Running for her life

Posted on 15 January 2018

On 19 November 2017, Nolene Conrad ran the Valencia Marathon in Spain in a time of 2:35:19 – smashing her personal best by 12 minutes. That’s a top 10 finish in an IAAF Gold Label race, and the fastest time by any South African female athlete this year. It is also a Western Province record.

But what’s even more amazing is that this incredible athlete, a South African champion in three disciplines, whose lungs and muscles are able to push themselves to unimaginable lengths, nearly died when she was 16 years old.

From asthma.

Growing up tough

It is a bright, hot day at the Academy of Sports in Stellenbosch. Nolene Conrad is sitting in the shade of a tree in the courtyard, with a glass of ice-cold juice from the dispenser in the cafeteria. She is so petite that she looks half her age but she has the confident honesty, self-deprecating grace and wry humour of a very old soul.

“I know, this is amazing, right?”. Nolene gestures to the long pool in the courtyard and the state-of-the-art gym. “The track is right here, the gym is here. And I love this town. I’m so lucky.”

She has come a long way.

From troubled beginnings, today Nolene is one of the most successful long-distance runners in South Africa. Nolene was born in Bishop Lavis, one of the most dangerous suburbs of the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. By the time she was eight she was swearing and getting into fights.

“It’s what you’re exposed to,” says Nolene. “You see what’s going on around you and you think it’s normal.

I was seeing a lot of fights. There was a lot of gangsterism and drug abuse.”

When she was 13, Nolene was diagnosed with asthma. Her health deteriorated through her teens until, at the age of 16, Nolene had an attack that nearly cost her her life – but instead ended up saving it.

On that night Nolene was ill with the flu, and went to bed wheezing, but at 1am she awoke having a full-blown attack. She always slept with her asthma pump under her pillow but this time, after two puffs, the canister ran out. She scrambled around in her bedside table for a spare. Nothing. Panicking, she stumbled into her parents’ bedroom.

Nolene’s parents didn’t have a car. They phoned the neighbours, but there was no answer. The last thing Nolene remembers before she passed out is her mother frantically pleading for the ambulance to hurry because her child’s lips were turning blue.

“I’ve had a lot of attacks,” says Nolene. “I’ve been in and out of hospital. But that was the closest I have ever been to dying.”

Turning point

Nolene spent a week in hospital recovering from her near-fatal attack. On her last day the doctor gave her a lecture she would never forget.

He told her that her asthma was getting worse and she needed to incorporate some sort of physical activity and exercise into her lifestyle. He told her that there was a possibility of outgrowing the asthma. And he told her that if she didn’t, she would not live until the age of 21.

The doctor’s words struck her deeply. Nolene had an uncle who had died from asthma. “I did not want to die like that,” she says. “It’s like drowning.” But as much as the doctor’s words terrified her, they gave her hope.

That week, Nolene joined a friend at cross-country training. And that’s how a small, frail, and very sickly 16-year-old Nolene Conrad ended up wheezing her way through half a four-kilometre run before collapsing onto her knees and sucking desperately on her asthma pump.

“It was horrible,” says Nolene. “But I knew I had to get through it. I was clinging to that doctor’s words. This was my only chance.” She was running for her life.

Good, better, best

“Nolene’s story is inspiring and amazing,” says pulmonologist Dr Günter Schleicher, from Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. “We always encourage our patients to exercise and lead generally healthy lifestyles. But even if this lifestyle improvement leads to a reduction of asthmatic episodes, that doesn’t mean you can simply outgrow asthma.”

For the first three months running didn’t get any easier, only more tolerable.

Nolene didn’t run to race; she ran until she couldn’t. It was a standard requirement to have medics at every inter-school cross country race. This was better than waiting for an ambulance to fetch her from home.

The following year the asthma started to ease up, and as that happened she found herself not just fitter but running with a passion compounded by relief. She was no longer bringing up the rear, but running at the head of the pack.

Her coach recognised that the crazy little girl with the asthma pump had real talent. “You can run,” he told her that year. “So run.”

In her last year of school she was the star athlete, and received scholarship offers from the United States. But she declined the offers because her dream was to make a South African athletics team.

The following year, Nolene made the Commonwealth Games team going to Melbourne in Australia. She moved to Johannesburg, where she taught at a high school, and continued to make South African teams and smash personal records. After two years of living in Johannesburg, the asthma attacks stopped completely. She had grown out of it. And she was an elite athlete in three disciplines: road running, track and cross-country.

One in a million

Dr Schleicher warns that “it is extremely dangerous to discontinue chronic asthma medication without consulting a doctor, as this could lead to a serious asthma attack. Most highly functioning sportspeople can only function at that level because they are on chronic asthma medication.”

Today Nolene works as an athlete manager at the Academy of Sport in Stellenbosch. It gives her the opportunity to inspire other athletes with asthma. When one aspiring athlete expressed doubt that she could attain the highest level, due to her own asthma, Nolene told her: “It is possible. Look at me. You just have to believe that it is possible.”

Published in Magazine

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