Broken but not done.

At the finish of 40km Day 1 in Spain in July 2017. I am smiling but I am suffering so much in this photo there are simply no words.

I suspect this post is very much a senseless ramble but I’m so confused with my body and health right now I think that is fitting.

On a bike my body has taken me up the Alps, to China and to Nigeria. I have run through the desert, explored forests, run up mountains and across beaches. I’ve swum through raging rivers, trekked through snow and explored the bush. I’ve shared the trails with leopards, rhinos and buffalo and made lifelong friends.  I was able to do this because my body never said no.  No matter what I asked, it always exceeded my expectations and never disappointed me. Until now.

I didn’t realise that my body was trying very hard to stop me from doing damage by sending out numerous warning signals.  I ignored these signals like the pig-headed person that I am and I’m probably still not listening to my body the way I’m supposed to.  In all honesty what is happening to me now is almost the same as having your heart broken by an insensitive lover. Our adventures have come to an abrupt end, sleep is uneasy and small things make me tired.  How is it possible that your own body can become so alien?

I’m not sure if the strenuous things I’ve done have contributed but a few years ago I was doing one Ultra after another and Doctor Caroline Lee, a fellow runner told me that I was going to run into trouble at some point because I was pushing my body too hard. Of course I laughed it off and told her not to worry about me.  At that stage I had done 14 Ultra events and marathons over the course of a year, averaging 75km of racing every three weeks, and I had no intention of slowing down.  I even finished second lady in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon and in a way running defined me.  The thought that I wouldn’t be able to run completely terrified me and everything I did revolved around my next event. 

My downward spiral into unhealthy and unfit was probably very much like falling in love. At first it was slow and then suddenly it was undeniable.  In the beginning of 2017 I started my own business and this was a lot harder and more stressful than I ever anticipated.  I still managed to do five Ultras in the first half of the year but I started noticing my body was not as willing as before.  It took me longer to recover but I put it down to age as the big 40 had started stalking me.  The first sign that all was not right was during the 76km Addo when I sat down next to the trail for the first time in my life.   I was so convinced that I was going to drop dead that I actually phoned my best friend Alida to ask her to look after my dog Ben if something was to happen to me.  This all seemed very dramatic but a few months later I actually did come very close to not making it home from a race.  I suffered like a dog during the ADDO 76 but still finished the race.  That night I lay in bed and felt pain in my chest that I attributed to over exertion, but I was honestly worried that my heart would just stop beating.  I had never been that tired and knew in my gut that my body wasn’t 100% on board with my silly hobbies. As usual I tried to explain it away by blaming it on not being as fit as before and stressing about my business.  The following weekend I did the 50km Om die Dam Ultra and the weekend after that the 39km Drakensberg Northern trail.  The pain in my chest disappeared and everything seemed back to normal. 

I’m not sure what was going on but I was still tired and easy runs became a massive effort.  This was a bit of a problem as I was preparing for my first ever race overseas.  The 250km Al Andalusia Ultra Trail had been on my bucket list for a long time and my approach was the same as for my three KAEM’s.  My plan was to do a number of long events as training and the 62km Giants Cup Uncut in June was one of them.  After this amazing trek through the Drakensberg things started going downhill, and not in a good way.  During a visit to Clarens at the end of June, I went for two runs with my friend Helen Squirrel and again on the Saturday evening I was having pain in my chest.  This time I blamed it on having way too much wine the Friday night, which doesn’t really make sense because I always have way too much wine.  On the Sunday we climbed up Mount Horab which goes up to around 2300m above sea level.  I was so out of breath I could hardly keep up with Helen, Nial and their dogs. Again I blamed stress and wine for how horrible I was feeling.  I was huffing and puffing so much going up the hills that I was convinced I provided a very nice tail wind for my climbing compatriots.  The week after Clarens, I was focussing on work and didn’t think too much about the pain in my chest, I was however a bit worried as I was supposed to do the Kruger to Canyon the following weekend and really didn’t feel up to it. 

The following few weeks were a complete nightmare involving days spent in ICU, being discharged and going straight back to work.  Of course the matter of taking part in AAUT weighed very heavy on my mind.   My first instinct was to not go through with it but as I had already spent a lot of money on the planned trip I thought that maybe I would be able to go and give it my best shot.  Looking back I don’t know how I could even have thought that running 250km in extreme desert conditions only 3 weeks after being discharged from ICU was ever going to be a good idea.  The other problem was that my training had been very inconsistent for about 8 weeks but I never doubted that my body would as usual answer the questions and reach the demands I was going to put to it.

