Every morning following a sunrise run, Jill Wheatley (BEd.'99) cycled to work along picturesque farm roads – expertly dodging cattle, sheep, tractors, and impatient commuters – on her way to work at an international high school in Bavaria. She was a health and sport science teacher with an adventurous streak. Since leaving Canada in 2001, she had been to more than 60 countries and had extended work stints in Singapore, Russia, Switzerland, and Germany.
Then in September 2014, her world collapsed. Jill was leading a baseball lesson when one of her Grade 10 students accidentally hit a line drive that fractured Jill’s skull. The bleeding and swelling was so severe that Jill wasn’t expected to live. She had suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused serious behavioural and cognitive changes and the loss of 70% of her vision.
Jill spent the next two years in hospitals in Germany, Canada, and Colorado undergoing a painful and frustrating rehabilitation. She describes herself as a nightmare patient who resisted treatment, tampered with medical monitors, poked holes in feed lines, and repeatedly pulled tubes from her nose. “I remained disgruntled and battled severe, sky-high anxiety about the uncertainty of life ahead,” she explains.
Things finally began to shift when Jill became spellbound by the Rockies outside her hospital room window in Colorado. “The thought of taking my recovery into the mountains lit my fire like nothing else,” Jill recalls. She resolved to run 13 mountain ranges throughout the world in a single year. “My goal was to embrace and accept the ways that my traumatic brain injury had changed me,” she says.
Months later, Jill was competing in the 2017 Manaslu Trail Race in the Nepalese Himalayas while battling post-traumatic stress and altitude sickness. Jill also had to contend with her limited vision and differently abled body. “I learned to be gracious with myself when physically challenging trail routes slowed my pace or swept my feet from under me,” she says. Although Jill was travelling independently, she discovered that she wasn’t always alone. Strangers were ready to help her traverse rickety bridges and offer her places to sleep, rides, and hugs of encouragement and friendship.
Since beginning her quest “to conquer the mountains of my mind,” more than two years ago, Jill has run in the Alps, the Himalayas, the Pyrenees, and the Italian Dolomites, as well as mountain trails in Iceland, New Zealand, Patagonia, Peru, and the Rockies.
“My wish is to guide others towards a place of hope in times of adversity. Though my eyesight has narrowed, my perspective has widened,” Jill says. “I embrace every stride on the trail that is life.”
Listen to Jill discuss her incredible journey on the Sparta Chicks Radio podcast “Jill Wheatley on Losing Sight yet Gaining Vision.”
You can also learn more about Jill’s mountain running feats by visiting her website: https://mountainsofmymind.com/