When Robin MacMillan felt her 40th birthday creep up on her, she resolved to hit it at a run.
Rather than go party in Las Vegas as friends had done, the mother of three left her husband to hold the fort so she could fly to the outskirts of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, and live for two weeks like a regular Muay Thai fighter.
That meant waking up before sunrise (if not before Thailand’s ever-crowing roosters), running 10 km and then training the whole day at a gym with five ajahn, or Muay Thai masters.
“I literally got up at 5 a.m. ran, trained for three hours, went to the hotel room, slept, ran again and trained for four hours,” MacMillan said.
“That was my life, and that’s how they live.”
It only took two years for MacMillan to go from a total Muay Thai beginner to a US belt-winner training where it all began, in the Thai gyms where fighters still joke about kicking trees to make their shins hard.
MacMillan said she was athletic in her twenties, when she ran marathons in Victoria, Seattle, Canmore and Vancouver. But that changed after switching focus to her three young kids and starting a kids’ clothing store on Queen Street. By 38, she felt badly out of shape, and felt running wouldn’t cut it.
She started kickboxing for fitness, and liked it so much she got certified to teach her own class of “warrior moms and dads,” making them throw kicks, punches and survive rounds of 300 sit-ups at a Beach karate studio.
“I kill them,” she said, laughing. “It’s an intense workout.”
But after MacMillan dropped some 25 pounds, she got curious – could she fight for real?
It took a few strike-outs at “meathead” gyms before MacMillan got a chance to spar at TKMT Academy, a downtown dojo where she says egos take a backseat and half the fighters are women.
“It’s more than just the workout,” she said. “The six-pack I get from it is just like, ‘Oh, nice surprise!’”
Known as the “Art of Eight Limbs,” Muay Thai is a martial art of eight weapons – two fists, two feet, two elbows, two knees – and a complex strategy to match.
“You can’t master it, because every opponent is different and has a different style. I love that – you keep learning,” said MacMillan.
From in-house bouts at TKMT, MacMillan moved on to refereed fights with proper weigh-ins – first in Iowa, and more recently in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Muay Thai is relatively small in Canada, she explained, and it’s almost impossible to arrange anything but a friendly match here.
But even female fighters in the US have no such problem.