Walking the New York Marathon

The New York City Marathon 2011 – Part 1.

“Oh, you ran a marathon? How heavy was the sled?” Hillary may not have been dragging a sled but she sure completed a marathon …I think after reading her story you’ll forgive her for leaving the sled behind.

1. intro

I met Hillary almost ten years ago while working in the disability sector and she was the then CEO of the Western Cape Cerebral Palsy Association … this is her story…

Hillary and I at Hillary's 50th

Hillary and I at Hillary’s 50th

I was waiting!  Waiting for the moment when it would hit me!  When I would have that “Aha!” moment, when it would dawn on me, what I was about to do! Perhaps it would be when I was doing the New York City Marathon itself!?  But it never came!!  Instead I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, even though it is often a challenge, but it is the means by which I get things done.

So as I stood on the starting line on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, on Statten Island at 8-45 am on the 6th November 2011 with my son Matthew, looking over towards Manhattan together with about 100 other “runners” and their guides waiting for the gun to go, I did have a little lump in my throat, realising that this was the real thing! The reason why 2011 had been a very different year for me!

In December 2010, I had had a meeting with Marilyn Basson, a physiotherapist from Johannesburg, who had come to talk to me about the work that we were doing at the Western Cape Cerebral Palsy Association, of which I then was the CEO.  We got along very well, and so when she phoned me in February I was delighted to hear from her. What she had to say though took me by surprise and I just brushed it off!  Her friend Dennis (chairperson of Achilles SA, a branch of Achilles International) was looking for people with disabilities who would like to run the New York City Marathon in November!  My reply was, “Hell, No!” I have a disability sticker on my car so that I can park nearest to the entrance to where I need to go, and left it at that!!

However it got me thinking.

What would it take to do a marathon?  Could I do it?  Did I want to do it??

Growing up, my father was a mountaineer, and so even before I could walk on my own at the age of five, my father would take us camping and I would view the world from his back. As I grew older a lot of time was spent walking in the mountains, and recently I had been reflecting on how lucky I had been to have had that experience in my life, because in the last five years I have been crippled and at times reduced to using a wheelchair because of severe back problems. So! Now as I approach my “senior” years I am concerned at what “price” my body has had to pay for the wear and tear it has undergone. Would such an undertaking be a good or bad thing to the overall welfare of my body especially as I was growing older?

I had very little to go on. The goal was completing the New York City Marathon, in November, and it was now February!  So before I signed anything I need to explore the possibilities of such an undertaking. My first point of call was my GP. Dr Irma Louw, to see if my body was up to the challenge. I went through all the tests and was cleared. However the one question I kept asking, to which there was no clear answer, was could someone with Cerebral Palsy undertake this type of venture?

It was suggested that I contact Professor Andrew Bosch at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa. I went to see Prof. Bosch. He was so gracious, but I wondered what he really thought, because in hindsight he must have been very perplexed at this lady with Cerebral Palsy, wanting to summit such a high mountain.  But the best thing to come out of our meeting was that he reminded me that the best person to speak to was Dr Nelleke Langerak – of course! I had met Nelleke before and when Prof. Bosch mentioned to her I was reminded that indeed she was just the right person to engage with!

Nelleke works at the Gaits and Motion Lab, at the University of Stellenbosch and the Tygerberg Campus in Bellville. They agreed to take me on and support me in my training for the marathon!  Enter physiotherapist Dominic Fisher!

The first thing they did was to do the analysis of “Hillary”.  This meant 1. Nelleke and Dominic measured everything about my body, how far it bent and 2. For them to film my “walking”! This grandmother had to wear shorts and a top – not a pretty sight I am sure – however it was necessary for us to have a before and after record.

The measurement was to see how flexible I was. With Cerebral Palsy, one’s muscles are either too tight – or too short, or else they can be too loose – too long. In my case they are tight and so need to be stretched.  I should say that as a child the physiotherapy I received was always about stretching my muscles.  Also by measuring these movements it also gave a base line at the start of the exercise – before the training and the actual marathon, of what I was like so that the end results could also be compared. The first time I went to Dominic for physiotherapy I was not sure what to expect.  A number of years ago and at great cost, I had gone for physiotherapy, hoping, that even as an adult it might help, but it had not helped much! However what Dominic did – it is his job – was  he gave me a “sport massage”, which I had never had before, and boy did he work on muscles I never knew I had and I walked out of his rooms feeling 10 feet tall!  It was more than just the physiotherapy he gave me, it was his friendship, advice and incredible encouragement and support which he gave me at every session.

