The following post is a detailed description of my comeback to the road racing scene to win the Durban International City Marathon that took place on the 12th of March 2023 in a new course record of over 7-minutes, while simultaneously claiming the South African Marathon Title.
MY MARATHON JOURNEY
I made my marathon debut at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in 2019. I went into this race extremely under-trained and ill-prepared for the rigorous demands of the marathon. Racing the marathon requires an athlete to train at a much higher volume to be able to tolerate the pounding that comes over the 42.2 km (or 26.2 mile) distance. At the time I was only racing primarily 10km road races, as well as the odd 15km or 21km every once in a while. I had just returned from the USA, the previous year in the middle of 2018, where I only races 5/6km cross country races or 5 000m or 10 000m on the track. I never need to take in nutrition during the race.
When you race a marathon, fueling adequately before and during the race is a big part of what will allow you to achieve your best performance. In the months preceding the race, you have to train your gut to tolerate fuel during training, just like you train your muscles to tolerate the pounding from the road. Before my debut marathon I didn't understand the importance of fuelling and it lead to a terrible encounter with the dreaded marathon wall!
I planned to take in three gels during the marathon (which is not enough!!!) but I only got in one! The first gel, someone else took before I got to the elite table and the second one I opened up too quickly and it shot all over my body, except in my mouth! Eventually I got my first gel in at the 30km mark, but it was way too late, the damage had been done! I went from running a 2:35 marathon pace to finishing in a 2:41. This was the catalyst that drove me to start studying sport nutrition, so I could truly understand the metabolic demands that comes with racing the marathon.
However, I did manage to finish 10th overall and was the first South African to cross the finish-line that day. In 2019, the Cape Town Marathon also doubled as the South African National Marathon Championships, but due to the fact, that I was not selected to represent Western Province, I could not be awarded the national title. I had approached WPA before the race to run in their colors, but they rejected me. I understand, it was my debut and they did not believe I could finish a marathon.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
I went to Kenya at the end of 2019, to train for the Vienna City Marathon in May 2020, however, when the whole world shut down in March of 2020, I quickly had to return to South Africa to go into lock-down.
During the pandemic, I completed 7 marathon build-ups without racing the marathon at the end, due to all the race cancellations and postponements that was going on at the time. It was truly a sad time for the running community and I know I am not the only athlete who didn't have any opportunities to compete.
However, I kept training and kept hope that my opportunity would come to race again. It never did. But through the pandemic I ran solo-time trials instead of races to challenge myself and improved my personal best times from the 5km up to the marathon.
One of these were an actual event that took place in October 2020 instead of the mass-participation Sanlam Cape Town Marathon. The race organized an Elite Marathon on a looped course in Cape Town. It was a very lonely and mentally challenging race. I ran solo without a pacer or bike to help me for the entire duration of the race in 4-5km loops, with the majority of it being cobble stones. I wasn't properly tapered for the race either, since I was busy preparing for a marathon at the end of that year (that ended up getting cancelled as well!)
However, it was still an opportunity that I was grateful for, since I got to run at an event with official timing and that would be more than just another Garmin file on my watch. I managed to win and still run a time of 2:33:35 on the day.
OUT OF COMPETITION
In September 2021, I was diagnosed with Central Diabetes Insipidus (CDI). This condition occurs when the body can't regulate how it handles fluids. The condition is caused by a hormonal abnormality, in my case, it is directly linked to my hypopituitarism and my body’s insufficient production of antidiuretic hormone (ADH). CDI is not related to type 1 or type 2 diabetes (also known as diabetes mellitus), but it does share some of the same signs and symptoms. The two main symptoms of CDI are extreme thirst (polydipsia) and frequent urination.
Before I got diagnosed and received treatment, I was chronically dehydrated and, as a result, my athletic performance suffered. The main reasons why dehydration has adverse effects on exercise performance are: reduction in blood volume, decreased skin blood flow, decreased sweat rate, decreased heat dissipation, increased core temperature, and an increased rate of muscle glycogen use. My blood pressure would drop and I would end up being dizzy and disorientated. I battled with the cold and often lost feeling in my hands and feet. I frequently fainted, during both training and races.
To manage my condition, I was prescribed a synthetic hormone called desmopressin acetate (DDAVP). This medication replaces the missing ADH, which is supposed to be secreted by my pituitary gland. Gradually my medication was increased with the goal to counteract the amount of fluids I was losing through urine, but it was now more concentrated than before. I was losing a lot of electrolytes, especially sodium.
We had trouble figuring out the correct medication dose for my body to manage this condition and as a result a whole host of medical complications occurred that side-lined me from competition form the end of 2021 until December 2022 when I raced at the ASA Cross Country Trials in Potchefstroom.
MY MARATHON BUILD-UP
BACK TO THE BASICS - BUILDING A STRONG BASE
I only started running at the beginning of November 2022, after taking 5-month complete break from running and doing very little running in the months preceding during the first half of 2022. Therefore, when I initially started running I didn't think I would be able to run a marathon in 2023. I wanted to try to make the team for world cross country and represent my country in Australia.
