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Balancing act

When I was employed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, my clientele was often dominated by road-weary professional athletes. I always marvelled at the physical demands of their work – which was largely talent coupled with steely discipline.

October 8, 2014  By Jules Torti

When I was employed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, my clientele was often dominated by road-weary professional athletes. I always marvelled at the physical demands of their work – which was largely talent coupled with steely discipline.

Massage therapist Rick Girardeau trekked the 800-km Camino de Santiago route in Spain for the unique physical and spiritual experience.


I massaged Olympic speedskaters, NHL hotshots and NBA players with size 19 feet hanging off the table. As a massage therapist, I didn’t lump myself in their category (then), but I’ve come to realize that our career also relies on peak muscle performance and dedicated maintenance, much like a competitive athlete.

Sometimes, regardless of discipline and adherence to our personal wellness arsenals, our bodies simply fail us. Often, our bodies make choices for us before our minds have the leisurely opportunity. Even then, mental fatigue can trump best intentions.


As massage therapists, we are daily witnesses to the detrimental chronic effects of many occupations. How many career shift stories have you heard from clients that have been dictated by their lack of physical well-being? How many colleagues have had their professions uprooted due to injury?

Self-directed career jumps seem to be rarer than those forced into change by unbearable stress loads, overwhelming fatigue, digestive issues, skin disorders, disenchantment stemming from repetitive strains or job-associated weight gain.

When I began researching this topic, a revelation came quick and clear. I had been so focused on examining the physical stress of certain careers without considering that perhaps it was the mental fatigue that was the bigger elephant in the room. Carlos Fuenmayor, owner and personal chef/caterer of Toronto-based Sabrosito, confirmed this.

The jovial Venezuelan chef has been in the industry 19 years. I was a participant in one of his South American cooking classes at the LCBO years ago and admired how his passions ignited in the kitchen.

For Fuenmayor, it wasn’t so seamless or as glamorous as the cooking class attendees may have assumed. He quit his executive chef position due to insurmountable stress. His energy for 13- to 16-hour days had waned.

Diagnosed with diverticulitis – a form of digestive disease – in his early thirties, he found himself hospitalized for three months after surgery and a debilitating infection. A second episode encouraged a necessary change in his life. Though the condition is genetic (his mother and grandfather were both afflicted), being told he had diverticulitis at such a young age shook up his tidy chef rock star world.

After his surgery, he developed a severe allergy to animal fat and protein. He is now a vegetarian and has been for two and a half years (though he still goes hunting with one of his long-term private clients once a year, he can only prep the wild game now).

Fuenmayor recalibrated the setback into the opportunity to return to school to improve his English and obtain small business skills necessary for his new action plan: entering the private chef realm. He was done “paying his dues” in the kitchen and the entrepreneurial move allowed him a healthier lease on life. Despite suddenly juggling many balls as the brand manager, booking agent, dish pig and food expert, he’s glad he stepped out of his safe place, the kitchen.

His health has taken priority and is evident as he tells me about his long walks through High Park to decompress. He puts a huge emphasis on restorative travel and wooed me with his recent escape to an eco-lodge in Costa Rica sans cell phone, TV or Wi-Fi. He takes six weeks off a year and makes an annual pilgrimage to the Nordik Spa near Ottawa to recharge.

Fuenmayor is strict with his new job parameters (something our industry needs to take note of). He works no more than 40 hours/week and schedules clients according to his needs and wants – not theirs. Long weekends and concerts are no longer awash due to work commitments. He gets a massage once a month and squeezes in runs, tennis games and swimming to find balance.

A walk through Spain
I knew Rick Girardeau would have solid insights on balance after walking the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometre pilgrimage route in Spain. The Way is explored by over 225,000 people a year who are eager to find spiritual and physical revelations by walking the route that pilgrims did to the alleged remains of the apostle St. James.

I’ve written about job longevity for massage therapists before in this magazine. I’m always curious about how others achieve balance in this industry, and exchanging a client load for a backpack with a 30-kg load sounds about right.

Girardeau has been a massage therapist since 2009 and became a clinic supervisor (and alumni) at the West Coast College of Massage Therapy (WCCMT) in New Westminster, B.C., in 2012. In 2013, he accepted a teaching assistant role at WCCMT –until a heart attack stopped him in his tracks on March 2 of this year.

I emailed Girardeau about his 2011 Camino experience because the physical feat of walking 800 kilometres in three weeks was centred on the demands on the body to perform.

Already fit as a greyhound, Girardeau merely added 30 lbs of weight plates to his pack and clocked in 12 kilometres, three times a week, prior to embarking on the Camino. He knocked off The Way in 23 days, with only one day of full-fretting and mild panic that he wouldn’t be able to continue. Seven days in, his left ankle began making an audible and angry crunching sound. With the encyclopedic anatomical knowledge that we posses, this massage therapist knew to scale back the day in a prone, non-weight bearing position in a hostel despite his drive to press on. He had a rapid and lucky recovery that saw him back en route the following morning.