The first time I went out for a walk was around the block to go and register for the elections. When I got back I was so tired – I had not even walked 1 km – and was seriously worried about that!  What was I embarking on? Added to this, I was experiencing a severe pain in my left ankle, and was not sure what it was, nor the cause of it.  I went see a podiatrist – enter Sean Pincus. His test was to see if I could hop on my left foot!  When I could not – last time I had tried to hop I certainly was not a grandmother! He pronounced that I had a torn ligament in my ankle.

So what a start to my training for the New York City Marathon!  The treatment was to have an MRI on my foot.  Normally the MRIs are done in tunnels and make a lot of noise – I have had a number done in the past, and with my claustrophobia, it is not a pleasant experience.  Added to this, the procedure is very expensive.  However the Sports Science Centre has a new MRI machine which can now do isolated parts of the body. So off I went for the scan. The major concern about having this injury was, “How was I going to train?” Even though Sean recommended that I could train either in the water or on a bike, I was still at the “exploratory” stage and did not know what my body could handle. Yes I can swim, but we were heading into winter and I did not belong to a gym.  I have an adult’s tricycle – cannot ride a bicycle – but neither of these disciplines is anything like walking.  One of the recommendations that Prof Bosch made was not to train in a gym.  Lots of people train in a gym, but I have never been a “gym” girl!  When I was in London in April I did get to “try” out Matthew’s tread mill and it was a no-go because my rhythm of walking is so different, that there is not a machine yet out there that can match it.  So at this early stage I was already down-hearted at the prospects, thinking that it might be 6 weeks before I could start walking training, and it was already April – six months to go.  But once I have made my mind up – I do everything I can to achieve it! And so I started going out for short walks to see what the effect would be on my foot.  Miracles of miracles, the pain had all but gone – the only explanation is that the MRI had somehow ‘massaged’ the tendon and had healed it – (this has happened in a similar situation with a tendon in my wrist some years before, and that is why I was sure it had happened again!)

First things first!  I did not even have a pair of walking shoes! So off I went to buy a pair.  I did not know what was what, nor did the people in the shop! So I just tried on a few pairs and bought the pair that felt most comfortable wearing. Christopher, my husband, came out with me in the evenings. On one of the first occasions, I could hardly complete one km, and whatever distance I did cover I developed a crippling stitch.  So the first few sorties were not very encouraging and got me quite worried.  What had I let myself in for? Perhaps it was being too foolhardy, and dare I say, perhaps a bit stupid even to think that I could achieve this.

Dennis had promised that Achilles was going to sponsor me to go to New York to do the marathon so at that stage money was not my concern! – Little did I know!  All I had to do was concentrate on getting fit. It was therefore up to me. It was my own self determination and self-motivation to get out and do the walking. I had no one checking up on me and it was up to me to get my shoes on and to get out and walk.  My weeks at work can be very taxing and I did not always want to go out in the evenings, but as the time for the marathon approached I took myself out every other day.  Right from the beginning though Sunday mornings were always for a long walk.  First it was the Pavilion on the Sea Point sea front and then it was the broad walk from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay and back, with lunch at Kalkies.  Then one Sunday it was from Kalk Bay to the start of Simons Town.  On that particular walk, when we got as far as Fish Hoek, Christopher walked back to get the car, while Tallulah, my dog and I walked on to Simons Town. It then became evident that it would be better if I went out for walks with Tallulah and Christopher stayed at home, so that should I need him, I could phone him and he could come and get me in the car.

There after Christopher, Tallulah – and I would go down to Sea Point Pavilion on a Sunday morning and walk on the beach front.  Each week we would walk a little bit further.  In the initial stages of the training I tried “running” first between two lamp post and then walk between the next two, but I soon decided that actually I would be better off if I just concentrated on setting a good walking pace.

My father’s concern for me falling was not unfounded and there were a few times that I did fall.  Whenever I fall I usually stick my hands out and thereby break the fall. However the cost is that the palms of my hands usually pay the price by being cut and bruised.    Enter the cycling gloves, which I then wore for the rest of my training as well as for the entire marathon walk.  My knees also received a fair amount of bashing, but I think that I have bones of steel because I have yet to break a bone, even though at times I do fall rather heavily!!!

Tallulah is a very special dog.  Half Irish terrier and half golden retriever, we have trained her to be obedient and so it was wonderful to have her as a walking companion.  I never had to put her on a lead – except when other dogs came past and their owners were concerned!  On one occasion I took a tumble and she just sat down next to me and I was able to steady myself on her to get up – this happened on a number of occasions!

Part 2 to follow shortly ……..