I went into the trials very under-trained. My body felt so sore afterwards, that I could only do easy shorter runs for a whole week. To be honest, my body actually feels better now, after running a marathon than what it did after that 10km at the ASA cross country trials back in December! It was to be excepted that I would struggle, since I was only able to cover the 10km distance for the first time 2-weeks before the trials. I also only managed to do one 30-minute fartlek workout before the race, which was definitely not enough to compete against the strong field that lined-up on the day.
However, after placing 4th at the trials on 3 December 2022, I finally felt like I got a bit of trust and confidence back in my body and started believing again that just maybe I would be able to run a marathon the next year. I knew I was basically starting from scratch. I had to build a base again, before I could consider doing any hard workouts or attempt marathon distance long runs.
On Monday the 12th of December, I started following a structured running program again. For the first time in a very long time, I was no longer just doing easy runs, but structured workouts and a long run weekly. In December 2022 and January 2023, all my training was geared towards handling the challenges of a cross country course. I did A LOT of hill repetitions and fartlek workouts on the grass or in the mountains. The only exception was the long run, which I gradually increased as my body got use to the pounding of the road again.
Representing South Africa at the IAAF World Cross Country in Poland as a Junior in 2013 and in China as a senior in 2015, was one of my career highlights. Therefore, I was fully focused on getting fit as possible to be ready to represent my country on the 18th of February in Australia to the best of my ability.
However, when the final team was announced on 3 February 2023, my name was not on the list. The criteria that was sent out before the trials stated, that the top 5 across the line at trials would go to Worlds and that there would be one discretionary spot. Why, was I not selected you may ask...I can't give you a clear answer, because I don't know either.
I followed the path I thought you were suppose to follow if you wanted to make the team. I took a big risk not being fully ready to race. I made a big financial investment paying my own way to go run at the trials. But, I knew that team was final. The only thing I could do was accept it an shift my focus towards a new goal...
The ASA Marathon Championships
On the 4th of February, I ran and finished my first road race since the end of 2019. I raced the hilly Firgrove 15km challenge where I managed to be the first female athlete across the finish-line. The following day, I went out on tired legs and ran a 30km long run. I was all in now on racing the Durban International Marathon in six weeks time on the 12th of March 2023.
Throughout the rest of February, my workouts changed from hill repetitions, fartleks and short 400m repetitions on the grass to long speed-endurance marathon style workouts. One of my favorite workouts that I did two times during that month was: 4km (1km float) x 4 for a total of 20km. The second time, I managed to improve my times, which showed me there was progress in my fitness.
I did another race as part of training. On the 19th of February, I raced the Cape Peninsula Half Marathon on a particularly windy day. I battled running 21km straight into a very strong headwind on this point-to-point course. I was very lucky to still win, but felt pretty defeated running a slow time, even slower than my training times or target marathon pace. But, in hindsight looking back at it now, I think it helped prepare me mentally for the windy weather conditions that I had to face on race day at the Durban Marathon.
Three days after I ran the half marathon, I did a 35km as my last long run, before the marathon. The goal was to run progressive and try to finish strong. I felt strong and the pace felt comfortable from the start, which allowed me to run faster than my target. This gave me hope that I was finally getting closer to the fitness level I was able to achieve back at the start of 2021, before I took a break from running. I also used this opportunity to practice my fuelling and grabbing bottles from a table for one more time.
Very important to note, I did NO double runs on the road during the three months before I ran the marathon. If I did a second session it was always cross training on the ElliptiGo. I also continued to do some sort of strength or core work in the gym every single day to strengthen my body and help prevent injuries.
I also didn't run close to the mileage I use to in the past, when I was preparing for marathons during the pandemic, simply because my number one goal was to make it to the start line healthy and injury free. I knew, I needed to be very careful and conservative coming back from such a long break from running. However, this does kinda makes me excited, because I know there is more room for growth and improvement in the future.
I went into this race with a very positive mindset and had all intent to go out hard and fast! I wanted to see what my body can do after such a long time not running the marathon. A big goal was also to really RACE the marathon for the first time. This first time around it was just so daunting finishing the 42.2km, and the second one it was more a race against the clock! This time, I wanted to race to win!
THE WEATHER HAD DIFFERENT PLANS
However, warming up in the rain with the wind raging around me, I must admit I was pretty worried. Due to my medical condition, my body does not tolerate cold temperatures very well and I have had many failed workouts, long runs and even races as a result of my blood pressure and core temperature dropping too low. Luckily, due to the fact that the humidity was so high, at around 85%, it wasn't that cold and I managed to get through the race without experiencing any of these symptoms. I only lost feeling in my hands.
The biggest factor ended up being the wind. It was extremely gusty out there, I don’t think the broadcast showed just how bad the wind really was out there. Due to the fact that it rained before and during a big portion of the race made the footing pretty bad. There was a lot of big water puddles on the roads that we had to dodge and the promenade was very slippery, making it hard to run fast.
