Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A tribute to my sister, coach... friend

I am blessed to come from a large family and I have an abundance of older siblings. I only have one ‘little’ sister, Debbie, and I am honoured to call her sister. As siblings, there was a love-hate relationship and for most of my young years it was more of a ‘hate’ or at least- despise. She was untidy, young, and whiny and I was responsible for her. We shared a bedroom and I had created an imaginary line that she dare not cross into my space. Yet, when she started school I remember bursting with pride as she raced the 60m sprint into first place with plaited pigtails flying in the wind. The gap was so large between us that I was off and out of home as she entered secondary school, I was so keen to set off into the big wide world. I was oblivious to most of her teen years, looking after my own adventures. But her teens came to an abrupt end when Mum died when she was only 19. The whole family stopped and then, cracked wide open, in the uncertainty of grief. Everyone scrambled looking for a place to hide from the pain, to hope that the gap would close quickly but knowing that our family was forever changed.
Debbie had her own little family with the unexpected gift of her baby daughter and she sought refuge in a different town where my Mum’s younger sister lived. Somehow she forged her own way and developed her new role as ‘mum’ in a very dynamic way. A strict mum, Kelsey was loved and encouraged by the love that she got from all in the larger, scarred family. A few years later they moved back to my town and I watched in quiet admiration as she worked, cared for, and raised her daughter without much help. One afternoon after Debbie had collected a very sickly, chicken pox toddler from our house, my husband, Nic, asked why I hadn’t offered them to stay over so I could support Debbie. I hadn’t thought of it but in the quiet of the night I went over his words and tried to imagine what it must be like being the responsible adult on my own.

Ten years ago Debbie started on a new journey, to start running. Naturally sporty and athletic with a determination that I never seemed to have, she joined a running club and started running mad distances and got fitter and fitter. She wanted to make one of her dreams come true, to run the Comrades marathon. So after many blisters and aching toes she registered and got herself qualified for her first race. There was no way I was letting her go down to Comrades by herself so our older sister, Mary, Kelsey and I booked into the special Comrades Train tour to support her. It was so exciting yet so nerve-wracking as our cellphone system didn’t tell us where she was on the road and only after an overseas sister had tracked her, did we know she had passed halfway. With 20 minutes before cut-off, her smiling face entered the stadium waving and we cried tears of relief and joy at her success. I remember shaking my head at how crazy she was at running so far but my chest soared with pride at my ‘little’ sister for being so strong.

Her next Comrades run, which was a ‘surprise’ to us all - as she said she was only going to do it once, she had changed clubs and found a lovely group of people to run with. She trained hard and seemed to glow and that year she set off on the club bus to run her second successful race. Nic and I picked her up from the bus stop where so many people were limping and groaning climbing down the stairs. A lovely father figure had taken Debbie under his wing and they had a tight group of three who ran together, joked together and succeeded together. Joe was one of a kind gentleman who seemed to be all heart and looked after all of us but he had a soft spot for Debbie and Alan and I must confess to sometimes feeling envy as they ran on ahead laughing and making long distances look like a walk in the park. Debbie’s third Comrades was joyful as she crossed the line with Joe, Alan and the others from their special group. I watched it from across the globe tracking them on the computer as red blimps on the screen. Debbie had shown that on Comrades she could run past a lot of the speedier men in the club and the further she went- the happier she seemed. Her fourth Comrades turned out to be my first attempt. After years of believing that I was not able, I attempted running and surprised myself at how much I liked it. After finishing her race, Nic and Debbie stood nervously at the finish line waiting for me who never arrived. They were heartbroken for me, I was delighted, I had run from Durban to Pietermaritsburg, more than I had ever run in my entire life on one race and I was smitten. The next Comrades race was bittersweet. Our mentor and friend, Joe had died and his absence was felt everywhere. This was Debbie’s fifth successful run and my first medal. We could feel Joe’s pride in our own hearts and his voice in our head.

The following year we had changed clubs and things were a lot different but in a good way. Joe was still missed but running helped us heal. Debbie showed how strong she was by continuing her marvellous running and making it  look so easy at the same time helping other runners. She is able to sum up a runner and their style and recommends what distances, training and speeds to do and for me, she has been uncannily right. Kelsey had developed into a feisty independent teen who no longer came on all the races. I marvelled at how well this little family unit had done and was very grateful that I could use my ‘coach's’ advice to great success.
The Comrades medals ticked off one by one and even foot surgery didn’t affect her success as she crossed the line for the eighth time. Her successful ninth Comrades was recorded as one of the worst races due to weather conditions being so hot. Over a third of the field did not finish yet Debbie jogged past an injured, non-participating me, looking like a million dollars. At the finish line she looked like she had ran a completely different race to everyone else and finished with her best time ever. The stage was set for an even better tenth Comrades!

In a moment, people’s life can change dramatically and Debbie’s took a sudden twist. Kelsey was about to leave for a new life in the UK and Debbie was asked to play netball for her work’s social team. An excellent netball player, she hesitated, afraid of possible injury. The hesitation wasted, she went on the court. Not even five minutes later, there was a strange sound and she was on the ground. A torn ligament in her knee. We both looked at each other in horror when she couldn’t pull herself off the ground. In that split second we both had images of her tenth Comrades and an impossible future with no running in it. After a visit to a surgeon who confirmed the anterior cruciate ligament tear, she was filled with new hope. The surgeon had recommended rehabilitation and a conservative approach which she duly did. With more patience than I ever would have, she stuck to her therapy regime and got more and more positive about herself and her life. Gingerly, she started running 7 months before the important Comrades. Building up distance. as well as muscles, I was impressed by her determination to not let this setback affect her. At the same time she developed a injury-comeback training program  for me and when I saw how realistic it was, I knew that I could just maybe, join her running Comrades.
The months and kilometres ticked by and the big day arrived. Nervous to the core, she sighed deep breaths on the bus journey to the start, anxious to get started and to see what the day would bring. I had a deep knowing that she would do fabulously, after all, this is her race, the race where the further she goes- the more she glows. I set off from the back of the race but I too could feel that this medal was mine. As I ran onto the final lap at the stadium I saw her in the grandstand jumping for joy that I had beaten the clock. I knew she had done it, but I no idea she would have run it so well. She broke her ten hour barrier convincingly and had had a fabulous run with very little pain. Her permanent ‘green’ number is hers and so well earned. Ten years of hard work, joy, pain, shock, grief, patience, perseverance, delight, fun – much like life.
Debbie has the green number for life, in life and with life! So proud of my 'lil sis'!

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