Romancing the Road

I think this happens only once in a lifetime… You find someone, a best friend and there is this special connection. And right from the beginning you just know that it’s not the norm. It isn’t just ‘click,’ or that you really like that person, it’s much deeper than that. This is an epic story of two runners. – BY HANETTE STRYDOM
met Shaun Naidoo at a 25km race in Pretoria. It was around the 15km mark when this humble Nedbank runner came past me, and due to the fact that I am also a Nedbank runner, he introduced himself to me. We started talking and before I could wipe out my eyes, we were at the 21km mark. We had been talking and laughing non-stop, but then I started struggling a bit.
Actually, “a bit” is an understatement… more like “a lot,” as this was only my second 25km race. That was when I experienced his encouragement and caring nature for the first time. He had a lot more in him, but he chose to stay by my side and help me through this.
I finished that 25km race with a big smile on my face… and a new friend by my side. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Shaun was a well-known runner, known by almost every road runner in Gauteng. I was still a newbie, but one thing I could tell: I was touched by his presence and the way he encouraged and inspired his co-runners. It was only much later that I realised that ‘Horsepower’ (his nickname) was a legend on the road.
We became good friends and saw each other at every race that I ran – definitely not every race that he ran, because that would be impossible for me. I mean, Shaun ran every race in Gauteng, and more outside the province as well! I just wouldn’t be able to keep up. Meanwhile, it had always been my dream to run a marathon, but it just didn’t feel possible, because I had suffered from a lot of injuries – an old knee injury from school, an Achilles tendon, to a long-term hamstring injury.
I had lost my dream… but then Shaun ignited it again. He lived legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens’ saying, “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” And he added his own flavour to it: “Be patient, believe in yourself… and never lose your dream.”
Later that year I became part of the Green Machine, a Nedbank social running group of which Shaun was a founding member. I entered the Kaapsehoop marathon and on the 1st of November 2014, I completed my first marathon, qualifying for the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons in the process. Shaun and members of the Green machine were waiting for me at the finish line and made it a very special moment in my life. That was the last race we ran apart… from then on we ran every race (that I ran) together, and we became best friends.
We fell in love, and shared wonderful memories on the road as soul mates, but everything wasn’t a bed of roses. We had to face certain challenges in our relationship. Like most people, we had a history, with baggage, and it wasn’t easy. Although my first marriage was long over, I was not legally divorced yet, and I was criticised a lot (the hardest by myself). So I broke up with Shaun – I wanted to do the ‘right thing,’ but that was the hardest time of our lives… and in the process I lost my best friend.
We spent a month apart and it was during that time that we both realised what we really wanted. For me it was a huge growing process – I realised I should worry less about what people say or think, because judgement is not for us. Each one of us is on a journey and we are living our life stories every day. As Edmund Lee wrote: “Surround yourself with the dreamers or the doers, the believers or the thinkers…
But most of all, surround yourself with those who see the greatness within you, even if you don’t see it yourself.” I realised that Shaun and I truly see the greatness in each other, but more than that, we share a love for people and it is important for us to be “that person that sees the greatness and beauty in the people around us.”
During these difficult times we stuck to our Comrades training programmes and that was our therapy… As a mom, training wasn’t easy – I had to fit my training in around my other schedules, and sometimes it was 4:30 in the mornings and sometimes it was five in the afternoons – but whenever I got an opportunity, I laced up my running shoes to experience the joy and freedom of being on the road.
We found long-distance running to be just like our life journeys – along the way you encounter many obstacles, and it takes patience, commitment and courage to overcome them, but in the process you learn not to give up, to see these obstacles as stepping stones to work towards a reward that is priceless. Our outlook on life was always positive and all the obstacles brought us closer together.
In April last year we ran the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon together, and on the morning of the 31st of May 2015, we lined up together at the start of the 90th special edition Comrades Marathon. Shaun had prepared me well for this, my tenth marathon in a period of seven months, but more than that, for both of us it was symbolic of “new beginnings” in our lives.
It was my first Comrades Marathon, Shaun’s fourth, and we knew it was going to be hard. The day before Comrades some fellow runners were jokingly saying, “If your relationship survives this, you’ll survive anything… because after the 70km mark nothing is beautiful anymore.”
Well, it was hard, it was painful, it was everything that everybody said it would be, and more, but it was the most amazing journey that I could ever ask for. Shaun was by my side the whole way except for the five minutes that I continued on my own because he wandered off to buy us ice creams in Pinetown!
At 70km we were tired, and our friends were right – things weren’t rosy anymore – but Shaun was still there, holding my hand through all the up-hills, tying my shoe laces when I couldn’t bend down anymore, encouraging me every step of the way. And on 31 May 2015, we finished the Comrades marathon… together.
After Comrades, as a ‘recovery run,’ we hiked the route of the Mont Aux Sources 50km Mountain Challenge in the Drakensberg. We had to carry all our food, bedding and a tent up the mountain, and Shaun took his Go-Pro to capture some of the memorable moments of our three-day hike. Now I have a fear of heights and this hike challenged every bit of that as we camped on top of Mount Aux Sources, right next to the Tugela waterfall, the second-highest waterfall in the world… in the middle of Winter.
But we had the most amazing time together, and this is where Shaun proposed to me – literally on top of the world – and so was I… It was an overwhelming “Yes!” When we arrived back at civilisation, I watched some of the footage that Shaun took, and what struck me once again were his encouraging words to me from beginning to end. He knew my fears and shortcomings, and he inspired me all the way. That is Shaun…
Soon after our Drakensberg adventure we got the most amazing news that we were expecting a baby girl. For Shaun it has always been a dream to have a child of his own, but after numerous fertility treatments and disappointments in his previous marriage, he had given up on that dream. Meanwhile, I was 41 and could not possibly imagine that we could have a child of our own. The news to him was almost surreal and we knew from the beginning that she was a precious gift from God.
We continued training at a much slower pace, under the supervision of our gynaecologist and with the commitment that I would listen to my body, and Shaun committed to do every bit of this with me while I ensured that he did his personal worst race times ever! However, during these slower training sessions and races, our family fell in love with the road in a completely different way… the bonding time, and enjoying every moment of this pregnancy.
Our life story continues. We share an incredible love and passion for family, running and the people that cross our road. We are definitely not the fastest runners, but we love the journey. “Whether it’s a 7-minute mile or a 20-minute mile, it’s still a mile.” Life is short, but running makes it seem longer, and our dream is to do what we love, to live in the moment and to touch people in a positive way along the journey. We want to run every race with a big heart, including our marathon of marriage, family and life.