Sunday 11 October 2020

A fit and healthy lifestyle (reminiscing and lessons learned)

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of children, teens and some adults from the Parys Multisport Club, which is run by Pierre Fourie. Pierre coaches children from primary and high schools for athletics and cross-country and he also has a number of adults who he coaches. Pierre started the club only a few years ago and he hosts a weekly time trial here in town. He has also been involved with organising and hosting school cross-country league events. 

Photograph with Pierre (in the middle) and Wilfred, an experienced athletics coach who I actually first encountered in the late 2000s when I was working for SuperSport's Let's Play programme (Wilfred is also a karate instructor).

Pierre invited me to speak on 'A fit and healthy lifestyle' as I have been active throughout my life and for me sport is very much about health and wellness. Too many teens stop doing all sports when they leave school. 

In thinking about content for this talk, I considered my very diverse sport participation and the lessons I've learned along the way from this. It really is too good not to share, and so I'm writing it down here - for me to remember and reflect on too.

All kinds of sports

At primary school (perhaps from Grade 4 on?), I played netball and did swimming. Netball is the only activity I can really recall for which there was any coaching / practice. Swimming was mostly during phys ed lessons but perhaps in Grades 6 and 7 I recall some swimming practice and also races against other schools.

Athletics was a minor event in primary school with only the annual sports day (little to no preparation for this - just a trial to determine who runs what. 

Outside of school I was always swimming and rollerskating, climbing trees, riding bikes and spending lots of time outside.

For my first two years of high school I went to Potch Girls. I played netball briefly (decided it was no longer for me), swam briefly (the 6am morning training sessions were not for me) and stuck with athletics early in the year. Athletics at the school was pretty good and I jumped into the sprints (100m and 200m and relay) as well as long jump, high jump, hurdles and javelin. After school I remember hours spent rope skipping - solo and group (remember those neon ripper skipper ropes?).

Back at school in JHB, athletics moved from summer to winter and I had a great coach and loved our training sessions. We had 'matches' once a week in season too. At this stage I never thought that I would run further than 200m!

A friend on the athletics team (and classmate) invited me to join him and his dad at a 10km road race. They came to fetch me and off we went. Henry ran with me. I remember taking a few walks too. It must have been on our third or fourth event - a 10km Nite Race in Alberton - that I ran the whole way without walking and clocked a sub-60. After this, they would come to fetch me and we'd all run our own races (Henry was faster than me). This continued through to the end of my schooling and I am so thankful to Henry for that first invitation (and please with my young self that accepted it!).

I must have been 15 when I first joined a gym - Vic's Gym at the top of Sovereign Street in Kensington / Bedford Gardens. There I got into super circuit and aerobics (high impact and step). I would walk up the hill to the gym, do circuit before aerobics, nail one or two aerobics classes, and then run home downhill.

At university, I was enticed by the Underwater Club and within my first two weeks began playing underwater hockey. For the first year I played once a week and loved it. I dabbled with climbing but as I was at the gym daily and playing underwater hockey, it never stuck.

By first year I'd moved to the Health & Racquet Club in Bedfordview. It would later become a Virgin Active. There I discovered treadmills, which I loved. Also the StairMaster, still super circuit and also aerobics classes - still high impact and step but also powerpump and yoga. Later they brought in spinning classes too. I was at the gym seven-days-a-week.

Within a year or two I was playing underwater hockey one or two nights a week and then on Sunday mornings too. I made the Provincial B side and then the Provincial A side, by which time I was playing five times a week. And then the National side. 

I was still doing road races on weekends.

In 1998 I went to the US for a few weeks and there I had no underwater hockey or gym. I started running every day on the road. Returning home it was a juggle with gym, road running and underwater hockey - but I loved it.

In mid 1999 I discovered adventure racing. Where underwater hockey had been my obsession and I couldn't imagine my life without it, adventure racing took over every inch of my brain. I was obsessed from the start. Adventure racing changed the direction of my life.

I got a mountain bike after the first race but had not yet done much with paddling. I was still mostly running and in the gym.

Adventure racing led to ultra trail running and staged racing. I had the fortune of running in the US (Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Hawaii), Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Namibia and SA, trading writing for running in most cases. (Much of these before I started this blog in Jan 2006).

In the mid-2000s I was doing a lot of media work in adventure racing - travelling abroad to write for races and teams, but also local work in writing and tv. From this I got experienced that I would never have been able to afford but I found it challenging to keep up my own training with the long hours that I was working. 30-minute runs kept me sane and somewhat fit.

When I started adventure racing, I also got into orienteering to improve my navigation skills and, from about 2000, I was regularly at orienteering events for the next 15 years. I also loved orienteering coaching for schools and for our junior team. Orienteering led to rogaining and I have had the fortune of doing doing two 24hr events abroad - in Estonia and Ireland - and many (all but one, I think) of the local annual rogaining events, which have always been a highlight every year since about 2003. We hosted two rogaining events out here in the hills surrounding Parys.

