eleven hours a day. So I lost that physical just dance time and I became skinny fat.
So I wasn't really large but I was developing cellulite on my body because I wasn't actually working out. I wasn't toned. I had no muscle and I was just getting a little pudgy.
So when someone said you're getting a little chubby, was like, Woah! Woah! Woah! Woah!" I'm a very vain person so let's fix this.
So I really got into fitness for many reasons. I just wanted to look good naked!
And from there my journey just like blossomed. So, I started doing boot camps and learning how to workout type. I basically subscribed to every single magazine possible to teach myself how to lift weights and how to meal plan and eat properly.
So I've always been a fan of higher education so I started education myself. And that's how I started my journey into fitness. As I went it became a health journey and I realized that I was actually taking care of myself and getting healthy. I started getting into more nutrition, education, vitamin and supplemental information, hormonal balances and all that stuff. It sort of blossomed from there.
Sarah: You mentioned also about O-C-R. Now for those who are listening who are like, "what's O-C-R? I haven't heard of that before." Can you just try to describe that a bit more in detail?
Robyn: Oh yeah. No one knows what OCR is whenever I say it.
It's obstacle course racing. When I say that, again it doesn't always light bulb off for most people.
It's your tough mudders, your spartan races. Thoes are kind of the big two. I do that kind of racing now and I discovered it when I was still fitness competing.
My last year I did a competition in 2013 and the next day I ran a race. I think it was just warrior dash. It was one of those really simple ones. I call it the entry drug into OCR racing. It's about 5 kilometers; maybe ten to fifteen obstacles but that is what got me hooked. I realized I was starting to do things that I could get stronger at. To get faster at.
All of the work that I had been putting into the gym to develop really pretty looking muscles that look good on the stage were now actually really serving me well from a strength and endurance stand point.
My mother was actually very instrumental from my switch from fitness competitions over to OCRs. She said, "when are you going to stop prancing around onstage in a bikini and do something with all your new found strength?" I like to say that I hung up all of my sparkly bikinis and stripper heels for mud and monkey bars.
Sarah: Mud and monkey bars! I'll say in the UK at the moment there has been a huge growth of women going out and doing these obstacle courses such as tough mudder, tough guy and the spartan races. It's just been a phenomenal growth.
Why do you think it starting to appeal to more women? Which is, you know, obstacle racing and getting down in the mud and getting dirty can be seen as a very masculine thing to be doing. Why do you think more women are taking to it now?
Robyn: Well it's a great place to meet men!
Sarah: That's a really great point!
Robyn: I showed a picture..my grandmother is ninety-six and I showed her a picture of me at one of my races this year, just covered in mud and she looked at me and she goes, "you're not going to find a husband that way."
I said, "do you know the ratio of guys to girls at these races?
Like of course I am."
It's a great way for men and women to feel like kids. You're basically playing in the dirt again as a child so you're reconnecting with childlike habits. You're having an immense amount of fun if you choose if you choose to have fun. You're feeling stronger.
The first time I climbed a rope at a spartan race, I have never felt such accomplishment. It's definitely a kind of thing that gives you a high if you're an accomplished obsessed seeker.
Then whenever you conquer a new obstacle or actually get an obstacle a lot faster than you have before it's an addiction. It definitely gives you that high of endorphin's.
Sarah: Beyond this journey; this physical fitness that you've got; that you've maintained from obstacle races to working out in the gym and learning more about nutrition and supplements and everything else and then you've been faced an incredibly personal challenge with finding out that you've got MS.
Could you talk us through what happened there? How you first found out and what the story was?
Robyn: The beginning of December, I woke up one day and my fingers and my right hand felt like they had been asleep all night. I just thought, '"okay, I slept on my arm funny or I have a pinched nerve in my neck from my workout the day before." Didn't think much of it. I got dress. I wake up at five to get ready and go to the gym. Went to the gym; did a back workout.
The feeling had started to spread up my arm. It was basically like pins and needs and numbness. Still thinking I had a pinched nerve in my neck, I stretched.
I booked an RMT appointment for deep tissue massage with my massage therapist. I booked a chiro appointment to see if something was out of alignment.
Luckily I had booked an appointment with a chiropractor who was brand new to me so they had to do the like, full intake form. They ask you all of your family history and my father has MS.
When I said that...and at this point the numbness and tingling had spread all the way up my right arm, down my torso...to have a numb boob, I'm not gonna lie...was really weird.
Then it spread down my abdomen and down my legs.
The entire right side of my body, over the course of a week, went numb and tingling. The chiropractor said he wouldn't treat me until I had an x-ray, just to make sure there was no disc out of alignment. Then he also urged me to go see a family doctor because I was presenting symptoms that could be possibly MS.
When he said this, it didn't hit me. I didn't say, "oh, okay, this is an MS attack. " was just like, "nope, it is a pinched nerve; I do way too much exercise."
