Couch potato to athlete

How does one go from an almost completely sedentary lifestyle to anticipating the next organised race? It starts with a decision, and a little help from one’s friends.

Last Christmas my sister was visiting with her baby and, when I saw pictures of myself with said baby on the beach, I was shocked and disgusted and sad. What happened to the women who, two years earlier, walked her way all over the world? The woman I saw on that picture was still attractive with a great smile and gorgeous hair, but all that was overshadowed by how big she was. I have always thought that big women with confidence can be much more attractive than a skinny chick but, having had a mom who has always been overweight, I realised that I have become the woman I have ever been ashamed off. The worst was that, during the normal round of silly season parties, I have started to become very careful of the chairs I chose to sit on, in fear that someone’s plastic garden furniture would not hold my weight. As many of my much lighter friends had, had this experience, it was not an unfounded fear!

I have always been overweight and have had my smaller and bigger phases. I believe all overweight people read extensively on why we are overweight and of course so did I and there isn’t much about nutrition you can tell me. I have never been much of a dieter but have lost substantial weight during a fruit and nut phase and, much later, a vegan phase but this journey is about so much more.

I dream of going to hike Torres del Paine and Abel Tasman and, while hosting Couch Surfers Marcus and Kate Westberg from Life Through a Lens, I couldn’t even complete the hike to the waterfall in Wilderness National Park with them. Embarrassing to say the least but more than embarrassment was the realisation, if I couldn’t do that, how could I even contemplate hiking through Patagonia?

In the last 5 or so years, my body has started to protest. As a photographer I used to crouch down to get a better angle but found that I just couldn’t do that anymore. Around 2007 I had severe, stress relates, muscle spasms in my left shoulder which have left me with almost constant pain and, through cold and wet winters, limited mobility. During my round-the-world trip in 2010 I was traipsing across historical sites, trails in far off places and beautiful look-out points and found that one of my knees just didn’t like that – another page right out of my mom’s book.

One of my best friends once told me that,  even though I am overweight, I still live my life to the fullest but was that really the truth? In 2008, while we were both still living in Gauteng, we did a road trip down the Garden Route and I gave him a Canopy Tour for a Christmas present. Of course I told him that I didn’t want to do it while the ugly truth was, I was just too heavy to do it with him. I exceeded the weight limit!

In 2007, while hiking Los Lagos, Huerquehue I decided not to continue with the hike after I hit the ice line as I was too tired but, more importantly, realised that, should I fall and injure myself, it would take a horde of small Chilean men to get me off that mountain.

I was stuck in a fun park swing once and had to be rescued by a friend’s dad and I still colour with embarrassment if I think about that one! Don’t even mention the embarrassment of having to ask for a seat-belt extension on a plane, being asked to move as you can’t sit in an emergency exit row if you ask for an extension or, my ultimate, flying without a seat belt on Turkish Airlines as three stewards – including the head steward – failed to think it important to get me one.

Living in Sedgefield sure doesn’t leave one short of opportunities to get up and get out there but I never quite seem to choose the bicycle over the car.

Enters the personal trainer.

My friend Karen asked me whether I would be interested in becoming her guinea pig for her studies through eta College. In the place I was, to keep on looking myself in the eye, the only possible answer was to accept with a very grateful heart.

As mentioned in a previous post, when we started on the 8th of January, I weighed a whopping 139.2kg. Initially we started with 3 mornings a week but it wasn’t too long before we increased that to four. Some mornings it was tough to get out of bed and it took every bit of willpower I had. When I started a new job, we tried moving it to evenings but I was just too exhausted in the evenings so I was completely in her debt when she offered to move me to an even earlier spot. It is one thing to get up at 04:30 for oneself but to know someone else is getting up at the same time for your benefit is just humbling!

