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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Bothma

WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS

Here we go…


It took me a while to gather the courage to write this. I often wanted to share, but I simply couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going on in my own body. I feel like I have lost the ability to move organically and run freely.


To me, running feels natural. It is like breathing – without it, I almost feel suffocated. A day without a run feels weird, like something is missing. It has been my biggest passion for as long as I can remember. It spread through every aspect of my life: the people I surround myself with, the content I consume (like podcasts, books, online articles, and newsletters), as well as my day job of being a running coach and sports nutritionist.


However, for the past few months, running no longer felt effortless. I had to think of every step – every run became a grind. It was mentally exhausting.


That’s when I knew I had to stop.



WHY AM I SHARING THIS NOW

Why did I disappear from the racing scene after being crowned the ASA marathon champion at the Durban International Marathon in March, 2023? Hopefully I can shed some light on what happened.


I hope sharing my journey will help others avoid similar challenges by being proactive, thus avoiding the months of struggling I had to endure. Furthermore, I hope to make others who also had a year rife with illness or injury feel less alone.


Lastly, I hope that this inspires or motivates you to keep fighting, even when it feels like the ground is shifting beneath your feet.



LETTING GO OF WORLD CHAMPS IN 2023

I wrote a detailed blog post, The Comeback Code, on how I made the transition back into racing after my pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020/2021. It also discusses a series of bone stress injuries I suffered, due to an incorrect medication dosage in 2022. I will not repeat the details here.


I concluded by saying that I stopped trying to qualify for the 2023 World Championship Marathon, deciding to rather chase the Olympic standard of sub-2:28:00 before the qualifying window closed. However, things didn’t go according to plan.


In fact, nothing went according to plan in 2023.


After the Durban Marathon, I made a meticulous race schedule, with target races and goals assigned to each month. I was ecstatic to finally compete again – it felt like a fresh start.

I was invited to compete in the elite field of the Geneva Marathon, which took place on the 7th of May, 2023. I spent two weeks training at lower intensity after winning the Durban Marathon.


Then, in April, I had some of the best training ever, once I got back into structured workouts and long runs. I broke a few personal records, both in workout times and weekly mileage. I completed a 30 km long run with an average of 3:33/km, verifying that my endurance was still there. It also felt like my speed was coming back, for the first time since 2021, when I did one of my fastest 5 km tempo runs: 15:03.



However, we soon realised that I was training for the wrong race. Looking at forecasts and historical weather patterns for Geneva, a Swiss city that lies on the southern tip of expansive Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), we saw that typical temperatures were around 4-7 ℃ around the marathon’s date. The city sounded idyllic, surrounded by the Alps, the Jura mountains, and views of dramatic Mont Blanc, but acknowledging that cold is one of my biggest weaknesses, I knew that, at best, my performance would have been subpar, but, at worst, there was the risk of serious health complications.


As temperatures dropped in the Western Cape by the end of April, we knew declining the invitation turned out to be the right decision. My training gradually became inconsistent as my health deteriorated. My body no longer responded to training like it did during the warmer months, with the pace I hit leading into the Durban Marathon being reduced to a tantalising memory. In desperation, I shifted all my training to the middle of the day, when temperatures were a bit warmer.


I decided to stop trying to qualify for the Marathon World Champs in Budapest as I realised my time was going to run out. I started focusing on shorter distance races instead. My main targets were the ASA Half Marathon Championships in June, the prestigious ABSA 10 km series, and the ASA 10 km in November. The idea was for these smaller goals to set me up nicely for my main goal, which was to race a fast marathon in the second half of the year.


As you may know by now, all those races have passed and I wasn’t on the start-line at any of them!


So, what happened?!



BAD LUCK

In May, I was preparing for the ASA Half-Marathon Championships, which took place on the first weekend of June. However, two weeks before the race, I got Bronchitis. It was the first and only time, in 2023, that I got sick outside of my chronic illness. The timing could not have been worse.

I have been lucky when it comes to colds or flus. I never caught Covid-19 throughout the pandemic. We realised that it would not be wise to race a hard 21 km. Potentially extending, or worsening, this sickness was not a risk I was willing to take, especially with the danger of creating a long-term problem.


I looked forward to competing again, and representing Western Province Athletics, so it was frustrating. That said, I also acknowledge that it’s not just about me. I would have travelled as part of a team, so I could’ve infected those around me. I would have felt terrible if I had ruined a teammate or competitor’s race, potentially also costing them a few weeks of training afterwards.



WHEN IT RAINS IT POURS

I decided to put the disappointment behind me, and work towards the next goal.

The fire lit up again when I got invited to compete in the elite field of the Berlin Marathon. I went out for a long run in Cape Town that weekend, excited and motivated to prepare for joining the best in the world on the flat and fast streets of Berlin. This would’ve been my first time competing in an international marathon overseas, not to mention one of the prestigious Abbott Marathon Majors.