For all the Suzies

A couple of weeks ago Suzie’s life ended. Her life as it had been. A freak accident left her paralysed from the chest down. Wheelchair bound. Dependent. We all know a Suzie. Maybe not directly. But we all have a friend of friend, a distant relative, a connection with a Suzie story. Being part of a Suzie story compels one to do a stocktake. A gratitude check. A quiet “thank heavens that wasn’t me” – but it could have been. What does being the lead role of a Suzie story do for Suzie? No gratitude checks here. Maybe a “why me”?

A couple of years ago, if asked, I would have replied, “Shoot me please if I come away from an accident unwhole”. But over the last few years, perhaps being part of, and meeting a few Suzies, I have had a mind change. Now I say, “Keep me in the game”. If I am breathing I am still in the running. Perhaps not in the same race. I’d like to think that once the denial, anger, grief, more anger, more grief have passed that I’ll have the courage to exit the change room saying, “I’m here to play, put me back in the game”. I wish for the strength to be able to see the things that are still beautiful. To be able to take stock. A gratitude check. A quiet “thank you; I am still here”. If it is only my eyelid that I can move, then I wish for the courage and patience and strength to become the best damn eyeblinker in the world. Leave me in the game until my final whistle blows.

Thanks to the Suzies who have led me to slowly change my thinking and attempt to embrace “what is”.

Below is the video “The Runners”. Not necessarily linked to Suzie, but linked to life and the variety of others.

Anyone can run

This 21km programme was put together for me by a good friend (and biokinetisist by profession) Heath Keyser. He also happens to be an uber-athlete. This is where my running started……it got me going and has kept me going!

I used this programme over and over again and will still default to it. And remain injury free. I started by walking the time and did that for the first six weeks, and then started at week 1 again, but this time incorporated running. It’s an awesome framework to make work for you and where you are in your running life. It’s a great place to start if you want to run but don’t know where or how to start.

I also earned the title of “bossy boots” when I started my 50 year old colleague (and dear friend) running using this programme. He ran his first half marathon six months later and is still running.

Key things that work for me and have allowed me to make sense of my running and enjoy it:

– Never underestimate the power of walking. If you don’t have the legs, mind or “krag” to run……then walk
– Sleep enough, rest enough
– Respect the easy days and take them easy
– Keep it fun
– Less is more
– Focus on form

So here it is: 21km Running Programme

The approximate distances each week are based on running at 6 min/km. So if you run 30 min at 6 min/km that equates to 5km. If you run faster, that is fine, but rather run for time as the program states.

Hills means choose a hilly route. Don’t avoid hills; seek them out. Once a week, pick a hilly route. If there is only one significant hill in your area, run it from each direction. Climbing builds strength in your quads and gets the heart rate up.

Easy is used as a recovery run or for your long run on the weekend.

Fast is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and this improves your fitness.

Running for time also helps you to run an out-and-back course. For example, if your running time is 24min, run out for 13 min and back in 11 min. You usually run the second half faster because just like a racehorse sniffing the home straight, you tend to pin your ears back and go faster.

Training is built around a paradox—you don’t get fitter when you’re training. You improve when you’re resting. That’s when your body rebuilds from hard sessions. Rest means no running that day. However, it is active rest, so you can do gym, cycle, swim, stretch or just put your feet up!

Run 21km

Important parts of your program to remember:

• Drink water – the most important nutrient you put in your body! At least 6-8 glasses per day. It contributes more than half of your body weight, plays an important role in physical performance. It’s an easy thing to do.
• Get good shoes.
• Don’t worry how far you are running. Rather than set a distance goal, set a time goal. Increase the time gradually (10% increase a week) to avoid over extending yourself.
• Stretch – this is a personal choice. You may choose something like yoga over an intensive stretch session.

Tips for Successful Running

1. Structure your Sessions
The best way to become an accomplished runner is to get on a regular training program. A good program tells you what to do each day, and it is organised around sound training principles. You will make more progress if you understand how the programs are structured.

2. Build Gradually
It has been found that the body can handle gradual increases in distance very well and is less likely to get injured. The general rule is to increase mileage no more than 10% a week. This is especially important in running where the impact stresses are much greater than in cycling or swimming.

3. Vary the Pace
The most common mistake of novice runners is to plod along day after day at the same moderate pace. They always train at a jog and then when they want to actually run, their body doesn’t respond. Top runners, on the other hand, know how to alternate fast intervals on the track with leisurely runs in the forest. Fast runs/intervals provide the chance for improvement while slow runs allow the body to recover and get stronger. The big mistake is going the same speed day after day. If you always run at a moderate pace, your body won’t know that you want it to adapt and get faster.