We alternate between pure cardio days and strength and resistance training. We work with a minimum of equipment and train outside whenever we can, using the beach and the hills around us as tools. She has been amazing in my training program and have never allowed me to become bored with a routine – I love the recent addition of kettle bells. I have regained almost full mobility in my shoulder and, except for really long stretches in front of the computer, have no more pain in my shoulder. I can do 34 consecutive (ladies) push-ups – I couldn’t do one at the beginning of the year.

Of course there were days when my body hated me, days where every movement was accompanied by protesting muscles and days when I would have given a lot not to do just-one-more-step-up. Yet I revel in the fact that I can have a conversation, albeit slightly staccato, while climbing a hill. At the beginning of the year I couldn’t do a single dip, now I manage 15. I was unable to hold a bar, resting on my shoulders, with both hands, now I do it with ease.

I have competed in three organised races, two road and one trail and, while I may not have completed all of them in the alloted time, I have completed all of them. I have shaved two minutes on my 1.6 kilometre fitness assessment from August till now so we’ll get there.

I have lost 10kg and, while it may not seem much to most people, I have done so without making any major changes to my diet and without drinking any toning and weight loss supplements – I believe casein should be limited and whey is poison. I have lost 41.5cm overall and will very soon have to have my pants altered for the third time. I may be a long way off from Patagonia but, as I weight less than 130kg, I am just over 9kg away from a zip line adventure.

I couldn’t have done any of this without Karen and can only echo these words from Tracey Melass, in the August 2012 Shape magazine’s article with the title What Exercise Suits You Best?: “The enforced discipline of a trainer appealed to me, because there is nowhere to hide. I knew I was more likely to get results if someone was cracking a whip behind me! Having a set appointment meant I had to be there at a certain time and had my trainers’ full attention for an hour. It changes things dramatically when someone is monitoring your every step.”.

Thank you Karen, for your willingness to take me on this journey and for many, many early mornings when you got out of bed in the dark to help me along this road!


Sweet potato soup

The more you exercise, the more you want to eliminate putting junk into your body. You definitely don’t want to do all that work for naught. Of course it is sometimes more difficult than others and, with an upcoming visit to my family to celebrate my niece’s 1st birthday, I just know the next two weeks may not be the best for my body.

Last night was a different matter however. A friend and I tried a butternut soup recipe but substituted the butternut with sweet potato and boy, was it yummy! I enjoyed it just as much for lunch today and love the fact that it contains no animal products! I can definitely see that this will become a staple in my house!

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup


1kg Sweet Potatoes
2 Large Carrots
1 Large Onion
10 ml Cumin Powder
1 l Vegetable Stock
1 Tbsp Oil
Salt & Pepper to taste


Peel & dice the sweet potato and roast in an oven with some salt & pepper till the sweet potatoes begin to soften.
Chop the onion and carrots.
Fry the onion in a large pot for 2 min.
Add the cumin & carrots and fry for another 3 min.
Add the vegetable stock & sweet potatoes.
Cook until the carrots & sweet potato is soft.
Blend till smooth. Add a little liquid if you prefer a more runny soup.

Serve & enjoy

Today I packed away my bathroom scale

The last three weeks has, from a weight perspective, been the most discouraging experience of my life!

It is almost three weeks since I started training with my personal trainer and I am still on a 139.something kilos – that is almost 307 pounds or 30 stone for those of you who still use the empiric system. Granted that I spent the last weekend with a very, very good friend from Germany and had the most amazing dinner with not even a grain of rice wasted, and of course, the requisite bottle of wine that goes with it.

Other than that I feel I have done pretty well on the food front. I refuse to deprive my body of the nutrients it needs –  now even more than ever.  I wish I could cut out bread altogether but for someone who are allergic to wheat and try to minimize diary as much as possible, the options are pretty limited.

Weight aside, the last three weeks has been fantastic. It is a wonderful experience to be able to do something that you haven’t for a while. I am able to walk up the walkway from Swartvlei mouth to the top at a very reasonable speed without feeling that I need a rest along the way.

