For me, being a woman has never negatively influenced whether I should do the adventurous things that I do or not. Growing up I was a tomboy, which frankly I think amused my parents, and they encouraged it 100%. I ran, I climbed, I hiked, I rode my bike and spent every other hour with our horses on our family plot. So when asked to write something under a sort of ‘feminist’ umbrella, I couldn’t see my place in telling women how to get into the sports that have always come so naturally for me, regardless of being a woman. Instead, I’m going to talk about some things that many women struggle with, but very few talk publicly about.
When I grow up I want to be a…
Before I started school, at the tender age of 5, I knew I was either going to be a game ranger or National Geographic explorer and photographer. Although I am still waiting for these aspirations to take off at the age of 24, the basic foundation of these childhood dreams is so deeply ingrained in me. Simply, I love animals and I am NUTS about exploring in any and every way, whether it be hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking or picnicking on the top of peaks or under waterfalls.
I only found running later in my life, after dabbling in cross country and athletics in high school and doing pretty well, especially in the longer events. It was fun and it gave me peace, I also really loved winning (I’ll admit to that), and attending a small private school in Irene, Pretoria it was easy enough to win with “training” maybe twice a week. It was simple, the good and healthy kind of simple.
Dealing with control
Before I delve into the darker pit of my premature running “career”, I’m going to hit pause on my high school days and get real personal, so brace yourselves. I was a happy, loud and a carefree child, I listened to no one and got on with life. I was in control. This changed in an instant in Grade 11 (2011). My family and I were the victims of an armed robbery at my family home. I won’t go into details of the event, but one thing I will say is that having a gun held to your head and watching your dad get beaten up is not exactly helpful for a 16-year-old’s psyche. That control I was talking about earlier, well it felt like I lost it. I know, melodramatic, I was a teenager alright!
The one thing I did feel I could control was food. I lost 9 kilograms, on an already pretty small frame, in two weeks, and continued to fuss over my weight for years to come after that, using all the tricks of the trade to lose weight. One trick was becoming a vegan, which for one gave me excuses to only eat salad at family and social events.
I moved to Europe to focus on my horse riding and rode at a competitive stable yard of an English short-lister for the Olympics in London. I worked my butt off (riding and cleaning poop) for hours each day and being away from home I had to grow up fast. The food situation improved, somewhat, but the vegan thing stuck. Then, shortly after returning to South Africa a horse squished me against a wall and broke my collar bone. After the op, my doctor didn’t want me riding for eight months (until they could remove the plate).
Life after horse riding
I’m a person who wakes up every day to chase a goal, and I needed to fill the space of my riding boots. I picked up running from where I left off in high school two years prior. My goal, was to run a marathon before the age of 20.
I ran the marathon within two months of breaking my collarbone and with a few months to spare before my 20th, so I decided to adjust my goal and wanted to run an Ultra before the age of 20. My family and I planned a trip to Iceland, I searched the internet for a race I could do and found a 50km trail race, traversing a glacier. I had never run trail, so I thought it would be best to find a local race, this trail run was a week after I ran the marathon.
The next morning I woke up with my first stress fracture, six short weeks before the ultra I entered in Iceland. I managed to fit two runs in before the race (the week before) and laced up and ran my first 50km. I was on cloud nine, I was the youngest participant, finished well up the field and second in the U30 category. I felt like I found my path in life. I came back home, found a coach and started training for this ultra-trail running thing.
In my first year of running, everything was perfect. I ran a marathon distance race roughly every month and finished on the podium for each one. I won the South African Sky running series. But with good comes bad. With all the running, I started developing ‘legs’, which in my mind were bulky, and my past crept back up on me and tormented me.
This perception of my body image made me feel heavy, especially following pro runners on social media, who in my mind were half the size of me. I felt that need to gain control on my diet again. The vegan thing continued and by the end of 2017 I felt completely empty, I had no energy and I got my first injury of the year, severe bursitis in my hip after running UTCT 65km. The doctor put me on intravenous bags of iron for three weeks and encouraged me to reassess the diet thing.
Run strong or run skinny?
I had to make a decision, do I run strong or run skinny, but weak? The choice is obvious right? Well believe it or not, it wasn’t easy. For months I struggled with my body image and ran to the bathroom after every large meal or chocolate brownie. For months I struggled with injury after injury. For months I couldn’t do my favourite things in life, tagging peaks and following single tracks. This feeling of weakness and incompetence made most of 2017 and much of 2018 a really sad time for me, my unhealthy mind created an unhealthy body. It took falling in love with someone, who fell in love with my passion for adventure, to reset my mind and remind me why it is that I run, which as it turns out is NOT to be skinny, but rather because Marzelle as a child wanted to be a National Geographic explorer and that part of me is the bit that makes me the happiest, most kind and loving self.
The happy ending
Reading this you may think it is about time that we discuss the happy ending and silver lining, like how much I love my chocolate and how I now eat dairy and red meat without feeling guilty, but unfortunately you’ve met me in the middle of my story. As I write this I’m injured with a reoccurring stress fracture, despite the considerate training I’d done over 2018 and despite treating my body like a queen. I know I’ve done a lot of damage to myself, from not fuelling my body correctly or sudden and stupid increments of training. I have a lot of redemption to pay and there’s no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to rebuilding your body.
Every stress fracture, my torn iliopsoas, my torn ligaments in my ankle, the bursitis in multiple joints, the fraying on my hip capsules, the chronic gastritis and colonitis, all of these injuries have happened for a reason. A reason that I’m still paying the price for today. I’m a happier person from the lessons I’ve learnt and I know my time will come and I will run strong again and I will run with a bloody vengeance. Until then, you’ll see me run my happiest when I can, cruise around on my mountain bike and climb up rock faces.
“I had to make a decision, do I run strong or run skinny, but weak?”
Marzelle van der Merwe shares her personal story about her battle with food and overtraining, and how after years of mistreating her body she’s come to realise not only the damage she’s done, but the importance of falling in love with yourself.