4. Vary the Volume
Just as you vary the pace, you should also run different distances during the week. By gradually increasing the distance on your weekend run, your body adapts quickly to the increased workload.

5. Keep It Fun
Training should never be a noose around your neck. You are running for fun, relaxation and to improve your fitness. Explore different routes, alternate runs on pavements and contour paths, run alone and then in a group, try to break your personal record for the local time trial, sign up for a low-key race. Boredom should never be an option.


my coach said

My Challenge

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIt all started a few years ago with open water swimming. A few Robben Island crossings under the belt and I asked myself “What next?”. So I bought some running shoes and ran a half marathon. Great – “What now?” So I bought a bike and did the Argus. Happy that I had reached the end of the “What the..?” questions, I went to PE to watch Ironman. And my world fell silent. My definition of “triathlete” changed forever. They were there – the lean, mean, colour-coordinated racing machines! But so were hundreds of others. The people like me. And they were doing it. The support, the vibe, the dedication, determination – everything visible. The switch inside me went on.

And so I started the metamorphosis. I bought a wetsuit (sacrilege for an open water swimmer), I got tri bars and entered my first triathlon. And fell in love. At the beginning of this year I found myself at the start of 70.3. I had a wonderful race and my only disappointment is that it was over too soon! So when the Iron-distance triathlon was announced for Cape Town, I did not even hesitate. I compete to train, I don’t train to compete. This event was the perfect goal on which to plan an enormous block of base training. Although a bit early in my triathlon career, my coach Ian Waddell agreed that it could be done. Ian has been very much part of my journey as he has planned very individualised programs for me, working very holistically and challenging every muscle fibre! For six months I trained and loved it. I had the support of Leo, my boyfriend (now husband) and close friends Herda and Adrian. Triathlon is a team sport: 1 athlete = many supporters. So when, two weeks from race day, the event was cancelled, I was (like everyone else) stranded. When beginning with the training, it was all about the training. But as I trained, I got stronger, fitter, more confident and more comfortable with my now good friend, fatigue. And so the race took more importance and my goals came into focus. It had become all about the race.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhy had I entered? What did I want from the event? The medal? The recognition? The t-shirt? The tattoo? I just wanted to do it. I wanted to put my training to the test. I wanted the cherry on the top. I wanted to validate the sacrifice – mine and that of those closest to me. The event was cancelled but the route was there for the doing. So armed with my “A-Team” I got going. 152 lengths at SACS High school pool (I chose a pool swim so that I could get going at 5am and the sea aspect of the swim was not the issue for me); 180km bike – out along the Atlantic Seaboard, two loops around Cape Point and back along the Atlantic Seaboard (Suikerbossie at 160km is rather special!); 44km run (yes our measurements were a bit off!) – from Greenpoint, through the Waterfront, up through town and straight up Kloof Nek (another special part of the day!), down Camps Bay Drive, out along the coast with the turnaround at the Twelve Apostle’s Hotel, another loop into the Waterfront with the final loop back along the Promenade.

Run with AdrianI tried to keep the route as close to the that specified by the cancelled event – but the distance was the priority. I had to do an Iron-distance day!

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACoach, boyfriend, best friend, an uber-ironman, many friends and fifteen and a half hours later, I crossed my finish line.

What I missed in race vibe and spectator support I gained in the closeness of great friends. Adrian (uber-ironman) was by my side from beginning to end. To draw off his confidence, experience and patience all day was an experience gained. To have my seconds (they should be called “firsts”) – Leo and Herda – follow me around the Peninsula with drinks, food, support and entertainment was an experience gained. For Adrian to have “raced” for fifteen and half hours off his pace is a truly remarkable feat and just highlights the true essence friendship, the same for Herda and Leo. The amount of time they spent in the car chasing me, they could have had a leisurely drive to Jo’burg!

Pure joyThe day was amazing – many highs and many lows, but always fantastic. The fact that it was shared so closely with so many others – the people who have been next to me through my training – adds something special. Through this experience I have learnt a few things: Triathlon is a team sport; the events are magic but the training is better; we play in the most amazing training ground – use it; share your journey – people are interested; enjoy the lows – they will pass, as do the highs; know why you do it.

Finish with LeoI will always be training, it has become part of me. My next big one will be Ironman 2013. I look forward to the next eighteen months of planning, training, strengthening and putting what I’ve learnt over the last six months into practice.

Try it, do it, love it!

(Article originally published in 2012 Ironman 70.3 Mag by Electric Ink Media – thanks Paul Ingpen)

Also see related post by Leo Rust