As I reflected on this past year, a metaphor came to mind: In 2021, I felt like a boxer in a ring, getting knocked down every time I struggled to my feet; each time the punches seemed to get stronger and it would get harder to get back up again!
After returning to Kenya at the end of 2020, I spent another December holiday, Christmas, birthday and New Year’s Eve in the thin air, running between steep mountains and gravel roads with the fastest runners in the world. My goal was clear: finally running a qualifying marathon, in early 2021, that would secure my spot in the South African team for the Olympic Games, that had been postponed to August. After running the Elite Cape Town Marathon in 2020, I was selected for the Olympic squad, but still had to find an official marathon to run the standard of 2:29:30 set out by the International Olympic Committee for female marathon athletes.
Compared to the first two times I went to Kenya - at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 - the third time around I was much better prepared, both physically and mentally. I adapted to marathon training on my own in South Africa during the pandemic, and also knew what to expect when I arrived, in terms of terrain, altitude, and the tough training program. There was also a notable change in my performance. I was better equipped to complete the sessions and long runs, and was able to handle the hilly terrain and high altitude better than ever before. I was able to keep up with the other athletes in the camp and was much faster during the same courses or workouts. Lifestyle activities like preparing food, knowing where to find non-perishable items, and knowing what I should bring along from home also became easier. It is always cold 3000m above sea level, and I definitely didn't bring enough warm gear for those early morning runs the first time I went.
I flew back at the end of January, 2021, to compete in a marathon, which ended up being canceled a week before its scheduled date in February. I recall coming back from my last pre-race workout, only to receive the unfortunate news from my manager. We have learned to accept the current state of the world by then, and I felt almost nothing after reading the message. My attitude became: "Expect nothing and appreciate everything."
It was a challenging time, not only from an athletic perspective, but also emotionally and mentally - I was going through the sadness of a divorce. I knew I was slowly losing myself. I started to feel like I was failing and simply never good enough. I knew it would have been wrong to continue with something that wasn't right for me. Sometimes you need to acknowledge that what you thought was right at the time turned out to be a mistake. Ultimately, the only real mistake is knowing that you need to make a change and then being too scared to make it. Choose to learn, grow, and move forward, while celebrating the good and letting go of the bad. I do believe that I learned a lot about myself during this time and also gained more understanding and empathy for others who may have gone through a similar experience. But it is still hard to say goodbye to someone you care about.
The day after I moved out of my flat in Cape Town, I went for a 30 km tempo run with my dad. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally - it was hard to keep showing up and believing in my dream. I remember just sitting down on the pavement and staring into the distance afterwards. I had improved my previous best time for that course to 1:44:36 (avg 3:28/km), yet I didn't feel excited. Instead, I felt drained and empty.
I was back on a plane to Kenya that following day, to prepare for the Copenhagen Marathon, which would have taken place during May, 2021. Two weeks later, I suddenly heard that I got another opportunity - on a better course and more likely to take place. I paid my own way to Tuscany, Italy, to participate in a smaller elite race, specifically designed for fast times so athletes can get a "last chance" to qualify for the postponed 2020 Games. But, in what now seems a recurring theme in my running career, I got sick. This time it was the regular flu and I was unable to compete. The big change in temperature, from a warm South Africa to a freezing, mountainous town, accompanied with traveling and a compromised immune system, may have created the perfect storm to leave me sick as a dog, watching the race from my room.
Three weeks later I collapsed during the South African Half Marathon Championships, which was my last chance to qualify for the Olympics. I decided to take a more conservative, longer build-up by shifting all my attention to the Cape Town Marathon, which took place in October, 2021.
During the lockdown in 2020, I was able to train hard and really felt like I was making progress towards my goals. Although my health did struggle - I had some episodes of fainting due to low blood pressure or hypothermia - I was consistent in my training and frequently did solid workouts. This year, that is not the case. Although I had good workouts, they were far and in between, and I wasn't able to run good long runs week-in and week-out, they had to be spaced out to allow more rest. I wasn't able to plan ahead either. I had to take it day by day. Wake up, take my vitals, go through my activation and warm-up routine, do a body scan, and see what my body would give me that day. It was unpredictable and extremely frustrating to not be able to plan ahead at all. On a good day, I embraced it and I would go hard, but most of the time, I was just surviving. I wasn't thriving anymore.