The weather didn’t share my excitement, nor care about my long run plans that day. It was already a cold morning. Then, what started as a drizzle turned into a pour half way through the run. I ended up next to the road, battling with hypothermia. The one moment I still felt strong, the next my vision started blurring and my legs became heavy. I started losing motor-control and could no longer keep a straight line. I was forced to start walking, until my body came to a grinding halt. My dad had to cycle as fast as he could back to the car to come pick me up, while a stranger waited with me as I shivered uncontrollably.


We had one of the worst winters ever in the Western Cape. It may not seem significant compared to some countries, but to us South Africans, who are used to pretty mild winters, it was certainly a shock to the system. We had the most rainfall in over 40 years, accompanied by flooding, icy temperatures and insane winds. There was a lot of damage, both in my neighbourhood and in surrounding areas.



Nonetheless, I wrote in big, bold letters on my blackboard: I WANT THIS MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE. I WILL BE AN OLYMPIAN IN 2024.


I was determined not to let the weather stop me. I convinced myself that I'm stronger than the storm and should just push through. However, sticking to a structured schedule became increasingly challenging. While I managed to clock easy miles, executing quality workouts and long runs proved difficult as my body tended to shut down in the cold and wet conditions.





THE START OF BERLIN MARATHON BUILD-UP

My marathon-specific training began 12 weeks before the race on September 24, 2023. To elevate my performance, my agent suggested collaborating with a coach, whose name I've decided to keep private.


Being self-coached is essential for managing my chronic health conditions effectively. Each morning, I check my vitals, follow my activation and warm-up routine, and make decisions based on my body's feedback: a few key markers indicate extreme dehydration or low blood pressure. I've learned not to push myself too hard in challenging conditions, like icy temperatures or heavy rain, to avoid setting myself up for failure.



With the desire to elevate my performance to the next level, I gave being coached a shot. Sometimes, advancing requires a different approach than what you've done before. It's great to have someone who genuinely cares about your progress provide feedback on training.

I quickly realised that his coaching approach didn’t support my progress. He proposed changes to elements that had previously proven effective for me, such as my weekly mileage, workout types, warm-up/cool-down routines, and strength training schedule. Staple components like hill repeats, fartleks, tempo runs, and post-easy run strides were entirely removed. His plan focused on just two key sessions weekly: a long interval track session, alongside a long run or extended run with marathon-paced intervals.


While this approach might suit some, it wasn't the right fit for me. Coming from a non-track background and lacking natural speed, I found shorter, faster workouts and power-based training like hills and resistance exercises in the gym crucial to maintaining my speed. The main issue revolved around his training philosophy. In the past, if I missed a session due to health or bad weather, I had no issue shifting it by a day or two. However, in his eyes, missing a session meant it was lost, and we had to move on with the program. I've found that I make progress when I listen to my body and adapt to its readiness, rather than forcing a response. Managing my medical conditions is a constant aspect of my life, both as an athlete and in my day-to-day.


He was inflexible and reluctant to adapt. Insisting on track intervals, he dismissed my preference for the road or grass. The last time I did consistent track training was in 2019, before my first marathon, during short weekly sessions with the Cape Town based ATC club. One evening before a workout, he called and instructed me to do four 3000m repeats the following day.


My aversion to the track wasn't without reason. Numerous hard falls throughout my life have left me with a few scars…


  • I've experienced eight concussions, starting when I was six years old.

  • If you glance at my knees, you'll notice dark stretch marks from numerous severe falls. Move a bit closer, and on my left calf, there's a deep, dark line. This scar is a result of a dog attack when I was thirteen; I lost half my leg and underwent 45 stitches and plastic surgery for repairs.

  • Despite healing, it has remained my weaker leg. I fell on my left side when a pick-up truck hit me in America while I was crossing the road after practice.

  • Additionally, my left side is slightly shorter than my right, which turns out to be pretty common.

Combining all these factors, my body doesn't not like repeatedly turning left.


When I shared this with him, however, his response was simply:

‘I'm sorry to hear that. Have a good session tomorrow. Send me the times.’"

Following that session, I encountered issues with my hamstring and hip. He obviously didn’t care about what my body requires for optimal performance, taking my chronic health into account. Moreover, he never took my training and injury history into consideration. When he told my agent not to worry about my health, attributing my fatigue to marathon training and high mileage, it was conclusive evidence that he wasn't the right coach for me.


Until then, I'd been injury-free for the year. Apart from the bone stress injuries caused by a medication dosage error the previous year, I'd been running without significant issues since early 2019. While all runners deal with occasional niggles or tightness, I hadn't faced anything that required a complete stop to my running routine. Unfortunately, in the following weeks, that reality changed, ultimately leading to taking a step back.


In my following blog post, I will elaborate on the most frustrating and challenging injury I have had in my running career, and where I am now in my recovery journey.


To be continued...


~ Written by Annie Bothma, edited by Francois Bothma

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