CAPE TOWN – A chronic asthmatic attack, complicated by an unhealthy lifestyle which typified that of her teenage friends in the tough-living precincts of Blue Downs, almost spelled the end of a brilliant athletics career even before it started.
“Unless you change your lifestyle and begin looking after yourself, you will not see your 21st birthday,” was the sober warning from the doctor who brought Nolene Conrad back from the brink.
Not wanting to put the accuracy of the doctor’s predictions to the test, the diminutive Bishop Lavis-born Conrad was shocked into transforming her life, which she did with remarkable success.
When she lines up for the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in 100 days' time, the 32-year old will do so as one of the elite international squad, one of only four South African IAAF gold status road athletes.
Conrad has become Cape Town’s “golden girl” of distance running, an epitaph given to her mentor and guide Elana Van Zyl-Meyer 20 years ago.
“Nolene is an exceptional role model who is just now coming into her best form,” Van Zyl-Meyer said. “Her work ethic is incredible; she trains very hard and also carries that over into her professional work environment. With Nolene, it’s not just about herself, she is always considering other athletes and encouraging them.
“And she’s as tough as nails, having had to overcome some big challenges growing up. We are exceptionally proud of her at Endurcad and look forward to her completing the circle be running in the marathon for South Africa at the Olympics.”
But to those who have known Conrad over the years and in particular her fighting spirit and ambition, her elevation to IAAF gold status following her superb 1hr 11min 44sec for 25th place at the World Half Marathon Championships in Spain in March this year may not have come as a total surprise.
“My philosophy has always been to dream big, go for what you want and never put a limit to what you can achieve,” explains Conrad.
Conrad enrolled for a degree in Sports Management at UWC in 2005, after completing her schooling at Malibu High in Blue Downs. She proved an outstanding student, graduating Cum Laude, which earned her a full sports bursary to complete her honours degree at Johannesburg University.
“I am very grateful for the opportunities I received to gain tertiary education,” Conrad said. “My time at university influenced my career tremendously and the experience enabled me to grow not only as an athlete, where I competed at the World Student Games in the steeplechase on three occasions, but also as an individual, where I learned the value of hard work and time management.”
A famous former @Springboks captain who wore number 6, Francois Pienaar, salutes the current Springbok captain wearing number 6 @Siya_Kolisi at the @CTMarathon 100 days to go press conference this morning. pic.twitter.com/lorae0qwpS
Conrad stayed in Johannesburg for seven years, becoming a teacher at Vorentoe High School, where she continued to benefit from altitude training and improve as an athlete. “But I was missing my family and also wanted to venture into my field of study, sports management. So when I got an offer from Elana Meyer to work for Endurocad and as an intern at Cape Town Marathon I did not hesitate.”
Conrad has been one of the success stories of Van Zyl-Meyer’s running academy, having excelled on the programme as an athlete in 2014, before being invited to join the management team two years later. Not only is her athletics’ career on an upward trajectory, she also is making strides in her sports management career, responsible for coordinating the programmes of 45 Endurocad athletes and organising regular skills and assessment camps for the academy.
Conrad lists her aptitude for hard work and her passion and desire for the sport her greatest tools for success. “I always encourage people to take up running wherever I can. Running increases your lifespan and instils qualities such as discipline, tenacity, dedication and patience.”
After working on the CT Marathon organising team last year, Conrad has been given the freedom to focus solely on running this spring. “It's been a dream come true for me to be able to compete in this year’s marathon, aiming for a podium finish.”