For Girardeau, it was about the joint appeal of a spiritual and physical journey – the biggest challenge he had presented himself in life. What he didn’t expect was to return home from such an enormous accomplishment and, three years later, be telling the story of his cardiac arrest.

Aside from the guilty pleasure of a weekly Big Mac, Girardeau is a responsible, fit workhorse. While a heart attack would startle most of the population into serious bucket-list mode, Girardeau soldiered on and was back at work two weeks later. I could see him shrugging his shoulders even though we were corresponding by email. “Crazy, but hey, self-employed, right?”

He eased back into his schedule with two clients a shift and, after three weeks, was up to his usual load. The ugly clutches of being self-employed with no benefits, no pension and skinny RSP accounts force many massage therapists back to work without the rehab and recuperation that we drill into our clients.

As Girardeau proved, sometimes the balance is sought out but only temporary. Sometimes genetics push you down when you least expect it – even after 800 kilometres of proving your mettle and meditating for an hour every morning.

Meet Simon Donato
The Travel and Escape network “docuseries” Boundless is unadulterated adrenalin. For two seasons now, I have been in enviable awe of its host Simon Donato’s body and what he has trained it to overcome. In five months, Donato and his enduro athlete sidekick Paul “Turbo” Trebilcock kick the fear out of eight of the world’s most physically punishing and mentally paralyzing races. Whether they are on paddle boards, mountain bikes, sliding down jungle trails or on foot or conquering deserts – the mileage they combat through unrelenting elements is pure inspiration and manic survivalism.  

simon 2.jpg  
Ultra athlete and Boundless host Simon Donato has had his share of injuries and muscular pain and discomfort, sought treatment for them and learned a few things about his body along the way. Photo Credit: Boundless


I had to talk to Donato. For someone who relies on his body for an income and captive studio audience (though he is also a geologist with a PhD and owner of an oatmeal company), how does he balance the teeter-totter, when you’re the competitor and host at the same time?

“Hosting Boundless is an exercise in endurance, both on and off camera. With a tight timeline between events (days to weeks), recovering from gruelling ultra-endurance events is paramount, as is trying to deal with the numerous wear and tear injuries that tend to accumulate or manifest during a four- to eight-month filming season. I’ve had my fair share of injuries, pain and muscular discomfort that I’ve sought treatment for and have learned a few things along the way.”

Simon praised his fall guy, chiropractor Corey Fiske at 5th Avenue Place in Calgary. He hits him up a few times a year for a “tune up” and seeks out intramuscular stimulation treatments for deep muscle injuries. When he gets slammed with races booked close together, he seeks massage to tackle the tension from travel, racing residue, “locked” muscles or when regular mobility elicits pain.

As a last resort Donato will visit physiotherapists to address serious issues. “With the serious injuries, to be honest, I prefer to go to a highly experienced strength and conditioning coach who is accustomed to working with elite athletes, well-educated in body kinematics, and very familiar with how an athlete’s body is supposed to move. I’ve found that going through a number of movements with a coach like this is beneficial because they can quickly and accurately assess mobility issues and root causes, providing a whole body, functional approach.”

He links his recovery success with such coaches who are heavily involved in establishing “strengthening programs tailored to restoring movement and function.” His disappointment in physiotherapists points to the focus on the acute injury itself and distracted pre-occupation with multiple clients at once. As is common in our industry as well, there can be a glaze over preventative follow-up care.

Knowing Donato is flung all around the world for adventure racing events, I had to ask if he had any bizarre or quirky experiences. His field report was quite comical.

“A Thai massage on Kho San Road in Bangkok was the most painful massage of my life, nothing ‘relaxational’ about it. The whole time I felt like a limb would snap off – not something I’d do again.

I had a massage in Kenya following an ultra where the massage therapist got a bit friendlier than I would have expected – so you want to keep your shorts on when getting massaged abroad, that’s for sure.

Running builds calluses on the feet, so I’ve done the fish dunk tank in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where a school of fish chews away at dead skin on your feet. It was the most ticklish experience of my life. I’d do it again because it was a funny novelty.”

While off-season, the looming surprise of what the first event of the next season will be requires a broad cross-training approach. Biking, running, hiking, stand-up paddle board, climbing and weights represent his typical weeks ‘at rest.’

Despite the differences in the lifestyle of a private chef, massage therapist and ultra athlete with a TV show, the lessons are the same. Establishing your personal means of balance (physical, mental, relationship, career, emotional) is integral. Whether you adapt Donato’s mantra of Cambodian fish nibbling and positive thought or nod along with the vegetarian diet, eco-lodge holidays and long walks of Fuenmayor’s life anew – it’s all under your direction. Or, maybe, it’s the really, really long walk, Big Macs and meditation regime that Girardeau finds solace in that is your speed.

Share your balance secrets with everyone you care about.

Jules Torti has been a RMT since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.

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