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Comrades 2011

Carl Liebenberg

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Carl Liebenberg, 32808
A DNS conquering the Big C!

For many, “September 11” conjures up images of death and grief. For me, it is a good day because on that day I was told I had beaten cancer. I had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, an “aggressive” cancer after a surgeon sliced my abdomen open to investigate why I had a 12.5 cm spleen (it should normally be about 4cm’s). As it turned out, the spleen was a large tumour which had started in the lining of my stomach attached to my diaphragm and, a rich blood source, my spleen.

For the 6 months prior I had taken nothing for granted. There was nothing certain about the next day. Each day was a fight for survival. Each day, my body reacted differently to the level of toxic chemicals in my blood. I was either sliding towards that point, 7 days after a “heavy” dose of chemo, where I couldn’t move. Or, after getting through that low point in the cycle, I was moving with a sense of dread toward the next nauseating round of the drugs. All in the hope of killing this thing growing inside me, and not knowing if it would consume me.

The problem then became that I got too caught up in trying to regain my life after staring death in the face. I got divorced, went back to university and completed an MBA, met a gorgeous girl, remarried; started 2 businesses, a charity and a family. My life is full.

And I developed the waist line to show it! Looking in the mirror one morning, I realised I might have escaped dying of cancer, but if I didn’t change my lifestyle, heart disease would get me instead.

So I started running again. It was glorious. Carrying an extra 15 kilo’s didn’t make it easy, but it was great to be on the road again, running with mates and sharing the joy of completing each kilometer.

As a youngster I was a provincial swimmer and an ultra distance tri-athlete completing the Durban Ultra in 1992. I was used to pushing my body to its limits, and getting cancer killed the self belief I had.

Now I needed goals to shoot for. I’m not the type of guy to run week in and week out for the sake of it. I need to aim for something, and it needs to be BIG! I need to run and overcome the mental and physical hurdles to prove to myself, and everyone out there, that I’m ok.

The New York marathon would be a great place to start regaining that inner confidence. It would also be a great event to showcase a cancer survivor’s ability to beat the odds and provide hope to the many people out there going through what I went through 10 years earlier. At the time I entered, it was a massive goal. I hadn’t run very much since my illness. I didn’t know how my body would react to the training.

Then in 2008 in New York, I ran my first marathon, 10 years after I was diagnosed with cancer. I felt a fantastic sense of achievement. I finished in 4 hours and 45 minutes, over an hour slower than my best time as a twenty something tri-athlete. But this finish was far more memorable. It marked the celebration of a significant anniversary of a life-changing event.

No matter how sweet that achievement was, as any runner worth his salt knows, the ultimate goal is to run the infamous “Comrades”.  In October 2009, I set my sights on the BIG goal – Comrades 2010.

Killing cancer is a solitary process. A lot of the battle takes place in your head. You have no control over the outcome of the treatment and you can only take it one day at a time. This uncertainty gnaws insidiously away at your confidence. You need remarkable fortitude to get through it. I suspect it is the same kind of mental strength you need to complete an ultra-distance marathon.

The great thing about trying to run Comrades is that there is a hell of a lot of advice out there on how to tackle this challenge. From experts like Bruce Fordyce to nutrionalists and every day heroes who’ve done the race.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the challenge of beating cancer. I trawled around web sites in SA when I was ill, and could find little or no sources of help. So I decided to start Cancer Buddies ( to help patients and their families deal with what lay ahead once they had heard those terrible words.

We’ve now got branches in Western Cape, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga. We intend to start branches in the Free Sate and KZN this year. We interact with about 1,500 patients each year via the web and direct interaction from trained oncology social workers and former cancer patients called “buddies”.

After a reasonably consistent start to my training, I made the fatal error of stepping up my mileage too quickly and in January 2010 something “popped” in my right calf. It took a few months to diagnose, and it turned out I had a massive stress fracture of the right shin with very painful shin splints. I was advised to take 6 months off – no running or even walking was allowed. I was devastated. My confidence wilted. I felt my body had let me down again. I tried to go to gym during the layoff period, but didn’t have the motivation. I got fat again.

In September 2010, I was finally given the OK to start running again. It was great. I ambitiously registered for Comrades 2011. Starting slowly this time, I ran just 20km’s per week for a couple of months. But as I tried to push the distance I felt my shin resist so I was forced to pull back again, running just 30 km’s per week for a few months. In February 2011 I realised my dream of running Comrades wasn’t going to materialise this year.

Because of the limitations on my training this year, I wasn’t able to build a proper base for such a monumental event. I had to settle for another marathon instead. So in April 2011 I completed the London Marathon in just over 5 hours. Because of the limitations on my training schedule I wasn’t adequately prepared, and I had to dig really deep to get through the last 7 km’s. But the massive positives to take away from this run were that my shin and my mind, had held up perfectly. My confidence is slowly being restored.

So here we are, a few weeks to go before Comrades 2011. I’ll watch it on my TV this year, but next year I aim to be at the start line.

If you want to read my progress go to my blog site “Comrades for Cancer Buddies”.

External links: Official Comrades Marathon website, Comrades for Cancer Buddies,

Copyright Nikki Campbell 2011