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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Bothma

FROM 0 TO 3000

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

This will be the first time since 2019, that I will not be returning to Kenya in December for training. For the past two years, I have spent the December holidays, Christmas, my birthday, New Year's Eve, and the beginning months of each year in a training camp located at 3000m above sea level in a small township called Kipsiat Kenya. It is sad for me to realize I am not healthy enough this year to return back up to altitude, but I am also looking forward to embracing the beautiful summer weather in South Africa and focusing on training healthy and consistent. I am happy to share that I have finally been able to see improvements and progress in my health since some medication changes at the end of October.

But it is hard, I have made some of my best friends and met some of the most amazing people while training and living in Kenya. I do hope to go back sometime soon in the future. Meanwhile, I decided to reflect a bit on my journey training with the best in the world and to share some of the experiences and special memories of my time travelling back and forth between Kenya and South Africa over the last two years.

At the end of 2019, shortly after making my debut at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon, I realized the only way I was ever going to make my dreams a reality was by going all in. I realised during the race that I was highly unprepared for the distance, from both a fitness and fueling perspective. After this rude awakening surrounding the demands of a 2-hour-plus race, I knew I had only scratched the surface of my marathon potential.

I decided to throw everything I had at this newfound passion for the marathon. I was a successful personal trainer and running coach at the time, but I knew that if I didn't fully commit myself to running, I may never reach my full potential or achieve my dream of representing my country at the biggest stage - the Olympics. I was on my feet the whole day, demonstrating exercises, so I never had time to properly recover after my own training sessions. I was also working long hours and had limited time to train. I was working on weekends as well and after competing I often had to rush to be on time for appointments.

I made the brave (and scary) trip into the unknown at the end of that year, when I travelled to Kipsiat, a remote little township in Kenya, roughly 3000 m above sea level, to train with the kings and queens of the marathon. I had the privilege of sharing a camp, and coach Erick Kimaiyo, with Brigid Kosgei, the current world record holder in the marathon.

Being used to training at sea level, the transition came as quite a shock, having to endure routes of seemingly endless hills while feeling like you’re breathing through a straw. In the beginning, merely walking up the 400m-hill from where we started running in the morning back up to the camp felt hard; and at night, while laying in bed, my breathing felt different and heavy. I noticed changes in my sleep, my appetite, and my skin, which seemed drier in the thin air. But, somehow, I managed. During my second week there I eclipsed my previous highest mileage week by about 20 km and did a 41 km long run.

Living in a small, rural township, in a rudimentary camp with only basic facilities, was something to get used to. I had to adjust to washing all my clothes by hand in a bucket and then drying them in the sun before we geared up for an afternoon or the next morning's session. I cooked all my food on a small gas stove in my room, since the camp had no kitchen. The nearest big town, Eldoret, was a 3-hour drive away and we were only able to make a trip every couple of weeks for some non-perishable items that I could take back to camp. The rest of my groceries all came from the local market on Sundays, or from when we made a trip to a nearby township, Kachibora, which had a market with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a small supermarket. We would often have days without any water or electricity, and there was no wifi - which allowed me to fully focus my attention on recovering from training. I spent a lot of time reading, journaling, and also just soaking up the sun while chatting with my teammates.

I feel blessed to have made these friendships, and I still frequently communicate with Brigid, my other teammates from the camp, and the coach. It is an experience I will always remember, and cherish, for the rest of my life.

During my time there I did some of the hardest runs and most gruelling workouts I have ever completed. We did a 38 km long run where we gained a total of 1500 m elevation, starting at 2000 m above sea level and then running back up to the camp at 3200 m over a net-uphill course.

I ran up and down the steepest hills I have ever seen. We did long speed-endurance workouts consisting of a total of 15-17 km of intervals on the road, and shorter speed workouts on a grass field that resembled a track, but looked and felt more like a cross country course - all up at 3200 m. We did fartleks that consisted of 1-minute hard running followed by 1-minute steady running on dirt roads with terrain so challenging the whole workout felt more like a tempo to me. Then, on weekends, a long run of 25-41km resembled a progressive tempo run. For some faster workouts and long runs, we drove down from 3200 m to 2000 m, where there were slightly fewer hills and a bit more oxygen to get the legs turning faster.

I felt strong in training until I got a viral infection at the beginning of 2020, which cost me about two weeks of training. I was throwing up, and it was terrifying not having any real medical support or a hospital close by. I returned to South Africa shortly after, to compete in shorter (21 km and 10 km) races, but again my health didn’t allow me to finish. The next day after dropping out I was in the hospital, severely dehydrated and constantly running to the bathroom. I had to spend a whole week in there, and went through a multitude of tests, as it turned out that food poisoning followed the illness from a few weeks before and threw my body into disarray.

That race was also the reason why I initially went off social media. Being dehydrated as a result of all the vomiting and diarrhoea from the stomach bug and then getting food poising I looked extremely thin. I have a slender built, but my veins and bones were even more visible. I was so excited to get back to South Africa and be amongst the running community I grew up in, missed and love. I was excited to tell them about my experience in Kenya and hopefully run strong with my new fitness and strength from training up in the thin air altitude, running more mileage and climbing the steepest hills I have ever seen! But instead - the only remarks at the start line I got was not about Kenya - but my body. Instead of "How are you?" I got: "You look so bad. Just look how thin you are?!!"

Although these remarks may be right, they weren't necessary at a start-line of a race, they weren't asked for or appreciated at the moment - they were hurtful and made me feel ashamed of my body and weak. I have always been self-conscious of my weight. I have always felt too skinny and inferior to my competitors. I have tried so hard to gain weight over the years and have seen a multitude of specialists to try to help me - but if you lack the necessary hormones for growth and physical development, reproduction, and have always had a natural small build - it is very hard to actually put on weight! It is not anyone's place to judge another runner based on how they look, it is not just the body that runs, but also the heart, lungs and maybe most importantly the mind (in my case those work just fine!! I have seen runners of all shapes and sizes perform and run really fast - everyone is unique.

I did everything in my power to prepare myself for another trip to Kenya, for the same reason that I initially attempted altitude training: I was selected to run in the elite field of the Vienna City Marathon that would have taken place in April 2020. I flew right at the end of February but had to return after only a week due to the ominous rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I decided to try competing at a local marathon in South Africa as an alternative, but I was only back home for about a week when suddenly everything around me was changing very fast as my own country was also now being effective and along with the rest of the world on 23 March 2020 we went into lockdown - uncertain what would happen next. Hello, treadmill...


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