GIllian McRae – Long Journey to a New Beginning


As I talk to many people involved in the world of strongman/woman, I am always interested in how they became interested in the strength sports and what was their starting point.

Canadian Gillian McRae is definitely not the strongest woman in the world and possibly not in Canada, but her path to get there has been one filled with many obstacles which would have caused many to give up….. But Gillian is not one of “many”.

Phil Burgess: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Gillian McRae: I’m born and raised on Vancouver Island, British Columbia in Canada.

I love the water, outdoors and smelling the draft of ocean air, mist from rainforest trees and rush of swelling rivers
I’ve been adopted in the First Nations Aboriginal community in the far West Coast of Vancouver Island after developing strong relationships with families there, who I once worked with as a Social Worker. I am now Ku uas, family.

I have 3 outstanding children, two girls and one boy who have been my greatest support and have provided the most patience through this life changing process.  My oldest is a 15 year old mature, considerate, wise, thoughtful and respectful young woman who has stepped in to take care of her younger very busy and active siblings both who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Anxiety Disorder when I have needed the additional support. She is not the typical teenager in any sense and if I could re-do my adolescence again I would go back to be her.

I am kept extremely busy as a parent on my own to these three keeping them involved in sports, activities at our church and throughout the community. Especially for my younger two who have special needs and require appointments with counsellors and additional time and energy for monitoring, medication support and regular routines in the home being supported I am running.

I do work full time and have done as a parent since I had my daughter, only taking time off for maternity leaves or stress leaves due to the nature of the work I do in the Social Service field.

Phil Burgess: How did you start your fitness journey?

Gillian McRae: My third pregnancy was five years after my last and needless to say that in the turbulent state of our marriage, serious financial strain and the recent losing of my Dad to cancer this couldn’t possibly be the worst time to learn I was pregnant.

I was living in Government Housing, relying on foodbanks, working two jobs and trying to raise young children while my then husband and I grew farther apart. I went to my first pregnancy appointment and I was told at my weigh in of 187lbs that since I was already obese, the good news was I wouldn’t gain that much weight in my pregnancy.

It was only a few weeks later that I severely haemorhaged and was put on bed rest in the hospital for a subchorionic haematoma on my uterus that was putting the baby at risk of dying immediately. They told me to be ready to say goodbye to this pregnancy. It was at this moment, I embraced having this child and determined in myself that when I became a Mom again I was going to change my life for all my children. Following one of the ultrasounds and learning that I was having a little girl, I named her Faith knowing that to have Faith is having hope in what you cannot see and believing in what you know.

Back at my Doctors office my first weigh in weight after having the baby was 217lbs and I was devastated yet more determined than ever to take my life back. At about 8 weeks postpartum I saw an advertisement through the local Recreation Centre called The Biggest Winner which was a 12 week program framed after TV’s Biggest Loser. I signed up to win the prize at the end using my competitive nature and determined to prove something to everyone who ever said, “oh you have such a pretty face if you only lost some weight.”

I lost 20lbs in 12 weeks with the help of  Travis my trainer and went on to speak to the next group who came along. This empowered me to stay on track and feel like I was worth something and needed to keep going.  I lost an additional 50lbs in that year following a consistent eating and work-out plan I made for myself.

Phil Burgess: What challenges have you had to overcome?

Gillian McRae: What unfortunately happened was that my weight loss and the success I began to experience with knowledge, commitment and determination to do well became an obsession. I felt the constant watch of others on me, I felt that I was now on a pedestal and every lb was being monitored if not by others asking “how much now” than by me.

I began to lose and lose and lose, and my time in the gym with spinning, bootcamps and training then turned into running on my lunch breaks, at night and whenever else I could fit it in. I was as they say body dysmorphic and addicted to working out. When I lifted my blood vessels were bursting in my biceps, my nails were chipping, hair falling out, lipid levels way to low and my iron levels required infusions 3x a week.

I was banned from the gym until I had medical clearance and gained some weight back from my tiny new frame of 117lbs. I had made the mistake of following what the BMI said a person of my height at 5’2 should be and just kept trying to get smaller not realizing that my neck looked like a goose, my forehead had veins in it and all I did was talked about exercise and eating.

