• Annie Bothma

AND SO THE FIGHT CONTINUES...

"Behind mountains, there will always be more mountains to climb." - unknown

When I trained in Kenya, the 3000m above sea altitude level wasn’t the only thing that took my breath away - the magnitude of the mountain ranges and valleys that surrounded me did, too. They seemed to be everywhere… and that means plenty of hills to climb! Steep hills. Rolling hills. Long hills. Rocky hills. Sneaky-little-bastard hills...Everywhere!

Coach Erick had a little too much fun making us climb the highest peaks he could find. I remember him pointing at some random mountain in the distance, while we were driving after training runs, and saying: "Tomorrow we will finish the long run somewhere up there." I recall starting at 3000 m elevation at the camp and running up to 3500 m, on the peak of a mountain. During the last 6 km, my breathing became shallow, my legs struggled to keep moving, and even my arms started to feel heavier as the oxygen dwindled. The altitude was a big shock to my system, being used to sea level, but the marvellous view of the Kenyan rift valley served as a welcome distraction.

He also loved making us do long runs that start at a lower elevation and finish off at the camp. We would leave the camp at 2-3 a.m., and drive in the dark into the unknown. The car crawled down the steep inclines, with all the athletes holding their breaths - praying it doesn't give in under the heavy passenger load, because, otherwise, they would have to push. By around 5 a.m. we would reach our destination. The athletes would then disappear into the darkness, to find a bush and a leaf, before they started with an almost walking-pace warmup in preparation for the gruelling climb. Then, still before sunrise, the coach would give his signal. With every passing minute, the road became clearer as the sun gradually peaked over the mountain ranges, exposing the steep climbs that lay ahead.

Somehow it seems easier to face a challenge if you know how long it is going to take. But that is often not how life works. Life is uncertain. We all faced the uncertainty of the global pandemic over the past two years, and realised just how much we crave certainty in our lives and how scary and anxious its absence can be. Fear can paralyse us, and leave us restless, depressed, isolated, and lost. We want to know how we need to prepare for anything that may put us, or those we love, in danger. The reality is, however, that we rarely have that luxury.

Because life is, and will always be, uncertain.

Whether it is navigating through a pandemic, managing chronic illness, dealing with a new diagnosis, enduring a divorce, battling through financial struggles, or dealing with a serious injury...

I started off 2022 like "F#CK YEAH!” - this is going to be my year, where things finally turn around for me, the year where I am able to line up again and race from the gunshot to the finish-line - and maybe break even the tape again...? It feels like forever since I’ve had a real race experience, where I was physically healthy enough to line-up without stressing whether I will make it the whole distance without some freak accident - that is, if the global pandemic didn’t rob me of the opportunity to line-up in the first place.

During the heat of the pandemic I was in the best shape of my life without any races to run. I went from one cancellation or postponement onto the next. I kept training relentlessly with the hope that whenever my opportunity came I would be ready. I went from one marathon build onto the next without getting to run the actual race. This built fitness, but brought frustration and disappointment more than anything else. In 2021, when some races were finally back, under strict conditions, my health started to decline, and ultimately stopped me from qualifying for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I was heartbroken, especially after being so close… My name was in the South African marathon squad.

I went full steam into another marathon build-up for the Cape Town Marathon in October, but, unlike my previous build-ups, I was just logging mileage, often being too sick to do intensity or train consistently. On the morning of the race the cold, rainy weather embodied the experience. My warmup was agonising, but I hoped that the adrenaline and the magic of being in a real race again after two years would allow me to push through the pain. I needed to showcase my fitness and prove that my training achievements were real. When I stepped up to the start line, with rain pouring down, I had to stand with confidence, but, inside, I was dying. The cold seeped into my shaking body, and the pain roared in my calf. After the gun, my body started shutting down, and dizziness enveloped me. I heard cries from the sidelines telling me to stop, and I knew they were right. I also heard my mother’s concerned voice saying that she can’t pick me up at the side of the road again, having to call an ambulance. She told me to stop before I collapsed. So that is what I did. I knew my race was over. The leaders were nowhere in sight, and just moving felt like an effort. The opportunity that I trained two years for slipped through my fingers. Another disappointing DNF finished off a terrible 2021 race record for me.

After a long, cold winter, the sun finally began to shine for me in December, when I was able to build up close to my previous marathon shape, logging solid mileage, while being able to do two high quality sessions and a steady long run weekly. I was targeting a race in early 2022, with the hopes of finally racing a real marathon again since my debut at Cape Town Marathon in 2019. On the 26th of December, I had the most special run, next to my brother on the bike. It was the best birthday ever. We decided to do a marathon (or 26 miles) for my 26th Birthday on the 26th! We started in Cape Town, just outside Camps Bay, and finished in Melkbosstrand. My parents met us there and we had a picnic and coffee on the beach. I felt strong, finishing off an exemplary week of training. The next day I took a well deserved rest day and felt confident that I was finally moving in the right direction - to a new marathon personal best. It was most likely the highlight of my year, running-wise, because it gave me hope for the coming year.

TO BE CONTINUED...




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