Kirsty Jack has been at the finish line of many races and ultramarathons supporting her partner, including one where her then-boyfriend dropped to one knee and proposed after running nearly 200 kilometres.
But Sunday’s race in Victoria is the first time Jack will cross the finish line of a marathon as a runner herself. She’s running in honour of her late fiancé, Evgeny Sotnikov, who died by suicide in December.
Nine of the couple’s friends are also running the half marathon or the eight-km run Sunday. The group is raising money for mental health services. They’ve raised more than $3,300 through an online fundraising page, which will go to the Victoria branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association and Connections Place, a community organization that runs programs to help people with mental illness regain self-reliance.
Jack originally set her fundraising goal at $1,000, but donations flowed in, quickly surpassing that mark in just a few days. She’s now hoping to hit $4,000 to support mental health programs.
“I think the more we talk about it, the more aware we are of it and the more we demand better mental health services, the more help we can get,” she said.
Although Jack has run for fitness for years and completed a half marathon, she’s never tackled a full 42 km. Sotnikov always encouraged her to go for it.
So after spending the first three months following his death mostly on the couch trying to process her grief, Jack threw herself into marathon training.
Getting out a few times a week for training runs has been a “lifeline,” she said.
“When I’m running, I feel close to Ev,” she said. “It’s given me something to focus on while grieving.”
In just seven months, Jack has gone from no exercise to running a marathon.
“Evgeny always said half of it is mental game,” she said. “Knowing that I’m doing this for him and that he would be proud is giving me the mental strength I need.”
About four years ago, Jack witnessed her partner’s first major depressive episode, which was coupled with insomnia. It took a long time, but he eventually found medication that seemed to help. Last October, Sotnikov started having trouble sleeping again, getting just a couple of hours of rest each night. He died on Dec. 3, 2018.
“He fell through the cracks. There’s really no place to go unless you’re in a crisis situation,” Jack said. “We would try calling around to places, and there was really nowhere that we could go.”
An ultramarathoner, Sotnikov was strong physically and mentally, relishing opportunities to challenge his body and mind. In September 2018, he ran his last race -- the Finlayson Arm 100km -- setting a course record of 15 hours 27 minutes and 12 seconds. His record still stands.
But he struggled against the stigma that lingers around mental health. Jack hopes her run and fundraiser helps break down that stigma and spread the message that people facing mental health challenges aren’t weak.
“It makes me a little angry too, that someone so passionate, so incredible, so kind could fall through the cracks. What is it saying about our system that this can happen?” she said.
A crowd of family and friends will be cheering Jack on from the sidelines, taking the role she usually played as Sotnikov’s number one fan. Both Jack’s and Sotnikov’s parents will be in the crowd, as well as friends and former coworkers, with some travelling from out of town to show support.
Jack plans to wear the running vest Sotnikov always ran his ultramarathons in.
“I think about him all the time, but especially tomorrow, I think I’ll have him with me,” she said.
The annual Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon starts as early as 6:30 Sunday morning, with the main marathon and half marathon beginning at 8 a.m. The eight-km race starts at 8:45 a.m. Runners cross the finish line on Belleville Street in front of the legislature building.