I was recently asked by Zoe Papadakis, to be interviewed for her blog “Women Loving Life” and once again, it was an honour to share my story and be part of a community of women who support each other.
I remember when I first met Debbie. I was interviewing her for a newspaper and as she sat down in front of me I knew there was something special about her. We sat and chatted for ages that day and have stayed in touch ever since. Debbie stands out as an athlete but there is so much more to her than that. She is beautiful, brave and courageous but she is also humble. The more I get to know Debbie, the more I realise her strength and the depth of her caring nature. This is why I was eager to interview her again. She has inspired me endlessly and I want to share her story.
So, what have you been getting up to during the lockdown? How are you keeping sane?
Debbie: I am fortunate to be at home with my favourite person, my husband, but it certainly does have its challenges and I think the next few weeks will be a test for all of us, both physically and mentally. The first week of lockdown has involved a lot of cleaning and sorting (which I actually enjoy doing!) However, I think we need to find a balance and allow ourselves to just exist and get through this, without too much pressure to immediately tick off our long-awaited ‘to-do’ lists.
Don’t overburden your body and mind. Between the work and achievements and chores, take times of recreation and refreshment too. Whatever that looks like for you. Be it home workouts or sit and rest; having cereal for dinner or cooking a meal from scratch together; pajamas or fully dressed. All are perfectly acceptable.
I find it helpful to remember that any amount of gratitude changes the present. There is so much we cannot control right now, but we can control our attitudes and do our best to find something every day that sparks joy. The virus is contagious, but so is hope. It takes real courage to keep moving forward, when the outcome is uncertain, but I have to believe that something new and good is going to come out of this. Take it day by day, or hour by hour if necessary. This is new territory and I am navigating it step by step like everyone else.
You are a really great runner but these last few months you encountered a few setbacks. You had a stress fracture that derailed a lot of your plans. How did you cope?
Debbie: Last year I was on track to run my seventh Comrades Marathon, but I sustained a stress fracture in my femur and was told I would not be able to run for six months. If I attempted to walk, it had to be on crutches, and I felt like my life and goals were put on hold. I seldom lack motivation and I embrace both the physical and mental suffering that often accompanies the running journey, but it was a tough time!
I diligently did my rehab exercises and tried to remain hopeful, making peace with the fact that although I may not get back to the level I was at before, I would never lose my joy of running. It was difficult to be isolated on the sidelines, but I did my best to support my husband and friends, while they continued with their Comrades training, and took on a new role as the team cheerleader (and coffee hostess!)
While waiting for the running group to return home one morning, I was thinking about all I was missing out on, and realized in that moment that I needed to get my mind off myself and come up with a new project to pour my heart into. It was during this time that I undertook my ‘Potatoes for a Purpose’ Challenge, which I know you are keen to discuss later!
You were also diagnosed as having anemia, which was another knock. How did the diagnoses come about?
Debbie: Anemia is when your body does not have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen around your body. It can be caused by iron deficiency, because the body needs iron to make haemoglobin. I was recently diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia and prescribed a supplement for the next 6 months.
I will not go into all the details of anemia now, but typical symptoms may range from unexplained fatigue, shortness of breath (especially during exercise, and this is where I am battling the most with my running), rapid heartbeat (this is something else that first alerted me that there was an issue, as well as pins and needles, which accompanied it), pale skin is a sign too (but I have always been see-through, so no alarm bells went off there!)
Severe anaemia can also cause swollen feet (owing to the flow of oxygen being blocked to the extremities.) After battling for 3 weeks with this, thinking it was merely a side-effect of running a tough race in the heat one Sunday, I eventually went to the doctor, as my feet and ankles were huge. Blood tests confirmed my kidney and liver function were fine, but my iron was extremely low.
It has been humbling to slowly fall behind my running group week after week, as I do not have the same pace and energy as before. My mind is keen, but my body is weak! However, I am confident things will slowly improve over the next few months and I will be patient, listening to my doctor and my body.
‘Sports anaemia’ is a term that was coined because there is a prevalence of iron deficiency in endurance athletes. I have learnt so much from other athletes already, who live with this condition, and the positive side is that I can now encourage others and create awareness. The doctor was surprised I had managed for so long, considering the severity of my condition, but I do have a habit of pushing through and not making a fuss, which in this case counted against me. However, it is best to fix your iron problems early, because it is difficult to rebuild once depleted, so it is important to educate yourself and know the signs.
And how are you doing now in terms of recovery?
Debbie: My recovery period from my stress fracture, yielded the desired results and I healed in full, returned to running and managed to end the year strong, finishing a marathon in November and qualifying for Comrades 2020. It took courage to pursue my goals with the same enthusiasm as before, as my confidence had taken a knock, but we cannot let fear stop us from pursuing what sets our hearts on fire, and I am loving being back, doing what I love.
My anaemia will be an ongoing journey and it is just the beginning. We will monitor it as we go, and make decisions, depending on how I respond to the medication. I have some days when I feel okay and other days when I feel sick, sore and frustrated, but there is always something to be grateful for and I am learning to adapt to my new normal.
I am not starting from scratch, I am starting from experience, alternating running and walking as my body dictates, at a pace that I am able to cope with on the day. Running (like life) has its highs and lows. It is humbling and hard, but I am grateful for the strong years I have had until now, and if this is how the future of my running will be, then I will do it with a smile and not fall prey to self-pity and comparisons.