Adventure racing also led me indirectly to staged ultras. My first being the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon - must have been 2001. I found out about it a week before the event because of a product review (bivvy bag) that a magazine asked me to write. Running through the night on the ultra stage was very definitely one of those epiphany moments that I'll never forget.

In 2001 I got pulled into the ladies team for Camel Whitewater and this is where I got a good water base in rafting and understanding water. By the mid-2000s I was paddling occasionally (K1 and K2) but it was only in 2008, in preparation for my first (of three) trips to participate in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, that I properly began to paddle properly. Paddle coach Russell Willis sorted out kinks in my technique and built me a solid paddle style. For three years I would paddle for four to six months of the year. 

Around this time I also gave up my gym membership, something I would never imagined that I would ever do. I was out on the road, trails, water and in studios - not enough in the gym to warrant a membership that I wasn't using.

By mid-2008, I had started pole dancing. I'd heard talk of it and found a class in Edenvale. I loved it from the first because it was hard! After six months I did an instructor course and then taught one or two pole classes a week for the next 4.5 years. 

I started going once or twice a week to Ashtanga yoga classes in 2011 (for a few years) after an introduction to acroyoga at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge.

In 2012 I heard about aerial circus classes and would head off there once or twice a week. Trapeze, silks, ropes, lyra, chinese pole and a lot of strength and flexibility drills. It was brilliant and rewarding. The school closed after a year or so. I went back to some pole but mostly was into running, yoga, paddling and a dash of biking.

I've been out of adventure racing for a long time, mostly because I don't have the disposable income for it. It is still in my blood though.

My running has been diverse from road to trail, parkrun to ultras and also multi-day staged events, ultra relays and circuit races. 

10 years ago, when I turned 35, I began my annual birthday running challenge where I run the consecutive number of days of the age that I am turning in the lead up to my birthday. I needed this to restore balance when I found that I wasn't prioritising myself or my training  - too much work and event organising. I still do this birthday challenge now although I'm more on track so it is not as impactful as it has been in some years.

In 2015, I was juggling life between Parys and Jo'burg so I was mostly running and orienteering with a little paddling and probably some yoga.

Since I've lived in Parys (Dec 2015), my proportion of paddling has increased - mostly flatwater and some whitewater in the last three years. I've done some yoga classes, some self-practice (never enough!). Running is still my base - mostly on trails. I used to ride my bike around town a lot but I haven't done so since I got Rusty (my dog) as she is often with me (I need a bicycle sidecar!). I'm always short on time and for the most part I do activities where I can also get Rusty out for exercise (or just an outing) - so running and paddling dominate and I haven't been on my bike for too long.

I've been the Event Director of our Parys parkrun for five years and so I've been very involved as a volunteer and a regular participant. I enjoy the myRun too on Sunday mornings. We also have a Friday-evening Ultimate Frisbee game, which I thoroughly enjoy. Tough game!

In the past five years, the activities that I have really missed have been orienteering (especially for my orienteering family) and pole.

I enjoy competition and have had some really good results over the years (ultra running), but sport for me has been very much about having a fit and healthy lifestyle and trying all kinds of activities.


Don't ever stop!

It is easier to just keep ticking over than to start from scratch. When you're unfit and heavy, any training is hard, hard work. Rather just keep doing something, all the time. 

Having a base fitness also means that you are ready to jump at opportunities that come up, like running a seven-day staged ultra with a week's notice or running 70km through the night with a friend that you are crewing for.

Give everything a try

Don't dismiss anything until you have tried it. I used to think circuit races made no sense. I decided to do one and loved it. I've done four and I'd do more in a heart beat.


Specialist or master of none? 

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was running up a storm. I focused on short, hard and fast in training and had not yet gotten into ultras. I'd run 5km in 20-22 mins without too much strain, my 21km PB is 1:36 and my only marathon is a 3:29 (3rd lady!). And this was on treadmill running (8km a day) and aerobics classes. I was pretty much always in the Top 10 women's placing at 21km events in JHB (8-10 usually).

I've also had some great results at ultras (overall, not just women's category), but again with really not much focused training put in.

Sure, the environment now is different to what it was 20 years ago, but could I have been a trail running star? I don't think I have the temperament. 

Instead of being a specialist, I'm a master of none. I'm good at lots, but not expert or champion because I've never focused on any one discipline, even running. I usually juggle a bunch of sports because they all give me so much joy and satisfaction.

That said, if I had focused on one discipline, I could have maybe been a champion but I would have missed out on so many other experiences that have contributed to making me who I am.


A number of years ago, my mom's friend asked me why I was never injured. She had runner friends who were regularly out of action and at the physio. 

I had two answers to this. 

1. While I've been running distances of 10km or more, and running almost daily for 30 years, I've always gone with quality vs quantity. I think the only 100km weeks that I've ever put in have been because of an ultra race that week!

