‘I have a love affair with long-distance running’

At age 35, Kenilworth resident Bianca-Leigh Nagel was overweight and unwell when she decided to start working toward her goal of running the Two Oceans Marathon.

I was born huge, a 12-pound baby and had a yo-yo relationship with my weight most of my life. Through a series of life events which included my best friend dying, and me being retrenched, I hit triple digits. The turning point came in 2014, aged 35. I was lying in the emergency room in agony. The nurse was questioning me and blurted out that unless I made some drastic changes, I was headed for a stroke soon. Horrified was not even the word. Something switched on that night.

As a kid, I remembered watching the Two Oceans and Comrades marathons on TV… those were the days of Frith van der Merwe and Bruce Fordyce. And deep down, a desire had set in, that one day I wanted to be one of those thousands taking to the streets. In 2014, I set about making this dream a reality.

Fast forward to Saturday March 31 this year, I was up at 3.45am to tackle my first Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. At the start, I found some friends and after last hugs from everyone, there goes the cannon and we were on our way. Keep calm, don’t trip, breathe.

Running past Arderne Gardens in Claremont, coming up to the first little incline, I looked up and just saw a mass of runners that engulfed the road completely.

On my first walk break 19 minutes in, I had to contend with the “No walking in runners shoes” chant. Grrrrrrr. I’ll see y’all at the finish line?! My coach’s 9/1 strategy is run 9 minutes, walk 1 minute from the start. Works every time.

In Kalk Bay, the cut-off running bus passed me by and I panicked. It took a lot of deep breaths and time checks to convince myself that I was still on track. They were going too fast for me and I knew what was still coming.

“Calm down, take in the moment.”

There was a guy playing his guitar in his open garage that was simply amazing. In fact, quite a few people had music systems outside their houses.

I was still looking good for time as we turned right at the circle in Fish Hoek. The Kommetjie Road stretch seemed to take forever and I started to tire a bit but I perked up, crossing over into Noordhoek with the vibey supporters’ point and my family waiting for me just before the start of Chappies.

Right, Chappies, here we go. One minute run, 30 second walk. The first incline is a toughie. One of the sweeper vans came cruising up and they slowed down next to me on one of my walk breaks and asked if I was okay. I was like, hayi wena, there is nothing to see here, keep moving. I made it up the first incline and then embraced that bit of downhill relief until the next incline. It’s not as steep, but it’s long. One minute run, 30 second walk. “Don’t look up.” I looked up. It’s faaaaaaaaaaar. But the vibe and the chirps from my fellow runners made this stretch quite bearable and pass by quickly. The wind was strong on the downhill and at some point, I almost flew off the edge.

My plan A was to make it to the 42km mark by five hours and I just about made it. A few club mates appeared like an oasis in the desert, with hugs and salty chips which really gave me hope for Constantia Nek – until I saw Constantia Nek. I started writing my post in my head about how really proud I was to have made it that far, it’s the most I’ve run, I’ll come back next year for my medal… Eventually, the top of Constantia Nek appeared. I glanced at my watch and thought, I can still do this.

I seemed to find my forth or fifth wind and flew fairly comfortably down Rhodes Avenue. In the far distance, I heard screaming and I looked up and saw familiar blue tops and it was my club mates and my family. The reception was as if I was winning Comrades. Heading towards Kirstenbosch top gate, my brother was waiting with a quick high five for the final stretch. The stretch past Kirstenbosch main gate to the M3 is deceptively long. I kept glancing at my watch and knew I would make it even with those killer hills at the end. Turning left onto to the M3, I immediately started walking. I had just under 30 minutes for the last 3km, which under normal circumstances is completely do-able but there is nothing normal about these circumstances.

I was joined by my club mate Shauna and she asked if we’re finishing together. We held hands walking up that last hill and then let loose on that downhill to the grass. Coming into UCT was a completely emotional and surreal experience. I was smiling like a looney, trying not to cry and throw up. I saw the time on the board and grabbed Shauna’s hand and we crossed the finish line at 6:53:51 – six minutes before cut-off.

It doesn’t end here. I have a love affair with this crazy journey of long-distance running. As long as the legs are able and the heart is willing, you can find me on the road.

Bianca-Leigh Nagel lives in Kenilworth