The first South African woman with Gold Label status, there’s no doubt that Nolene Conrad, Cape Town’s long-distance runner and Two Oceans half-marathon champion, is an accomplished athlete.
Conrad, a Bishop Lavis-born athlete who was raised in Blue Downs, impressed many when she was the first woman across the line in the recent Old Mutual half marathon, finishing in 1:16.17.
Following her was Zimbabwe’s Betha Chikanga, who finished in 1:16.42, and Susy Chemaimak of Kenya, who made it in 1:17.01.
Conrad’s latest win came just a week after she represented South Africa at the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) World Half-Marathon Championships in Valencia, Spain.
Conrad was one of 25 athletes to be bestowed Gold Label status for outstanding performances at the championships.
The IAAF Gold Label allows runners to participate in high-calibre races such as the London, Tokyo and Berlin marathons. Conrad is the only female in South Africa with this status. There are three men, Stephen Mokoka, Lusapho April and Desmond Mokgobu, also with this status.
But what many don’t know about Conrad is that when she started running as a teenager, at Malibu High School in Blue Downs, she did so in secret because her parents didn’t permit her to be active because of bad asthma attacks.
Asthma received attention last week as the world commemorated World Allergy Week (April 22 and 28). Asthma is one of the leading allergy reactions, affecting almost 4million South Africans.
According to the latest research by the Global Initiative for Asthma (Gina), South Africa has the world’s fourth-highest asthma death rate among five- to 35-year-olds.
Of the estimated 3.9million South Africans with asthma, 1.5% die of this condition every year.
Research suggests that allergic reactions, including asthma, have been on the rise in recent years, with children more at risk. A child with a family history of allergies is between 40% and 80% more likely to develop an allergy, while those without a family history are at about 15% risk of experiencing allergies in their first few years of life.
Conrad - who is now able to push her lungs and muscles to unimaginable lengths when running - admits that asthma robbed her of her childhood because she couldn’t run around like other children her age for fear of having an attack. However, a near-death experience at the age of 16 actually led her into long-distance running.
Conrad, an ambassador of the Allergy Foundation of SA (Afsa), landed in hospital after she had an asthma attack in the middle of the night which left her unconscious.
“My asthma was so bad that I used to sleep with a pump under my pillow. But this particular night the canister was empty. When I looked for my spare pump, that, too, was empty. I went to my parents’ room to alert them. We asked our neighbour to organise transport to hospital, but they wouldn’t open the door. But they did call an ambulance.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, Conrad had already passed out and had to be resuscitated, and then spent several weeks in hospital.
Her doctor issued a chilling warning: take part in an activity such as running or swimming to improve her lung capacity - or face death.
“He said that if I didn’t do anything about it I would probably not see my 21st birthday. I never told my parents because I knew they would not approve as I always got attacks when I ran. So I secretly tagged along with a friend who did cross-country running. My first attempt was the worst as I constantly gasped for air.”
After many attempts, with her pump on her chest and constantly needing medical attention, she finished a 4km race after four months.
“I was so chuffed by this achievement that I decided to train every day. I kept on having attacks, but pushed through anyway.
“The teachers kept on asking why I was pushing myself so hard when I knew that I had health problems, but I ignored them. I kept reminding myself of the doctor’s words - I was running to save my life.”
Before finishing school, Conrad became so good that she was selected for national competitions. By her last year of school she was offered a scholarship to study in the US.
“I turned them down be- cause my dream was to wear green and gold first. I wanted to represent my country,” she said.
Her chance to travel overseas came when, aged 20, she was selected to represent South Africa at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. This was after Conrad, who was studying sports management at the University of the Western Cape, won her first senior South African title in the 3000m steeplechase, breaking the South African record.
She moved to Joburg after receiving a scholarship from the University of Johannesburg, and stayed for another seven years as a teacher and coach.
After her move to Joburg she observed a reduction in her asthma attacks.
“The more I trained at altitude, the more my asthma got better, until, after two years, I outgrew it completely”
The 32-year-old returned to Cape Town as an athlete manager for the Stellenbosch-based Endurocad.
Through her work as an ambassador for the allergy foundation she is determined to create awareness about the seriousness of asthma, and that it can be overcome.
Conrad has a busy year ahead. She is preparing to take part in the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in August and her debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Next year she will run the new Afsa run. The 5km run is aimed at encouraging asthmatics and allergy sufferers to take charge of their health.
“I decided to be an ambassador for Afsa because I want to encourage allergy sufferers that it is possible to outgrow asthma if you change your lifestyle. You can’t always change your circumstances, but you can change how you tackle life situations that’s what running taught me,” she said.
Professor Mike Levin, chief executive of Afsa and head of allergology at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, said: “Asthmatics should be able to participate and excel in all sporting activities. Using controller medication every day, whether symptomatic or not, allows asthmatics to achieve their full potential.”