I knew, we all had to face those conditions, so I tried my best to focus on my form and stay positive. However, it definitely impacted my ability to run fast and achieve my goal time.
RACE DAY NUTRITION & HYDRATION
The most frustrating thing on the day was the shortage of refreshments along the route. After my nutrition failure during my first marathon, I didn't want to make the same mistake twice. I also have the knowledge now, after completing my masters in sport nutrition, to fully understand what difference it can make in your performance to fuel and hydrate adequately during a marathon.
I planned to get a bottle every five kilometers, but they told us at the pre-race technical meeting that there would be no bottles at 5km and 15 km. The refreshment tables were also not where they were supposed to be. My first bottle was not even at the 10K station, I only got the first at 12 km mark and although I was still on pace at the time, I could feel that the damage had already been done. The most important fuelling stations are during the first half of the marathon, since as the duration and intensity increases as time passes, it becomes harder and harder for the body to absorb and digest nutrients and use it for energy. This is because blood-flow gets shunted aways from the gut to the working muscles who needs it more at that stage.
I think that’s definitely something this race can improve upon. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to put a table every five kilometers for elite runners. You’re already focusing so hard for two-and-a-half hours on that pace and you don’t really want to think about bottles that much. You just want to grab and go. Having low muscle glycogen impeded my ability to finish strong in those last 12km, like I did in my long runs and workouts. I was also very dehydrated afterwards when I was doing drug testing.
MY RACE DAY FUELLING PLAN
Remember, this was my individualized plan, I am not suggesting you copy this plan, I am purely sharing what I did.
2.5 hours before the 6am race start
AFTER MY WARM-UP
1 bottle ISO ACTIVE Powerbar Drink
75g of carbs/hour
7 x bottles of Powerbar - Alternating between Powerbar ISO-ACTIVE & ISO-MAX
Just an important note here: The reason I only use drinks, instead of gels and water is because one of my biggest risk factors during exercise is dehydration with my Diabetes Insipidus. I am always a bit dehydrated just simply because of the amount of fluid I lose through my urine daily. I also wake up multiple times during the night to go to the toilet, and as a result, I already start my day in a deficit. Therefore, I need to make sure I prioritize my hydration during the marathon, especially if it is hot or humid. You may find using a combination of gels and drinks/water work better for you.
This is also why Powerbar has been an absolute game-changer in my performance and health! Water just runs straight through me, while Powerbar ISO-ACTIVE & ISO-MAX drinks and their electrolyte tablets contains added sodium that helps retain fluid better. It also contains calcium, magnesium, chloride, and potassium that is lost in small amounts through our sweat.
I had zero gastrointestinal (GI) upset while using Powerbar products on Sunday. In fact, I have never had any GI upset using their products, which is huge for someone suffering from Celiac Disease! At least, I know I have a good product that works well for me in Powerbar and I do hope that in the next opportunity I get to race the marathon I will be able to execute my race day nutrition plan better!
THE MOMENT I WILL NEVER FORGET: THE FINAL KICK
At the 39 km, when the former winner of the Two Oceans Marathon and Soweto Maraton, Chaltu Bedo Negashu from Ethiopia, tried to pass me, I told myself:
“I CAN TAKE MORE, I CAN DIG DEEPER.”
I had worked too hard and come too far to let her pass! I dug really deep, and immediately accelerated, opening a 10m gap. I kept pushing for the next 3.2km until the finish-line. The victory of finally breaking that tape was truly a combination of so many months and years of struggle and suffering that finally paid off!
I managed to break the course record by last year's winner, Shelmith Nyawira Muriuki from Kenya (who was third in the race this year), by more than seven minutes. I also improved my personal best time of 2:33:35, that I ran in the Elite Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in 2020, to 2:30:31. The defending ASA Marathon champion, Jenet Mbhele, was 4th overall and the second South African home, also in a new personal best time of 2:37:08.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR ME?..
I am not 100% sure yet, since one opportunity opens up another door for you and I would like to be in the position where I can say yes to good opportunities that may come across my path. I have missed out on so many great opportunities due to my health struggles and all of the setbacks I have faced in my life, that right now, I am at a stage in my life where I am living day by day. I really appreciate every day I am healthy enough to put on my shoes and go for a run. I can and will never take it for granted: I run with an attitude of pure gratitude!
However, because I did not achieve the time goal I set for myself going into the Durban international Marathon, I have decided to give myself another shot to try run the World Championship Qualifying Standard of Sub-2:28:00, before the qualifying window closes on 31 May 2023.
It will be a short turn-around and is certainly not ideal, but I believe that if I can perhaps eliminate some of the external factors that went wrong in Durban, I may just be able to still make my dream a reality!
Stay tuned, more detail coming soon!
Thank you for reading and following along with my journey. I appreciate your support and hope that my story can inspire you to also chase your dreams, regardless the obstacles that may come across your path. #runtoovercome