The gym manager probably saved my life banning me from the gym and telling me that she would come to my house and work with me for a month first and I had to gain weight and strength.

She wanted me to get strong again like I was when I was about 125lbs and we would go from there. I started counselling as well and worked on my own reasons for getting to where I was and what caused me to go so extreme.

The need to please, seek others affirmation and acceptance that I wasn’t getting in my marriage. It was hard work but probably the most necessary of it all.

Phil Burgess: You recently won a strongwoman competition, what were the events, what did it feel like to compete, and what did it feel like to win?

 Gillian McRae: In May I completed a Womens Fitness Strength and Fitness Competition with my gym and a group of about 15 women but it was much more technical and based on points as a result. I found this to be easy and wanted a greater challenge so keeping with my original goal I started training the next week with our Promoter and trainer here.
Second session with him I was flipping the 450lb tire and there was some water in it from the night before which sloshed out and made my hands slide. The tire crushed my quad and ended up giving me a significant amount of blood clots in my leg. The prognosis was no competing and off the leg for a month. This did not work for me and so I followed the bed rest directions as well went to physio, went swimming, did some other massage and continued with supplements.

I was out my wheelchair by the 2nd week, off crutches days later, running on the treadmill days following that and within a month of the injury I competed. Prior to the competition I practiced one more time with some events doing the flip and truck pull. Not only did I go back and do the 450lb flip I actually did the 530lb then jumped on top and screamed, “This is for all you Mom’s out there who don’t think you can do it”.

I drove home that night with tears streaming down my face and the sun shining on me not because I overcame my injury, but because 8 years ago, 10 years, 12 years I was a depressed hopeless Mom and wife who felt like she had no strength either physically or emotionally. And I just kicked ass!!

I didn’t know exactly what all the events would be but I was ready for some of them. Due to my leg though I couldn’t do the tiered stones so I did reps over the bar as the stone on my quad would just squish it too much. It was my first competition and the only things I had ever done before was a tire flip and truck pull.

The events were:

  1. Log press
  2. Medley with cement canisters and then two cement gas jugs
  3. Stone up and over 4 foot bar
  4. Truck Pull
  5. Deadlift
  6. Tire Flip

Some of my favorite parts were getting asked to share my story with the crowd and having people come up to me afterwards to say how encouraged they were. Even though I know I didn’t do as heavy weights as the women out there are doing yet, I did it for myself and this is a first step to show others to come out and try. It was very exciting to see and hear my kids beside me in every event cheering, you can do it Mom!!

The other thing is how amazing the family of Strongman is. They all just embraced me like a sister right away and gave me tips, shared there tack and told me how well I did. I didn’t expect that but now everyone is all around me wanting to see me succeed and go so far. I am forever indebted to them all.

Phil Burgess: What are your goals now? 

 Gillian McRae: As a Strongwoman, I still feel very humble and small in beginnings. I don’t know that I have yet to earn that title and so want to demonstrate my ability and true strength in whatever upcoming competitions there are available to me.

It is hard in BC where there are very few woman to compete with but my next competition is in February. If I need to start to travel to the US for NAS competitions and I am ready for this within the year I will do this. It is an amazing group of women to break into and I am honored to be considered in the same gathering as them.

I desire to see a greater awareness for the need of real people being able to provide consultation and training to those who need it through their own life transformations. The focus is so much now on having letters and degrees behind our names in particular in the fitness industry with personal training, yet so few have experienced obesity or challenges with weight loss themselves.

Those struggling need to hear from real people who have gone through their own barriers in order to find success as I have. This is why so many are relating to me now and I hope I can share this more through articles, motivational speaking, podcast segments, workshops in schools, at risk teen groups, womens groups, write a book and through consultation on my new website currently being developed.

I would love to increase in sponsorships and raise awareness for others about healthy living and balance for mom’s with busy kids. Any sponsors who can support this way of life would be ones that I am interested in….