After failing to achieve my dream of qualifying for this year's Olympic Games, I made the Cape Town Marathon my new goal. It was the thing that drove me during those cold winter months and the thing that allowed me to stand back up after every health setback. If I can only run and do well at this race then it would be enough for this year, I thought. It was confirmed that the marathon would take place as a mass participant race again this year, and that there would be a strong international field. I had basically been training for a competitive marathon since the end of 2019, and I was so ready to see what my body was capable of in a REAL elite race.
My build-up was far from ideal, but I still managed to, once again, improve my furthest long run distance, and ran some of my highest mileage weeks ever. With my health still being such a concern, most of my training had to be effort based, but I felt confident. My long runs were faster than the previous year, so I knew the endurance was there even if I wasn't able to do as many high-intensity intervals and tempos at marathon pace as before.
However, in August, my symptoms got alarming, so I decided to seek expert help, which came in the form of Dr Tim Noakes. He arrived at the conclusion that I had a rare disorder called Diabetes Insipidus. Shortly after that, the diagnosis was confirmed during a hospital visit, and I started with the appropriate medication. This finally gave an explanation for a lot of my symptoms. Diabetes Insipidus is not related in any way to Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. It is directly linked to my pituitary gland not secreting sufficient amounts of Antidiuretic hormone (ADH). ADH helps regulate the amount of water in your body. It works by controlling the amount of water your kidneys reabsorb as they filter out waste from your blood. This is why I always embarrassingly rush to the toilet and wake up multiple times per night, almost always dehydrated, regardless of how much fluids I consume - I can't keep up with the rate my body loses them. If you have ever been dehydrated you will know that it is a pretty shitty feeling. That's how I have been feeling every day and in training, it would get so much worse. Now, however, I finally understand why I would faint, get low blood pressure, have poor circulation, get dizzy, have daily headaches, and have extremely dry skin.
The last weeks leading up to the race were anything but smooth, after that diagnosis. I battled, trying to adjust to the new medication and figure out my hydration plan, while also going for blood tests every three days to make sure my sodium and electrolyte levels weren't dropping too low. My body went into an erroneous inflammatory state in my calves and wrist. I reacted by taking several rest days and a cortisone shot right before the race, but to no avail.
The cold, rainy weather on the morning of the race 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, 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.
So I ask myself: where do I go from here? The truth is... I don’t know. What I do know is this. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve seen myself accomplish things I’ve never done before, but I’ve also seen my body fail to support me. I have Diabetes Insipidus and Hypopituitarism. I know I am at a disadvantage, but I also know I wouldn’t be running if I weren’t. This struggle is what drives me. It gives my life meaning, and purpose. When I run I feel somewhat like I am normal and for that moment I feel strong and capable. I know there will be countless more mountains to climb, but I also know that every single one will equip me better for the next, whatever its unique challenges, be it sickness, global pandemics, or anything in between. You may see me fight and falter, but you will never see me quit. Like my Kenyan coach said, I’m a soldier. I know how to fight!
I know the same passionate fire that has been fueling me for all these years and through all the obstacles is still there. I am not burnt out or over-trained, I haven't lost my drive or my motivation to work hard towards my goals; I still have the same big, scary dreams that get me out of bed every day and allow me to still have hope: if I keep on training when my body allows me, by stacking one mile onto the other, one day it will come together and it will be my day!
"I am building a fire and every day I train I am adding fuel" (Mia Ham)
....and one day I will that light the match and then there will be fucking fireworks!!
That's why, I walk away from 2021 with an attitude of gratitude knowing I am stronger because of what I overcame and more ready for whatever 2022 or the future may throw at me. I have learnt how to fight back!