You have always been open about your struggles and triumphs. One particularly sensitive topic that you have been bravely speaking about is infertility. Would you feel comfortable sharing more about that? Your story…
Debbie: Thank you. It took a lot of courage to take that first step out of my comfort zone and bare my truth to the world. For many years I kept my infertility struggles hidden but ultimately coming out my shell and sharing, helped break the shame, gave me more confidence and the best part was it encouraged others to do the same. I was flooded with messages from ladies, including friends, in similar situations, asking for support and advice. Focusing on how my experiences could perhaps help someone else, got me through the dark times and it is something I continue to do, reminding others they are not alone.
In the beginning, when my husband, Bruce, and I found out we were unable to fall pregnant naturally, I felt broken inside and was consumed by utter despair. I was consumed by this one thing I couldn’t have and slowly lost sight of all the other blessings in my life. We tried every option available, from complimentary therapy to eventually opting to do in vitro fertilization (IVF). This was a huge financial and physical sacrifice and involved enduring drugs, injections and surgery.
Our first attempt at IVF brought fleeting happiness as we fell pregnant with twins, but I miscarried a few weeks later. After all the anticipation and celebrating seeing the two little sacs on the ultrasound, I could hardly bare the pain of losing them. This happened again on our third and final attempt. It struck the core of who I was as a woman and I was angry at my body for letting me down. I felt like a failure.
It is easy to feel powerless and hopeless when going through an experience like this. You need to work through your denial, give yourself time to grieve and not beat yourself up for things over which you have no control. It took me years to reach the level of maturity I am at now and embrace life to the full again. However, I do still have my days, when my empty arms and womb ache and I crumble in a heap and weep.
A few years ago, I decided to put together a self-published book, entitled Whole Pieces, which explores a little of my journey and includes poetry I wrote, as well as personal e-mails I sent to my family and close group of friends at the time. While I do talk about loss and pain, I always do my best to focus on hope and this message spread to hundreds of families, who read my book, and it humbles me to have been used in this way. It was meant to be for my eyes only, but clearly God had other plans!
You were also an IFBB athlete and now you are running, how did the switch come about?
Debbie: Taking on activities which force me out of my comfort zone, has become an intricate part of my journey. Becoming a bodybuilding athlete was no exception! After I did my back-to-back Comrades in 2012 and 2013, I wanted a new challenge, and the following year, I entered a Novice bodybuilding competition. I competed in several shows, under the ‘Fitness Bikini’ division, including the prestigious IFBB KZN championships. I loved it so much, that I decided to continue with the sport the following year and managed to balance both my passions, running and the stage, for the following five years.
During this time, I received my KZN colours twice, the most recent being in 2018, and proudly represented my province at the SA Championships, coming third in my category. Through this achievement, I received an invite to compete in the Arnold Classic Africa bodybuilding competition, which was hosted in Gauteng and featured over 20 participating countries. I have also had the honour of representing my country at the Arnold Classic Africa bodybuilding competition, as well as the Amateur Africa Olympia. Moments I will never forget. I didn’t compete last year, owing to my running injury, and am not sure if I will ever return, but I certainly have memories to last a lifetime.
What is inspiring is that you have managed to remain so positive. You have also been involved in community drives. Could you tell us about your 60-day potato challenge?
Debbie: Thank you. As crazy as it sounds, I did indeed to embark on a 60-day potato-eating challenge! The reasons I chose to do this were multi-faceted, but it certainly got the public’s attention and was a huge success. During my unplanned rest period with my injury, I was inspired to find a unique way to generate awareness and funds for the Inanda Trail Running Club. My friends, Mmeli Ndimande and Patrick Canham, who I met while trail running, founded the club in 2018, with the aim of introducing the youth of Inanda to the sport, as well as helping the children become responsible adults by making sure they have what they need to get an education.
The challenge included asking 60 people (one person per day) to sponsor R30 each (the price of a cup of takeaway coffee) as a means of raising funds for the young runners. Our expectations were exceeded and at the end we raised R7000 for the kids. I was humbled to be a part of this journey and along the way I also discovered how nutritious potatoes really are. It had a positive effect on my own health, and a gooey baked sweet potato with a generous dollop of peanut butter on top, is still one of my favourite snacks!
Do you have a message of hope to all those struggling with something?
Debbie: I don’t have all the answers and am far from perfect. I am doing the best I can, with what I have, but it has taken me a long time to get to this point and I am still under construction! Maintaining a good attitude is vital. No matter what you are going through, don’t allow it to make you bitter. Make a daily decision to choose joy over misery, be powerful not pitiful. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, rather it is what you do with that time that will bring hope and healing. I also believe we don’t necessarily move on from our struggles, but instead, move forward. That pain of not being a mom will always be there but instead of letting myself be weakened through despair and discouragement, I take my mind off myself by reaching out to others and with God’s help, am using my pain for purpose. Nothing is wasted if we use our experiences in this way.
It is healthy to find another focus, while you are in the middle of your struggle and instead of allowing yourself to become stagnant, why not challenge yourself to something new each year. For me, my passion for sport grew from a place of pain and healthy living and exercise was a way to feel strong and empowered again. It opened doors to exploring new adventures and meeting new people. Things don’t always end up the way we imagine but it is possible to still enjoy your life, and embrace growing in ways you might not otherwise have known. As always, I like to find the lesson in these trials, and this has taught me that sometimes you need to let go of what you thought your life should look like. Letting go of expectations, does not mean it is the end, it can simply be what is necessary to have a brand-new beginning.