I was in a bit of denial but when my entire right leg and foot had gone numb over the weekend I just drove myself to the hospital and said, "okay, let's figure out what's wrong with me."
I had a CAT scan and they didn't find anything. They were actually going to send me home. Thankfully, I have a very strong personality and said, "no, you're gonna find out what's wrong with me.
What's our next test?"
Thankfully in Canada we have free healthcare so I am blessed. I am not going to lie.
There are actually MS warriors out there that took years and years to get diagnosed. I had access in the emergency room to an MRI immediately, not immediately, but five hours later, had an MRI.
Five hours later, saw a doctor who said there was demyelination, which means the myelin sheath around my nervous system was eaten away. On my spine in a certain area. They wanted to redo the MRI with a tracing agent the next day just to be sure.
I stayed overnight in the hospital which was horrible because at this point, I'm realizing that I have MS and I was by myself. That was a really long night.
In the morning, I second MRI with a tracing agent on both my brain and my spine. And from there they found lesions.
They found over twenty lesions on my brain which just means there is demyelination there and inflammation. Then the part on my spine really showed up when the tracing agent was in my blood.
To make a long story story, they were able to diagnose me right then and there because there was that number of lesions. If I didn't have twenty in my brain, they wouldn't have been able to make a definitive call and I probably would've gone months and months with more testing and everything.
I actually say I'm completely blessed when I found out within a week of having symptoms exactly what I had; could go through the four stages of grief as fast as possible because I don't like dwelling on anger or sadness and just went into acceptances right away.
Sarah: That sounds like, such a, like how you cope with that, how strong you are to deal with that.
Where do you think that inner strength came from?
Robyn: Well, in 2012, I was engaged to be married and called off my wedding a month before so I learned resiliency just a few years before. If I didn't have that storm in my life, then this would've been my first storm but I believe I went through that already so that I would know how to cope.
I just went right back to basics.
My mom drove in...she lives about five hours away...drove in to hug me and take care of me. My friends surrounded me and I knew that I had to rest and take care of myself and I started all of this research.
It's kind of the same thing that I did when I was calling off my wedding. I realized that I had been in a toxic relationship and that I didn't love myself so I started on a self love and happiness journey and taking care of myself, getting back to basics, eight hours of sleep, eating my five meals a day, getting my two liters of water.
I just did that again, so, although I take really good care of myself and am really healthy, I was definitely not always consistent with everything.
When I called off my wedding, I got back into everything that made me feel good which includes, fitness, health and nutrition.
I did that again when I was diagnosed with MS.
Sarah: There's no cure for MS is there?
Robyn: There's no cure and there's actually no cause so there is a lot of research being done where there are factors. Basically they say you are more prone to being diagnosed with MS if these are present in your life. Having it run in the family with the fact that my father has it.
When I was diagnosed, I was deficient in vitamin D. When that is present, you are more likely to be diagnosed.
There's a big, I don't want to say, like it's not proven, but there's a large number of functional medical doctors that believe gut health and digestion issues and problems mean you're more likely to develop an autoimmune disease.
I've had digestion problems my entire life.
Now I am working on fixing those. There's all these things that can mean you'll be diagnosed.
I just, I never actually researched them even though my father has MS.
I was in complete denial that it may have been something that I would have to deal with in my life.
Sarah: It was interesting that you talked about how you were in this toxic relationship and you got out of it and then after the diagnosis with MS you went back to, to self love and happiness and going on this journey.
What sort of things were you doing?
Robyn: I always go back to the basics of self care. I was making sure I was like, okay you're not going to, I'm going to meditate to make sure that I'm getting my eight hours of sleep.
I'm going to go back to my practices of ensuring that I'm like getting two liters of water a day, at minimum.
I started researching nutrition plans for those with MS. I started following Wahl's Protocol which is a popular one in the community, basically a month after my diagnosis.
I went back to my health and fitness routes. I just, basic building blocks for taking care of myself. Then I started doing all of the things that had been instrumental in building a happy life.
Like I set goals...long term and short term goals, my race goals for the year. I wanted to make sure nothing would slow me down. I would, you know, slowly gain my stamina back after being on, when you're diagnosed, they put you on steroids to help your body from attacking itself and that took about three weeks to recover from.
Then I'm obsessed with bucket lists so one of my happiness tools to leading my most happiest life was making the most of seasons. In Canada, we have basically have winter, spring, fall and then construction season or summer. I've been doing summer bucket lists and winter buckets list to make the most of...the summer's short...so I make the most of just a few months; jam packing it with activities and adventures.
Then winter wise...our winter's are horrible...so I try to make the most and, you know, try to find new things that make the winter more enjoyable.
Sarah: What are some of the things you've got on your bucket list?
Robyn: I started off really small so three years ago I really hadn't been living my life. I had been in a really toxic relationship where I stopped doing things that I loved.
It was little things like going to a friend's house to BBQ. Having a balcony garden for my condo. Having a picnic with friends. It was really small things and now I'm an adrenaline junkie so this year it was skydiving, bungee jumping, um, zip lining, what else did I, did some quieter things like stand up paddle boarding, yoga, things like that.
It just allows me to plan so many things that my weekends are full of adventure and fun and I put my head down on my pillow Sunday, just exhausted for the work week.
Sarah: Are you still waking up at 5 AM to go to the gym?
Robyn: Yeah. Yeah. It depends if I've had a race. For example I just had a huge race last weekend so this week is recovery week but I still wake up at 5 AM and use the first two hours of my day as power hours and I write my blog or answer personal emails, stuff like that.
I keep a very regimented schedule.
Sarah: Let's talk about some of these races that you've been doing because, you know, you've done nineteen races this year, or eighteen races with one race to go. Can you tell us a little bit more about the last race that you've done? What it was like? What the race was?
Robyn: At the start of the year, it was our winter and I was diagnosed in December so I able to start training at the beginning of January.
My first race was a winter OCR. It was a month after. I started training and basically I had zero stamina but got up, did it; I was slow but I still finished. I had a no shoe race in February then another winter OCR and then our, kind of, summer OCR racing season started.
I've done, my goal was, to do a double trifecta in the spartan race world. What that means is they have three different distances.
It was sprint which was the shortest course, a super, medium, length, and then beast which is basically a half marathon up and down a mountain.
To do one trifecta you have to race all three distances. My goal was to do a double trifecta therefore two sprints, two supers, two beasts.
In Canada I was able to do five races but we only have one beast in eastern Canada so I had to go to the US to do my last beast. The Vermont Killington Beast is kind of known as the founder's race. It is the birthplace of spartan. Joe DeSena, the owner and founder, lives in Vermont so that course is kind of famous for it being a founder's race. Last year it was the Spartan World Championships, so just an amazing job.
This year the Spartan World Championships are in Tahoe so there wasn't a big focus on that race. I actually did a blog post on robynbaldwin.com of my race review and the last race of the season, although I got my double trifecta, the race was not that great.
I've done so many OCRs this year that I'm pretty, kind of picky racer and demand, you know, an easy registration, a well marked course, plenty of water stations, really good vibe in the festival area. I've had a lot of races to pick from and the ones in Canada are just amazing.
Sarah: You mentioned doing OCR races in the cold and you know, the snow races. How do you cope with the cold?
Robyn: I actually cope better in the cold than I do in the heat. A problem that many MSers' have is that because the myelin sheath around our central nervous system has been eaten away, when we get overheated, the nerves don't really know how to communicate with the rest of our body so we will get symptoms at that time.
I've experienced all over heating, my hands tremoring or going number or using grip strength so I actually do better in the cold and I've become a fan of winter runnings.
For the past two years, I've been winter running and training for races. I'll do 5 to 10K runs in the snow or trail runs. Picked up snow shoeing this year for extra training so I actually like the winter a lot better although the extreme cold has the same effect on me. The nervous system also gets a little shocked at that time but it's easier to manage that cuz I can dress really warmly and not shock my system with too much cold.
Sarah: In terms of top tips for women out there that are thinking, you know what? I am going to go out there and do my first OCR race.
I'm going to sign up for a tough mudder or a spartan race. What advice would you give them? What are your top three pieces of advice for them?
Robyn: You have to balance strength and endurance training. As a fitness competitor, I was in the gym six days a week doing different body parts workouts. I was doing a leg day, a back day, a shoulder day, an ab and chest day, an arm day and then cardio. I would lift in the morning and then I would do stairmaster in the evening for thirty or forty minutes.
I was doing enough cardio to look good but I wasn't doing the right kind of cardio for racing.
Now I had to figure out how to balance my weight training sessions with getting really good runs in or hill training sessions. We have a couple parks with decent hills.
I have to do one really good hill session a week where just going to the hill and running up and down the hill as many times as possible before exhausting myself.
Then I found an obstacle training facility. There's not many around but if you can find a facility that teaches you functional fitness whether it's body weight workout, just finding a place that teaches you proper pull ups because pulling yourself up and over walls is just exhausting but one of the basics for OCR racing.
I found an obstacle training facility and it's called Alpha Obstacle Training in Toronto and I train there two to three times a week. We do conditional circuit training. We will do weight workouts but they're basically built for muscle and endurance as well as cardio. Finding a trainer that will teach you functional fitness is really important.
I balance, now I do three workouts on my own. I do a leg day, back day, shoulder day cuz I still like my pretty shoulders. I train two to three days at Alpha and I try to get two to three runs in on my own.
Sarah: I liked what you were saying there about functional fitness. I started out the beginning of the year; one of my goals was being able to do pull ups. It took me, initially, about eight weeks to be able to do my first pull up and now I'm up to about three.
There's a huge amount of satisfaction to be able to manipulate your own body. To be able to actually pull up your own body, once you, once you've done it, you can only get stronger at it. I think for a lot of women they don't, they fear as though they're going to get really bulky. Which is a complete lie.
You're not going to get bulky if you do weight training or anything.
Robyn: I don't understand this whole, I don't want to look bulky.
You're only going to look bulky if you start like, taking really heavy steroids.
Just like, all of my training, although I am bigger than what I was, I was skinny before so like, yeah, sure, gone up a pant size and in women clothing but I've got strong quads that get me up and down mountains.
I still look really good in my clothes so it's been the best of both worlds. I've been able to pack on really good muscle but still look awesome naked. My vain self is still really happy.
Sarah: In terms of nutrition, what are your top tips for nutrition for people who are doing all of this training so the strength training and also the cardio and preparation for the OCR race.
Robyn: My nutrition is going to be very different because I have to eat to reduce inflammation and reduce toxic load and to ensure that my body doesn't get confused and attack itself and eat the myelin.
I eat based on the Wahl's Protocol but the Wahl's Protocol is really very close to Paleo.
Eating really clean meats and trying to eat organic, antibiotic free, grass fed as often as possible because then you're reducing gluten in your diet and gluten is one of the most inflammatory things you can do to your body.
A lot of my friends that do race are slowly adopting to ways that I eat. I don't have dairy in my diet or gluten because they're both inflammatory and that's really important as an athlete; to reduce inflammation in your body. When we physically stress ourselves out from our workouts our body just immediately gets inflamed cuz you stressed it, you've put physical stress on it.
Doing things to reduce the inflammation like eating noninflammatory foods like getting your omega threes in. I drink tart cherry juice. I have an Epsom salt bath every night.
There's all these little things I do but really looking into anti-inflammatory things to cut out is important for athletes to do.
Sarah: I cut out bread dairy, what else have I cut out; I went to see a naturopath to get tested. One thing that I found trusting was that I stopped drinking cows milk maybe about two years ago and I've replaced it with almond milk thinking almond milk was the healthier option and then found out a couple months ago that almonds weren't really that great for me so I had to cut those out as well. I have now moved on to goat's milk.
I think it's really interesting. I think that everyone is very different in their diets and you've got to work out what's right for you and your body and you can almost only do that by trial and error so I think there is general things that people can be doing. You know eating organic meats, drinking two gallons of water, et cetera.
Robyn: Yeah, and I'm a big fan of ensuring that you're working with professionals so I'm working with a naturopath and registered holistic nutritionist to constantly optimize my diet and my regiment and my supplements because everything is different for everyone.
Sarah: Absolutely. In terms of the next big race that you've got, the final race, are you going to the entry into the Spartan World Championship?
Robyn: I didn't qualify for the Spartan World Championships but I did qualify for the OCR Wrold Championships which are in October in Ohio. I am going down for that one and that is my last race for the year.
Sarah: Fantastic and how are you feeling about those races coming up?
Robyn: I don't feel good about this race at all so although I race in elite heats and am constantly challenging myself to be better, this is really my first year racing. I've never been an athlete so I'm learning new things, gaining strength, endurance, teaching myself confidence at obstacles.
This race is really intimidating. I'm running it in my age category so not as intimidating as the elites but with this race if you can't complete an obstacle, your wristband gets taken away. That's really hard. I've done one race this tear like that and I knew I was going to have my wristband taken away somewhere on the course because I have a problem with grip strength.
When I get symptoms, my hands go and I can't hold onto monkey bars or rings or things like that and there's some really, really hard obstacles at this OCR Championship so there's a part of me that knows that I belong there, knows that I'm stronger and that I can compete and do my best but there's also a part of me that knows that I don't belong because I know that I'm probably going to fail one of the grip obstacles.
I'm very excited and scared for this race.
Sarah: If the grip strength wasn't an issue, what would be the toughest obstacle you ad to deal with?
Robyn: Toughest obstacle. Well I guess any climbs are difficult for most people. I've been able to do rope climbs over the course of the year. I really, really sucked at them in January and then a couple months later I've been able to fly up twenty five foot ropes, no problem, so, those obstacles are hard...you know what; sometimes those obstacles that kind of mess with your brain are the hardest ones.
I don't know if this exists at the OCR Championships. Sometimes people have hard times with ones that you have to get into water and you only have a couple of inches from your face but you can breathe and you have to pull yourself along. Some of those types of obstacles more mess with your brain than anything else and are a challenge for some people.
Sarah: Yeah, I think a lot of it, it's amazing how so much of it is me