I didn’t grow up running – in fact, I hated it! I was a tennis player through school and varsity – there was no mention of running anywhere other than around the tennis court in those days. (In fact, when it came to the school athletics day when it was compulsory for every girl to participate in at least one event, my house teacher diplomatically suggested (or instructed!) that I do shotput! Enough said.
But after I was unceremoniously thrust into running a half marathon in Knysna in 2007 (thanks Craige!), my road to running (pun intended) started and I started entering a few races, going to time trials and including a run or three in my week. I was purely a social runner. Yes, by that I mean a slow runner – I kept the back of the pack going nicely, thank you very much. I’d love to tell you that I enjoyed every step of my running, but very often it was far more the feeling of accomplishment after the run was finished than the run itself – I know you understand 😊 So after having not run for a good year or so and, even then, run relatively little for quite some time before that, one of my mate Nicky’s contributions to The List was to run another half marathon.
And before you think you know where this post is going and this is going to be some motivational post about getting off the couch and getting active, I’m not about to tell you about the training I did for the race (which wasn’t enough) or any magic strategies I implemented going into the race that I chose. Suffice to say that yes, I did it 🙂 I finished the Pick n Pay half marathon on 14 February 2016 in a time that I was properly chuffed with. And I finished it because in my mind I knew I could – I knew that, despite not being quite fully trained for it, I had it within me to finish the race, and to finish it strong.
And so it is that I’d like to share with you the story of a seemingly impossible race for me where I only finished because I mentally knew I could.
Some years back after having completed quite a few half marathons, I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. I may well have had too much champagne when I made that decision, or I may have been just unrealistically inspired by my brother, who has completed seven Comrades ultramarathons, countless marathons and two IronMan events. He is my inspiration and my hero on so many levels in life. Nevertheless, having made the decision, I marked the marathon on the calendar that I was aiming for – Waterval Boven 3-in-1 – and trained religiously, slowly building my mileage up. Even after not being allowed to train for six weeks before the race because of an injured foot, I lined up at that Start Line, ready to take on my marathon, both literally and figuratively.
I will not subject you to a ball by ball commentary of my marathon – but what I will tell you is that as I crossed that Finish Line, some five and a half hours and 42.2 kilometres later, the lump in my throat that had been with me since about the 20km mark, finally gave way and the tears started to fall. And while being hugged by Mom and Dad (who had made the journey to support me along the road) I said to them through the tears “I bet, when I was born, you didn’t think I’d ever run a marathon!” By this stage Mom was crying too and then either Mom or Dad (I can’t remember who it was through the tears and emotion of that moment) said “When you were born, we didn’t even know if you’d ever walk, let alone run a marathon!”
The reality is that I was born with a club foot. For those of you that don’t know what that is, essentially my left foot was turned inwards and upwards – the level of severity of my club foot was such that my toes were virtually touching my shin (and hence my parents’ fear about being able to walk). While there are many newer and successful methods of treatment of clubbed feet today, some 40 years ago a club foot required fairly extensive surgery, often without significant success. My lower left leg was in a cast for much of the first year of my life (with the cast being redone every six week to try and straighten the bones as much as possible) and I had three sets of surgeries. The first was when I was a few months old, the second when I was 3 years old and the last when I was 5. And in between that, as a toddler going off to nursery school, I had to wear some sturdy black boots (the type that are often accompanied by callipers and are (or were) fairly common for kids who have had polio). And those boots hardly came off. To this day I recall a nursery school ‘report card’ from when I was about 3 or 4, specifically commenting on the fact that I apparently “happily” wore my boots in the playground while all the other kids were running around barefoot on those hot Free State summer days. My casts and my boots were just part of who I was.
All credit to my parents, who never let the disability hold me back in any way. Despite the surgeries, they didn’t make me feel different because of my foot – the only thing I knew as a little girl was that one foot was smaller than the other, it looked a bit different, and I couldn’t balance on my left leg. (I love it how simple things are at that age!) I certainly didn’t think there was any reason for me not to be out running around and playing sport with the other kids. I played (and excelled in) tennis, and loved being out on the court. I remember one Saturday morning in Standard 9 (that’s Grade 11 for my younger friends out there!) going to a first team tennis practice with a new coach and, when explaining the first set of drills which involved some sprints and skipping, he turned to me and asked if I’d be able to manage that with my foot. I was so offended – how did he think I got to play tennis for the first team if I couldn’t run or skip? (Yes, I know in retrospect he was being considerate, but try tell that to a 15-year old!)
You may wonder what the relevance is of all of this to The List – why am I sharing this story ? Well, taking on that marathon is the one and only thing I’ve ever taken on in my life (so far) purely for the purpose of proving that I can do it despite my foot. And I didn’t want (or need) to prove it to Mom, Dad, that tennis coach or anyone else – it was solely to prove to myself that I could do it, that I was stronger than some physical disability. And I was. I am.
Physically, have I let my foot impact me? Hardly. Yes, I limp when I’m tired and I often have people asking me what’s wrong or if I’m okay and I wonder what they’re on about, until I realise I must be tired and I must be limping a bit more than I appreciate. Probably the biggest impact is when I go shopping for shoes. And before you laugh and shake your head concluding that it’s always about shoes with girls 🙂 let me fill you in. I long to wear a pair of glamorous heels, but unfortunately I can’t. With virtually no mobility in my left ankle and overpronating substantially, I am physically not able to walk in heels. So my dream of wearing a pair of high-heeled knockout glamorous shoes, will remain a dream. And when buying shoes, I need to buy two pairs every time – my left foot (or my ‘little foot’ as my family affectionately calls it) is a size 3 and my right foot is a size 6. In addition to this often being practically difficult as a shop doesn’t always have both sizes in a particular style, you can imagine it’s also expensive. But if those are my biggest physical limitations, then I’m doing well (and better than my parents could ever have imagined when I was born).
Emotionally, however, my disability has impacted me. Like I said, my parents were amazing, but as I grew older, I saw that I was different to the other kids. And so started the striving to be “good enough”. I felt that because I had a disability, I had to make sure I made up for it in every other aspect of my life. So I tried to be the child who never caused problems or issues and just tried to make sure everyone else was happy – in some way trying to justify my place in the world. And let me be crystal clear – my parents only ever encouraged and supported me. They in NO WAY made me feel “less than”. The striving to feel as good as everyone else was all self-imposed – and it’s amazing to me now to see the complicated emotions and strategies we can teach ourselves from a very young age!
Bottom line… despite the physical and emotional impact of my club foot, it’s part of who I am. I’ve earmarked my next marathon and I’m in this for the long run, both physically and metaphorically. Most importantly, this is a big thank you to Mom, Dad and Craige who have supported me in everything I’ve put my mind to, including climbing mountains and running marathons – it’s because of you that I know that physically I can do (virtually) everything that anyone else can do. I know that there are times when it must have been hard for you, when you have wondered why certain things turned out the way they did – but thank you for never letting me see that, and for only letting me believe that I was perfectly made.