Looking back at what I went through in Spain absolutely terrifies me.  Of the 120km that I managed to complete of the 250km event, I was crying and cursing for the majority.  At night I was in so much pain I was convinced my body was tearing apart at its seams and I was going to completely fall apart.  Two weeks ago when I saw yet another specialist, he told me that I am very lucky that I didn’t actually have a heart attack during the event.

What I’m trying to get at is that Ultra athletes push their bodies in a way that very few people even know is possible.  We test our limits to the extreme and often hide pain and discomfort at very high costs.  If an ultra-runner complains of being in pain or of being tired, you can bet he’s already half way into the grave.  I always enjoy drawing parallels between horses and runners. Friesian Horses are a breed with a very high pain threshold.  I always say, by the time a Friesian is sweating and shaking from pain, you can be sure it’s busy dying.  I think Ultra runners are the same. By the time they limp or pass out, you might as well throw a space blanket over them and have a moment of silence. 

We also often fall back on the excuse of being mentally exhausted or not having a strong enough head.  I spent so much time after coming back from Spain telling myself that I was in a bad head space because of my health when actually I WAS IN A BAD SPACE BECAUSE OF MY HEALTH.  There was nothing wrong with my head.  I continually joked saying I had a ‘head injury’ and that I had become soft, when in fact my lungs were drowning and my immune system was shutting down.  I kept trying to find myself but with every push, I did more damage to my health so that after two months of half-hearted efforts and countless courses of antibiotics, my body had turned into something I hardly recognised. I am now in a space where I am constantly out of breath, I cough if I talk too much. I sweat like a pig if I walk more than 1km and if I even try to do exercise of more than two hours, I will be down with flu the next day. I’ve put on about 8kg and when I get out of bed in the morning it takes me 5 minutes to just stand up straight.

What has happened to me?

It’s very simple.  Whenever people said to me ‘You should listen to your body’, I would shrug it off thinking; my body does whatever I tell it to do.  When people said ‘You should rest more’, I would reply by saying ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead’.  I was always so obsessed with not getting injured that I didn’t pay any attention to the rest of my body. Who knew that you could injure your cardio vascular system, and as it turns out, it’s something that is very difficult to recover from.  Even now when I know the best thing to do is rest I will sneak out on my bike or go for a very slow run with my dog knowing it will just prolong my recovery but like I said, I feel like my heart has been broken.  I am missing the KAEM for the first time in 4 years and I would eat a bucket of sand if it meant that I could climb to the top of a mountain and complete a run without feeling like I’m going to knock on the pearly gates because of it. 

I honestly don’t know if I would have done anything different because the past three years of running and traveling have been the best three years of my life.  It involved around 40 ultras and marathons and countless happy kilometres exploring trails and making friends.  If it means that those three years maybe shortened my life or damaged my body, I really feel it was worth it.  I would however have reconsidered trying to plough through the desert with broken lungs.  Despite the fact that the past 5 months have been testing to the point of going insane I also don’t know if I am capable of changing.  I have a sneaking suspicion, the moment I am back to my old self I will be back to searching for new adventures and doing silly and unreasonable things.  I would rather have a shorter life filled with adventure and likeminded people than endless years of boredom and monotony.

I am not going to try and say something profound like look after yourself or be good to your body. If you’re going to burn yourself out at least make sure it’s fun and you do it in a spectacular way.  If you’re going to break your body, do it up an awesome mountain or through a stunning desert and make sure to surround yourself with people who understand this.  I am made of adventure.  I was put on the planet to explore and test boundaries so if doing that means I shorten my life or damage a few joints… So be it. Go out in a blaze of glory and mercilessly stalk joy and adventure!

2 comments

  1. Nini · October 23, 2017

    Jy is awesme xxx

  2. Nicolette Koch · October 23, 2017

    Dear Altie, I met you as my sweep when I was DFL at the 2017 Magalies Mountain Challenge, and within a few hours together I felt a connection, and having followed you for the past two months and after having read this piece, I realise how much we have in common. I know how it feels to have an untamable spirit, seeking out adventures that are too scary for others to even consider and to “suck the marrow out of life”. So when life throws curve balls at us we find ourselves in unknown territory. To me you are a true, raw, real inspiration! Thank you for sharing your lowest low with us – it shows us that life is not always perfect and don’t always work out the way we plan it. Be sure to know that you inspire many people around you – even at your lowest low. My wish for you is that you will make a full recovery and enjoy many more adventures to come. Look after yourself x