There are many reasons to start running.

For Zanele, it was a way to escape the heartbreak and tears. In 2010 her father took his own life. Running became Zanele’s coping mechanism to deal with this tragic event – and the depression that came with it.

“I started with 5km runs; then, about four years ago, I started running marathons,” says Zanele. “I ran my first Comrades in 2016.”

READ MORE: “Fitness helped me deal with family drama, failing friendships and depression"

Image supplied by Zanele

#Rise18

“In recent years I’ve realised quite a few people are depressed, and they might not even know it,” begins Zanele. “So I made the decision late last year to actually do something about it because I don’t want people to go through what my father went through.”

And how did she plan to do this?

Running. A whole lot of running. “I decided to run 18 races and raise R180 000 for the South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG),” she explains. “The number 18 comes from 2018, so to say that this is the year that I rise and do something about [depression].”

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What sort of training does this require?

“I do strength training three times a week,” begins Zanele. “During the week I do a 10km, a 16km and hill repeats, then on weekends anything above 25km up to 40km or 60km.”

This hectic schedule only intensified for the recent Washie 100 Miler, an ultramarathon in the Eastern Cape, and is squeezed in around a full-time job at Google.

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Zanele took part in, on average, three races a month. This may sound doable, but when you consider that the recommended recovery period after a marathon is six weeks… it’s utter madness. A marathon a month is hectic. This amount of work comes with a very tired body obviously, plus a couple of injuries too.

“I’m carrying a back injury now. I did Comrades with a back and neck injury as well,” says Zanele. But the thought of her father keeps her moving forward. “My physical pain will not compare to what [my Dad and other depression suffers] go through and I will show the world that I am willing to go through this so that the awareness needed is raised.”

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Mind, body and soul...

“It’s such an emotional experience,” Zanele admits. “A lot of people have shared their stories with me on my social media platforms. I carry all those spirits with me when I run a race and you know every race signifies how possible it is for us to try and conquer mental illness in some shape or form.”

Zanele may have finished her set 18 races, but she’s only scraped the surface on what she wants to achieve. “Mental illness needs to be talked about like cancer and HIV – people shouldn’t feel isolated. I will definitely continue this work next year.”

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“And how is your body reacting?” I ask Zanele. “I’m very tired,” she laughs. “My body is really hating me at the moment.” But one thing she’s really started to appreciate is the amount of battering her body can take. “Your body can actually do anything,” she exclaims. “With the right motivation, we can do anything.”

Racing Life

“I don’t think that my life will ever be the same,” admits Zanele. “I think that this is the beginning of my forever.”

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A major highlight has been the responses from people who Zanele has inspired. “This campaign is changing people’s lives,” Zanele says. “It has literally saved people’s lives.”

The grand finale

Zanele has just completed her last race of the 18: the Washie 100 Miler – a 160km road race that runs through the night and has a cut-off of 27 hours. Zanele ran out of time with only 3km to go – the pain was just too unbearable. But she didn’t give up – she’d planned to run 18 races and finish 18 races and that’s what she did. What an inspiration. Let’s help her get to R180 000.

Kilometres run: Over 2 000km
Shoes used: Three pairs
Money raised: R125 000 (R55 000 to go)
Would you do it again? “Without a shadow of a doubt.”

Help Zanele to reach her goal. You can sponsor her by following this link.

This article was first published in Women's Health SA.