Walking the New York Marathon

The New York City Marathon

“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 approached to participate in the 2011 New York City Marathon as they were looking for people with disabilities who would like to run the New York City Marathon. 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?? 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 physical and mental possibilities of such an undertaking. 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?  I decided to find the answer and began this journey with the support of experts, professionals (both medical and sport) and my family.

Christopher, my husband, came out with me in the evenings. On one of the first occasions, I could hardly complete one kilometre, 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.

But it was 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.  There after Christopher, Tallulah (my dog and training partner) – 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 posts 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.

As my training progressed, so too did the distances that I was able to cover. Christopher and I went up to Bainskloof in July and we decided to walk down to where the road crosses the river.  We discover afterwards that it was a distance of 14 km!  Early on in my training Christopher had bought me – a step counter, which we call the ‘red dot’ and  which counts the number of steps I take, the distance I cover and the time it takes, which proved to be very useful. On this first long walk I was so tempted to turn back after 5km, but Christopher patiently got me to go on to the bridge, and when we got back felt very happy at having not given up and for doing the whole distance.  Most surprisingly though, after that walk, was that I was not exhausted!

Thereafter it was sheer determination and self-discipline!  The fun part for me was planning the walk. Lying in bed and designing which route I was going to follow.  The first big walk I did from the house was another 15 km round trip with Tallulah and when it was not a long walk together with her it was with her and Christopher either along the Sea Point promenade or from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay, for lunch and back again, or from Kalk Bay to Simons Town.  During the week I would try and go out two or three times and walk between 4 & 5 km.

Eventually in September I realised that I had to step up the pace, so one Sunday I decided that I had to see how far I could walk in one go and how long it would take and how I would feel afterwards.  So we set off one Sunday morning in September, which turned out to be one of the hottest days that month, 30°C, and my aim was Muizenberg!  That I think would have been nearly 30km away, but in the end I made it to Lakeside which was 21km away!  I had completed half a marathon! I now knew that I could do a whole marathon. I felt fine. My body was tired but it did not ache.  It had taken me just over 4 hours so I now had some idea as to how long a full marathon might take.  I now just had to get out on a regular basis and get the kilometres on my shoes!

3. registration

Hillary at registration

Marathon day arrived. It was now or never! As we waited for the gun to send us on our way, I admit that there was a tear in my eye and Matthew (my son who had agreed to walk with me as my guide) gave me a hug. One of the things I was most nervous about was the fact that I had never participated in an event like this before and so was not aware of how to run with other runners, and so when we got to about the 5 mile mark the rest of the field had started and were catching up with us.  Fortunately the roads were wide and for the most part people just ran past. However there were a number of other runners who were not pleased to have a ‘walker’ on the course and were rude with remarks or pushing.  But they were just a few people. The other disabled runners and their guides all wore luminous green tops, so there was no mistaking who we were. What was also very heart warming and exceedingly encouraging was how many of the fellow runners who passed gave words of encouragement.

Another aspect of the encouragement came with spectators shouting words of encouragement to us as we passed; I had printed my name on my shirt so there was no mistaking who I was, though there were times when I was sorry that I had put my name on it because so many people were shouting out my name, and I did not know how to respond.

Matthew and I had agreed that should he at any point along  the way feel the need to point out that my walking was not what it should be he could say ‘ladders’ which would be a reminder to me, to pick my feet up.  I must say that I do not remember him saying that, however, there was one point, and this was the point of my whole undertaking of this venture –  to see if this sort of activity would improve my walking – was when I became very aware that my body was very tired and that my walking was laboured. So what I did was; I mentally went through my body, starting at my head, using my mind’s eye, to see what was happening to my body.  When I got to my hips, what I saw was that I was not swinging my legs from my hips but instead I was somehow propelling my body forwards. Now knowing this to be the case, I then started to use my hips and my walking became easier.  I felt very satisfied that when the sweeper van came through at about 4 pm there was no inclination to get on to it.  At about 5pm the roads were being reopened and we then had to walk on the pavements.  We could always see other people in front of us and were aware of people still walking behind us.  However we knew that so long as we were still walking there would be someone waiting at the finishing line.

At last I could see the finishing line, and Matthew  and I held hands and crossed the line together, 10 hours and seven seconds after we started! I had, with the help of many achieved what I had set out to do!  I was so tired but the sense of pride and achievement and having my son doing it with me, was a very very special moment in my life!!

7. finishing

Finish line



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