Swartvlei mouth from the top

Swartvlei mouth from the top

Two consecutive years I have had a muscle spasm in my left shoulder that needed to be treated medically. I will call it my “office injury” as it was due to the position of my desk, the nature of my job and very high stress levels. Although my shoulder was fine for a year or two it has been, if not sore, at least uncomfortable since the winter of 2012. I am ecstatic that I can use this shoulder in ways that was unthinkable as much as a month ago.

My first personal goal is to do the 10km Tortoise Tuff road walking challenge on the 9th of March. So for the moment I am going to concentrate on getting my body fitter and stronger and forget about the bathroom scales. We have also increased my training days from three times a week to four.

The first weekend of Febraury is my niece’s Christening so I am not going to think about a number until after the Christening. That would also be after 4 weeks of training – a good check-in time for both measurements and weight.

In the mean time I will just Keep on walking…

The journey begins

Many, many years ago, when I was still smoking, a friend and I used to say that, when cigarettes cost more than R5 a packet, we will stop. Of course we didn’t and, by the time I did stop, cigarettes were already on the higher side of R15 a packet – at least the stylish white filter tipped ones I smoked.

As with smoking, I have had many “if I ever weigh more than this” or “if I cannot fit into that any longer” moments in my life yet, instead of keeping to them, I was rather glad when my friends and family picked up weight because it meant that I wasn’t the only one who had to live with a body that was being made fun of and judged any more.

I grew up in a family of bigger people and, while I will never use it as an excuse, my body has, and will always have, a natural tendency to being zaftig. Of course, like everyone who has ever had a war with the scales or with the mirrors of clothing store dressing rooms, I am an ardent follower of programs like The Biggest Loser and Too Fat for Fifteen and have watched with admiration how courageous people have shed pound and “fat people” clothing.

As an adorable but chubby baby!

As an adorable but chubby baby!

I was a chubby baby who became, if not the biggest girl in class, then at least one of the top three – as you can probably tell by my primary school nickname – Diksus (thick/fat sister). I was the first girl to develop curves and had to bear the brunt of many a joke and prank played by the boys in my class. When I think of the girl who finished high school in 1989, I wish I could tell her how beautiful she was. But she didn’t think so. She has already been told, for years, by everyone around her, that she was fat! I wish I could tell her  – as Pabi Moloi recently wrote in a letter to her 12 year old self – “I know you think you’re ‘super-chubby’ – YOU ARE NOT. Later in life you will actually be quite chubby and you will long for your 12 year old shape.” My mom has, as long as I can remember, been morbidly obese, so my relationship with my body has always been, to say the least,  complex.

1989 - a beautiful, healthy teenager already with heaps of body issues!

1989 – a beautiful, healthy teenager already with heaps of body issues!

For several reasons, food in my childhood home has always been complicated – and not for a lack thereof- so once I started working and earn my own money so did the kilos pile on. As many kids in my generation we were not allowed to get up from the table unless we finished all the food on our plates – a pattern I am unable to break to this day – and portion control has never been my strong suit.

Before my 21st birthday I followed Essie Hannibal’s fruit and nut regime very successfully for several months and hit my last plato at just over 90kg. It was the thinnest I have been in my entire adult life and I managed to maintain that weight for almost 2 years until I left for Belgium, loneliness, homesickness, cream, beer and chocolate. I gained about 25kg during the year in Belgium and could never quite manage to shake it off.