 2. I am all for cross-training instead of a single-discipline focus which is sure to result in an over-use injury. Mixing it up strong legs, strong upper body, strong core. Good genetics helps too.

I can count my injuries on one hand:

2000 - stress fracture in left shin as a result of worn shoes 

2002 - foot injury at a race when I took a bad step on a round rock. Doctor suspected a fracture in a bone on top of my foot, strapped me in a cast for two weeks. I then began months of proprioception and stability exercises.

2003 - weird pain in my groin directly as a result of a fault in a pair of new shoes. It took me a bunch of unhelpful physio sessions to nail down the cause myself. I never had another problem once I stopped wearing the shoes.

2020 - currently dealing with a toe and knee issue (more on this in another post). Physio and orthopod and x-rays have ruled out any knee issues. I slammed my big toe into a rock about three months ago. But, I actually suspect that my 'injury' and discomfort is from my new trail shoes! I'm in the process-of-elimination phase.

I've had other niggles not lasting longer than a few days and stupid stuff like a cut foot, sliced knee, near-decapitation rope burn and the like that have seen me off for a few days here and there.

Keep a log

In my early days of road running I received an A5 running logbook at a race. I began using it. When it was finished, I made my own version, printed copies and used this format for many, many years. I would log running distance, time spent at aerobics and yoga classes, distances cycled or paddled, races, runs, people, illness, injury... I swopped to a digital log on an Excel spreadsheet but it was never quite the same as that paper booklet.

I haven't kept a log for at least the past seven or eight years. And right now I can kick myself because in trying to establish a timeline to pinpoint when my knee niggle started and the possible causes and influences, I haven't got a log to refer to.

A log is not just about time and distance spent keeping fit, it can also record when you get new shoes, a change in diet, your weight, friends who have joined you on training runs and adventures and races, and events and places that you've been to.

If you need a goal, set one.

I don't need a goal to train but they are handy. If you need the commitment to a race date to get you out of bed, find a race (real or virtual) and enter it.

Find a friend

In my last years in Jo'burg, I had three running fixtures that kept me on track. On Wednesday evenings I ran with Rob. On Friday evenings I ran with Jason and once a week I would take my friend's huskies out for a run. Regardless of whatever else was going on, these fixtures kept me going. And I loved them for the exercise, more distance than I would have run alone and their companionship. I had always run on my own and starting to run with people was daunting initially. I found this to be a blessing.

Nothing lasts forever. 

Underwater hockey was my life. Going to the gym was my life. Then adventure racing was my life. At each stage I couldn't imagine my life without any of these. I have been deeply passionate and involved in all of my activities - orienteering, pole, circus, yoga - but nothing lasts forever and the time that they occupied in my life was significant, rewarding and memorable. But there are other things out there too.

It may be that you have to give up a sport. You may move away from it, have to give it up because of financial reasons or a change in life and availability. Or you may have an injury or illness.

Let go. There is always something else.

There is always time.

(not necessarily a lot, but there is always time)

My annual birthday game reminds me of this again and again. There is 20-30 minutes to do something each day.

I'm always pushed for time but taking Rusty out is a non-negotiable. Where I may not prioritise myself, I prioritise her.

To go paddling I must drive to the paddle club, get out my kayak, get on the water, put in a session (30-45 mins), get out, store my kayak, drive home... all of which ends up taking 90 minutes.

But, I can run or walk from my doorstep. A 20-minute, 4km session is the best exercise value in terms of time, effort and gains.

If you're writing exams, still do 30 minutes a day. It clears your mind and exercises your body. Not having time around exam time is a poor excuse.

If you leave school and are not longer playing team hockey or athletics or another sport that has been presented to you on a silver platter, find something new that you can do on your own or join a club. Leaving school is not a valid excuse to stop doing sport.

Working? We all work. I work crazy hours but I go crazy if I don't do anything. I take off an hour or two in the evening  and I work at night, often till very late.

I'd say the big juggle is working and caring for children, especially if you have no spouse or the spouse doesn't assist. Put the kids to bed and follow a fitness video on YouTube, push your baby in a pram or baby jogger. While you won't necessarily make it everyday, a few days a week should be doable. 

Sport is about people and communities

My underwater hockey family. My adventure racing family. My orienteering family. My parkrun family. My running family.

Through these communities and various events, I have made friends.

I was Parys parkrun Run Director on my first weekend in Parys and I quickly learned names and recognised familiar faces at the shops and about town, especially of the volunteers and regular participants. I also started going to the paddling time trials and meeting people at the club. It was the best integration to a new town that I could have had.

Meeting people and making friends is mostly about just showing up, being there and being involved.

The physicality of activities is its own reward but the people that I have met along the way, around the world, have truly enriched my life.

If you ever move to a new town or even a new part of a city, join a club, show up at time trials, volunteer at a parkrun or take up classes in something new. Say hello, be friendly and extend a helping hand. 

Surround yourself with people that are like you and have common interests and you'll find it easy to enjoy a fit and healthy lifestyle throughout your life.

No comments: