It wasn’t that long ago that Justine Clift figured her athletic future would revolve around running.
There was really no reason to think otherwise.
After a high-school career at Elgin Park Secondary that saw her compete in a variety of sports – “I was very active in high school,” she said – the South Surrey resident graduated and moved on to UBC, where for four years she competed in both track-and-field and cross-country.
But soon after graduating from university, Clift suffered serious injuries – a leg broken in multiple places, and a ruptured achilles tendon – in a car crash.
What followed was months of recovery, plus a long, tedious rehab program. And it was during her rehabilitation that Clift, now 27, realized her running days were behind her.
“I was pretty determined to get back running again, but it took a few false starts to realize that it wasn’t going to happen,” she explained. “Eventually, my physiotherapist said, ‘Look, this might not work out.’
“That was a really hard time for me – it was pretty hard to get my head around. But when I realized I wasn’t able to run anymore, I started looking for another competitive outlet.”
While at UBC, Clift had competed in a few triathlons – so she already owned a road bike – and she’d taken up cycling during her rehab, and found it was the easiest on her body.
“I just started riding a lot more, and eventually I started riding with a group, and then just started racing – my first race was 2012.”
In the three years since, Clift has dove headfirst into the sport, competing at a full schedule of events – she races with Glotman-Simpson Racing Team – while still holding down a day job as a transportation planner with a Vancouver consulting firm.
Since the spring, she has competed in the Redlands Cycling Classic – a five-day stage race in California – as well as high-profile UCI (Union Cycliste International)-sanctioned races in North Carolina and Quebec, along with a host of races closer to home in the Pacific Northwest.
This week, she’s back racing closer to home during BC Superweek, and will be at the start line for both Tour de White Rock races – the criterium, which runs Friday, and Saturday morning’s Peace Arch News Road Race.
Juggling a job with such a busy racing schedule has been difficult, Clift said, but she has so far been able to make it work, thanks to an understanding employer and the ability to work remotely from race sites.
“I’ve been really lucky to be able to make it work, but there is a tension there between preparing for a race and focusing on work. You’re getting your head ready (for a race) and but then you have to be on a conference call for work,” she explained.
“You get really good at compartmentalizing things. You think, ‘OK, I just got off the phone, but now it’s time to race.’
“You feel like you have a bit of an alter-ego. You take off your cycling gear and go put on office clothes for a Monday morning. There are probably some people at work who don’t quite understand what I’ve been doing all weekend.”
Clift has been competing at Superweek events – which also include races in Delta, Gastown, UBC and Burnaby – for a few years, and admits that it was intimidating, at first, to race against full-time professionals.
“I didn’t ever think I’d be riding at this level. I just thought it was a good way to stay fit, and be competitive, but when I first started, it was really scary, actually,” she said.
“Cycling can seem dangerous at times – there are a lot of crashes, and high speeds. It was definitely a process to get used to it, and Superweek was really my first exposure to this level of racing.”
Eventually, she said, you “get a taste for it” and develop the skills needed to compete at high-profile events that feature fields often chock full of full-time professional riders.
“You always try to raise the bar, and go to harder and harder races. So my goals are always evolving, too. I’m always looking to improve, and I think I’m getting closer and closer to really being able to compete with those girls. It’s exciting.”
She’s also excited about the opportunity to race in front of family and friends this weekend – her grandparents live along the road-race course, she said.
“They’ll get to walk down and cheer for me.”
Still, with all her successes on the bike, she admits there are times she misses her old athletic pursuits.
“Sometimes you just want to go for a run, and I can’t, so that part is a little bit sad, but I have this whole new world, and a whole new community now.”