If there’s one person who embodies hardcore, it’s extreme endurance athlete Lisa Tamati. The New Zealand ultramarathon runner has taken on and emerged victorious from – albeit a little scathed – some of the most gruelling races and adventures on the planet.
Badwater? She’s done it twice. Marathondes Sables? Yep, done that twice, too. Running the length of New Zealand, crossing the Libyan desert unsupported, and traversing thousands of kilometres across the Arabian, Jordan, Niger, Moroccan and Gobi deserts? Of course!
Lisa has overcome many other extraordinary challenges in her life, including depression, health and fertility issues, and toxic relationships. She has previously talked about some of these challenges in her books, Running Hot and Running to Extremes. Yet, it’s her refusal to give up on her beloved mum that truly reveals Lisa’s boundless grit, determination and strength of character.
Relentless is Lisa’s account of her fight to save her mother, Isobel, from physical and mental oblivion. In January 2016, Isobel – a former teacher, loyal mother and wife, and champion of the disadvantaged – suffered a massive aneurysm and stroke. Left in a vegetative state, doctors held little hope she would survive, let alone have any kind of quality of life.
But telling Lisa something can’t be done is like waving a red rag at a bull. She refused to accept there was no hope, and embarked on the most arduous quest of her life: getting her mother back.
Having no medical background whatsoever, Lisa plunged herself into research. She put her life, businesses and running on hold to study medical journals and online resources. She spent months educating herself in neurology, brain injury and rehabilitation therapies – in particular, hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
Not only did Lisa take charge of her mother’s day-to-day care and rehabilitation, she also took on the medical system. She faced obstacles at every turn. From medical specialists and social workers to family and friends, Lisa was questioned, challenged and ridiculed. At times, she felt daunted; at all times, exhausted.
But she never once gave up or lost hope. Just as she had done in her racing career, Lisa broke the enormous task ahead of her into small chunks, making progress step by painstaking step. Over many months and years, using a multi-pronged and systemic approach, her mother slowly came back to her.
Ultrarunners know the importance of mindset when it comes to pushing ourselves beyond our perceived limits. Visualisation, mantras, focusing on the small wins – these are tools we use when the going gets tough.
Lisa draws many parallels between her ultrarunning career and her journey with her mum. The persistence and “bloody-minded stubbornness” she developed as an endurance athlete, businesswoman and coach were crucial as she battled for Isobel.
This book goes beyond ultrarunning to touch on many significant themes: the importance of family; the flawed and under-resourced medical system; the responsibility we all have to support and advocate for others, especially when they don’t have a voice; and the ageism so prevalent in Western society.
Lisa had to constantly fight the notion that once people reach a certain age, they are passed their “use-by date” and have no value. This way of thinking does the individual and society a huge disservice. As Lisa points out, it is not uncommon for 70-year-old-plus runners to
tackle ultramarathons. Who, then, has the right to impose limitations on people simply because of age? Lisa emphasises that we all need opportunities to stretch, set goals and challenge ourselves, no matter our age, so we can grow, help others, and lead fulfilling lives. When Isobel suffered her aneurysm and stroke, she was, in Lisa’s words, “a baby in an adult’s body”.
She couldn’t talk, had no conscious control of her body and had to re-learn everything most adults take for granted. Now, four years later, Isobel has her memory and personality back, and even her driver’s licence. Most importantly, she is enjoying life again.
I listened to the audiobook of Relentless, which is narrated by Lisa herself. At times, you can hear the emotion in Lisa’s voice. The deep love she has for her mother is obvious, and it’s through her relentless determination that her mother has returned to her.
Relentless is a book infused with hope and courage, and I know I will turn to its lessons when the going gets tough on the trails and in life.
TrailRun Magazine - Australia/NZ