In 1993 - turning 21 and weighing slightly more than 90kg

In 1993 – turning 21 and weighing slightly more than 90kg

In 2006, after a serious relationship came to an end, I drowned my sorrows in food and the scales crept ever upwards. Long hours at work, a sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep and water and food that came out of a packet didn’t help. For the last 5 years or so I have been fluctuating between 2 or 3 dress sizes (I didn’t get onto a scale for a long time). In 2010 I travelled for 9 months and had a downward curve due to all the exercise but that was followed by 9 months of unemployment and boredom eating (it has always been my worst enemy) . At the end of 2011 I followed a vegan diet for a while and lost almost 8 kilos but that was followed by the coldest winter I have lived through in my entire life and the comfort food that comes with that.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to a friends party and found myself standing while everybody else was seated as I didn’t trust the flimsy camping chairs to carry my weight. When I left, I though that I should rather take my own chair in future. Uhm… reality check! How could I ever think, even for a moment, that it is okay to take a chair to a social gathering rather that just doing something about how much I weigh? Just look at the picture my sister took a week ago!

The end of 2012

The end of 2012

So when a friend and personal trainer offered her help, could I do anything but grab the opportunity with both hands?

I met with her yesterday and weighed in at 139.2kg. I know that it is going to be a long journey but I am looking forward to it. There are still so many things I want to do and know that my body is currently holding me back.

Let the journey begin.

Going wheat free

I was never diagnosed with a wheat intolerance or allergy but the immediate lethargy after a sandwich or a pasta lunch was enough indication that something was not quite right. A couple of years ago I also started noticing little white “pimples” on my face. I since learned they are called milia and, although it is not common knowledge, can be caused by a wheat allergy or intolerance.

We all know the common golden rules for good health: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 8 glasses of water etc, but it is only after my brother worked closely with Carin Smit, that I started to really think about the statement that “you are what you eat.”

I also ended up in hospital for an emergency operation – an acute reminder of how vulnerable our bodies are. Still, living a wheat free life just seemed like too much trouble and, as pasta dishes are normally one of the cheaper options on restaurant menus, I ate happily on. I often tried to reduce my wheat intake but was never too fazed about eliminating it.

Being a world traveller is also just so much easier if you don’t have to think about alternatives to wheat. I don’t know how many people have tried to cut wheat out of their diet but it is a challenge, especially in countries like South Africa and the USA. In Western Europe the ancient grains are quite commonly available and one can choose from all kind of substitutes like sorghum, spelt or flax, but here we have mainly rye.

The challenge with rye bread is that it is, more often than not, dry and hard. It is also not pure rye but a blend between rye and wheat flour. Should you find 100% rye, you would sometimes pay 6 to 10 times as much as normal bread. And do not even think about a small carbon footprint! They are mostly imported.

My parents have a bakery in town where you can order a delicious light rye bread but driving a couple of 100 kilometres every time you want fresh bread is certainly not feasible.

So what do you do? You start considering the alternatives. Of course there is rice and corn and potatoes but finding a quick and easy solution to pack in lunch, well, not always so easy. And grabbing lunch with the girls takes planning – not spontaneity. If you dislike salad, like I do, you can’t eat pizza or pasta or sandwiches (do not expect restaurants to make sure their rye is 100%) and forget about going out for coffee and cake. Almost all confectionary that is freely available, contains some form of wheat flour.

I used to laugh at health nuts who carry around carrots and apples in their handbags but it changed into admiration. Sunday nights, when our Bible study group get together, I arrive armed with a couple of slices of bread that came all the way from Russia or Poland.

For the last two weeks I have been able to go wheat free and although I still sleep a sound 8 hours a night, it has been quite a while since I couldn’t keep my eyes open in the afternoon.

Today I have made some very yummy rye pancakes (or flapjacks as we would call them in South Africa) and I would even serve them to my wheat eating friends. Having something in the lunch box is suddenly so much easier!

Rye Pancakes

1 large egg
2 tblsp oil (you can use sunflower, canola or nut oil)
2 tblsp sugar (if you don’t like sweet things  just leave it out)
1 tsp vanilla essence
250 ml milk

Mix these together and then add

250 ml rye flour
10 ml baking powder
2 ml salt

Scoop spoonfuls of batter in a pan and fry till puffed up and bubbles form on the surface. Flip over and fry until golden on the other side.