Sarah Allen has always been drawn to the mountains.
Even though she previously lived in the mountain town of Canmore, Alta., she felt she could still get closer to the peaks.
"(Canmore) is beautiful as well, but you still have to drive to get to the mountain," she said. "Here, how lucky are we? We can just walk."
Allen is driven to reach her proverbial athletic peaks, too, but it hasn't been a smooth ride.
In 2011, a debilitating condition forced her to have a hip replacement.
Then in 2013, Allen, a registered nurse with a specialty in mental health and psychiatric nursing, discovered that she had dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans — a rare, slow-growing skin cancer. Once again Allen was facing significant surgery to fight the cancer and get back on her feet. Both procedures left significant marks on her body.
"I was really, really self-conscious about everything — about the way I stood, about the way I walked, about the way I looked. I thought I was disfigured," she said over coffee at La Bocca last weekend.
But as she clawed her way back to wellness she realized that scars can only hold you back if you let them.
A runner before her health problems began, Allen discovered she was no longer able to complete the longer distances to which she was accustomed, and shorter distances didn't give her the same satisfaction. Determined to get back into prime shape to fully enjoy mountain life, she started working out and opted to pursue bodybuilding earlier this year.
And last week, on her 33rd birthday, Allen not only competed in the International Drug Free Athletics (IDFA) West Coast Classic in Vancouver, she won first place in both the transformations and fitness model competitions, and second in the figure competition.
The IDFA, founded in 2005, is committed to promoting drug-free (natural) bodybuilding world wide through education, awareness, camaraderie, and community involvement.
Allen acknowledged she was a little nervous about how the scarring would affect her scores, but in the end the marks were not the story, just part of the journey to success.
The transformations category is slightly different from the others in the event, as it's an open category for all entrants. The category recognizes the journey the competitor made based on before and after photos as opposed to exclusively how the competitor performs on the day of the event. Allen's initial photo was taken July 1 and measured the progress she made in just less than five months.
But the hardware was all gravy for Allen, who said making it to the event was a victory in its own right.
"Just getting on the stage was achieving my goal. I went there to show off my hard work," she said.
Allen's skin cancer, which was not caused by sun damage, started as a discolouration on her collarbone. When she was undergoing a physical, her general practitioner encouraged her to have it looked at. Allen then had Mohs micrographic surgery to remove the tumour, which was so large it shocked even the surgeon. Allen lost part of her pectoral muscle in the process.
Greg McKinnon, the owner of Whistler Creek Athletic Club and Allen's personal trainer, is in awe of what she has been able to accomplish.
"They're judging your muscle definition after (surgeons had removed) part of (her) muscle," McKinnon said.
Allen had to modify a number of exercises during training — including lunges and squats — because of her hip replacement, a result of suffering avascular necrosis at the head of her femur. Avascular necrosis is a condition where bone tissue dies because it doesn't receive proper blood flow and eventually led to severe arthritic pain.
She is already planning her next competition slated for May 2015. Allen plans to focus on her results in the figure competition, which requires a defined, muscular look. Her training will require lifting heavier weights with fewer repetitions in order to put on muscle.
Her quest has not been without its critics, said Allen, but she said she believes she has helped people understand that different body types can be beautiful.
"When I first told people, even people who loved me, I was going to do this, they were like 'Eww, why would you want to look like that? Why would you want to have big man arms and shoulders?'" she recalled. "But when you look at me standing on the stage, all of a sudden, everyone was like 'That's beautiful.'"