Athletics Community Clubs

HIGH ACHIEVERS: City councillor Theresa Kavanagh preparing for hike of a lifetime up Mount Kilimanjaro

By Martin Cleary

Theresa Kavanagh has faced dozens of athletic challenges involving snow, ice, water and roads, and conquered them all one way or another.

She has shown determination, grit and stamina more than 150 times in a wide variety of community and international events, including the Gatineau Loppet, the Winterlude Triathlon, Ironman competitions in the United States, the Bushtukah Bring on the Bay 3K Open Water Swim and the Boston Marathon (three times).

And now she’s days away from focusing on her ultimate athletic adventure – hiking up the highest mountain and volcano in Africa.

Kavanagh, the Ottawa city councillor for Ward 7 Bay, and husband Alex Cullen will be part of a group of 17 Ottawa residents travelling to Tanzania to hike up and down Mount Kilimanjaro, which is 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level.

The Ottawa team will fly from Montreal to Doha, Qatar and then take a second flight to the Kilimanjaro region. The six-day journey up Mount Kilimanjaro begins Aug. 1 and the hikers are scheduled to reach the top on Aug. 6. It will only take two days to descend the mountain.

“I’m nervous. I’m scared,” Kavanagh said in a phone interview this week.

But Kavanagh, who regularly runs, cycles or cross-country skis in her neighbourhood and competes in a wide mix of sporting challenges, has talked to many people about hiking up Kilimanjaro and balances her concerns with some confidence.

“It’s not exactly mountain climbing. It’s a long, slow hike. There’s a lot of walk, walk, walk and up, up, up,” explained Kavanagh, 65, who will boldly progress through the unique exercise with her walking poles. “The biggest challenge will be the altitude and altitude sickness.

“We’re taking the longest, slowest route. That will help us get used to the altitude.”

If she’s hit with altitude sickness, she’ll fight that with medication. She also has protected herself by getting vaccines against cholera, hepatitis and typhoid.

Hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro will be unlike any athletic test she has accepted in the past. All her previous running, skiing, swimming and skating challenges have been restricted to one day and staged over one and five hours.

Her dedicated training and competition schedules, which includes two road races and one ski marathon this year, will certainly serve her well in her mountain hiking. But she has added a lot of climbing to her training as well to simulate her Tanzanian trek.

Hiking in the Gatineau Hills on the weekend or up the Carlington Park hill during the week are solid training expeditions for Kavanagh. In the winter, she spent a lot of time climbing stairs inside buildings.

“Anything to go up and down was helpful,” she said. “Carlington Hill is my favourite spot. I’ll do my morning workout there for an hour and then go to work.”

Bringing the right clothing and camping equipment to Mount Kilimanjaro will be as important as the physical training.

When the hikers gather at the base of the mountain, which is just south of the equator, to start their climb, it will feel like it’s summer. But as they move up Mount Kilimanjaro through the bushlands, rainforest, heather, the alpine desert and into Arctic conditions, it will seem like winter.

As Kavanagh climbs the mountain, she’ll be adding layers of clothing, including puffy down and GORE-TEX jackets, to combat the colder temperatures. At night, she’ll recharge in a special sleeping bag that’s good to minus 20°C.

Fortunately for Kavanagh, her husband Alex Cullen is familiar with extreme winter camping trips. He has earned the Courier de Bois gold medal at the two-day Canadian Ski Marathon, which required him to camp outside overnight.

“Alex has the stuff for winter camping. I have a high-quality sleeping bag for minus 20°C as well as warm clothing. You keep adding layers. It’s like going through all the seasons as you climb,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh is looking forward to visiting Africa for the first time, but it wasn’t one of the items on her must-do checklist.

“I don’t know if I would do it on my own,” she admitted. “But the fact the people I’m familiar with are doing it, they made me feel like I could do it, too. I’m with people I know and I like. It’s a better setting.”

Kavanagh confirmed she was ready for the multi-day athletic challenge on a distant continent in 2020, when she put down a deposit for the trip. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the journey until now.

“The people in my spinning group are close and like-minded. I thought if they can do it, I can do it,” Kavanagh reasoned. “It’s different. I’ve done other races, but this is more challenging because it’s over a number of days. The marathon is over in a few hours.

“It will be cold. I can’t emphasize enough how cold it will be with long underwear, mitts, that cold. We’ll have sleeping tents. It’s very much a mental thing. The last day will be extremely hard (to reach the top of the mountain) as we have to do it at night.”

Besides chasing the personal goal of hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro, the group of 17 also is raising money for Christie Lake Kids, which is based in Perth, but has year-round programs in Ottawa.

Kavanagh is particularly thrilled about the Climb for Kids Kilimanjaro aspect of the athletic challenge. She is the chair of the board of directors with Ottawa Community Housing, which is connected with the Christie Lake Kids after-school sports and arts programs.

“I feel like I’m helping the kids in the community,” said a proud Kavanagh, who has raised more than $3,000 to date for Climb for Kids Kilimanjaro.

The Climb for Kids Kilimanjaro initiative is expected to raise more than $31,000.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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