Hamilton man prepares to tackle 100-mile ‘Run for Hope’
Ryan Polawski will run from Hamilton to Toronto and back to raise money and awareness for Teen Challenge, a rehab centre in southwestern OntarioPhoto by: Connie Taylor Photography
Hamilton’s Ryan Polawski is planning a big run. Starting in Hamilton, he will run all the way to Toronto, reach the CN Tower around 75K later and then turn around to head home. After adding a few extra kilometres on the return trip, his run will be just over 100 miles. He has named the solo event “Ryan’s Run for Hope,” and he will be running to raise money and awareness for Teen Challenge, a rehabilitation organization that helped Polawski himself recover from addictions that plagued him for years. His 100-mile Run for Hope is set for April 30, and although it’s over three times longer than he has ever run before, Polawski says he can’t wait to get started.
Early years in sport
Polawski got into running the way many kids do: as part of his elementary school cross-country team. A few years later, he started cycling, and when he eventually added swimming to his repertoire, he grew to become one of Canada’s top young triathletes. After representing Canada on the world stage on multiple occasions in triathlon, injuries forced Polawski to move away from triathlon and running.
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“I switched gears and refocused toward cycling,” he says. “I had my eyes on maybe making the Olympics or riding in the Tour de France.” His athletic dreams came to an abrupt halt in 2007, though, when he suffered a brutal crash while on a training ride in Arizona.
“I was going down a hill I’d ridden a gazillion times,” Polawski says. “I was going 85K per hour and hit some rocks that had trickled down from the mountain. We were taking a corner and the guys I was with dodged the rocks, but I didn’t have time to react.” Polawski says he remembers hitting them, shooting off the road and flying right into a boulder. “That impact was so great that my two middle vertebrae exploded.”
In addition to his back injury, Polawski punctured a lung and shattered his shoulder. A pedestrian who had been passing by came to help, and he was rushed to the hospital. It took close to three years for him to recover, and while it was a long time, Polawski recognizes that he was extremely lucky not to have been paralyzed or even killed after the crash.
With the life he knew taken away from him in a matter of seconds, Polawski had no clue what to do. “I’d identified as an athlete for most of my life,” he says. He fell into a depression, and after spending the years following his accident on pain medication, he turned to other drugs.
“I’d never had an issue with drugs or alcohol before that,” Polawski says. “I’d drink to celebrate after a big race or whatever, but it didn’t run my life.” That changed quickly, and for 12 years, he struggled with addiction.
“I spent years bingeing on drugs and alcohol for months at a time,” he says. “I’d have stints of being good, but I’d always fall back into it.” After stays at different rehabilitation facilities, Polawski found his way to Teen Challenge, and unlike the other programs he had tried over the years, this one finally stuck.
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Polawski entered the Teen Challenge program in London, Ont., in 2019, at which point he says he was “ready and excited” for change. “My family has always been so supportive of me, and they could see I was ready for change, so when I went to Teen Challenge, they were 100 per cent behind me.” Although it had been years since he’d last run, Polawski got back into the sport at Teen Challenge, which had a running elective. Every week, he and fellow residents went to London’s Springbank Park to run, and Polawski trained on his own throughout the week.
“I asked myself, ‘Why did I stop running for so long?'” he says. “It’s so therapeutic.” After his year at Teen Challenge, Polawski returned home to Hamilton, and he continued to run. He found other runners and began training with them, noting that it’s the social side of the sport that keeps him going.
“People in the running community, they have such a good way of looking at life,” he says. “When I didn’t have that in my life, I didn’t realize how much it would affect me.” Polawski admits that things haven’t been perfect since he left Teen Challenge, but he says it’s “been pretty damn near it. I’m happy with who I am and who I’ve become.”
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Ryan’s Run for Hope
Two years removed from his time at Teen Challenge, Polawski wants to give back to the organization, which has 13 different rehab centres across Canada and hundreds more around the world. “Teen Challenge and running quite literally saved my life,” he says, and so it only makes sense to run for the fundraiser. So far, he has raised close to $10,000, and there’s still a month to go until he sets off on his run.
He says he’s excited about the Run for Hope, but training hasn’t been easy. “I’ve had so many injuries training for this,” he says, noting that the farthest he’s run in one shot is only 50K — 110K shorter than he’ll run on April 30. A big reason he’s still on his feet and able to train day after day, Polawski says, is because of Dr. Anthony Lombardi of the Hamilton Back Clinic, who has helped him through several injuries.
“Dr. Lombardi’s treating me twice a week in the lead-up to this,” Polawski says. Lombardi will even work on Polawski during his run, as they have planned three to four “treatment stops” along the route. Polawski says he also owes a lot to the Runner’s Den, a local run shop in Hamilton that has supported him in his journey toward the 100-miler.
“And of course I couldn’t have done any of this without my family,” he adds. “Without them, none of this would be possible.” Thanks to all of these people in his life, Polawski is ready to hit the road for his 100-miler to Toronto and back. He’ll follow Lake Ontario for much of the run before finishing back in Hamilton at City Hall, where he hopes to arrive at on the morning of May 1.
To learn more about Polawski and his Run for Hope, click here. To donate to the fundraiser and Teen Challenge, check out the event web page.