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by Michelle Carnegie
13 September 2017

The day he had to bail out of a corporate race due to a serious health scare was a turning point in the life of Tapiwanashe Zhou. Not only did he feel embarrassed in front of his colleagues and company MD, but he realised in what bad shape he was, having run only 1km before experiencing serious health problems.
At that stage Tapiwa (as his friends call him) weighed 107kg, and though this race was the turning point in his life, it took nearly seven years of disappointments, grit and determination before accomplishing his goal of losing weight and completing the 2017 Comrades Marathon.
A way of life
Tapiwa, who grew up in Zimbabwe, wasn’t a sporty child. He never made it into any sporting team; in fact, the closest he came to any form of sport was as his high school’s soccer reporter.
His weight escalated as he grew up, the reason being simple: he ate badly, did not exercise and enjoyed having beers and snacks in front of the TV. “The society I grew up in actually saw weight gain as a sign of success in life. So over the years the pounds just piled on and I never took any notice of what was happening to my body and overall health,” says the 44-year-old Tapiwa, an IT professional.
Wake up call
His wake up call came sometime in 2010 when he participated in a corporate event called the Bed Race held at the Zwartkops Raceway in Centurion. Each corporate team donated a hospital bed and had to choose one member to lie in the bed while 4 others pushed the bed through the entire race course.
“We had selected one of the lighter members to lie on the bed while the big guys pushed. Less than 1km into the race I started experiencing serious problems: heart palpitations, running out of breath, dizziness as well as nausea. I could hardly keep up with the team. I struggled for a few metres with the team pausing to wait for me to recover. Soon they realised I could no longer make it.”
The team decided to push Tapiwa on the bed. “One of the team members happened to be our company MD. I felt so embarrassed having let my team down. To make matters worse, all the other team members where much older than me, yet looked so fit and carried the team to the end. My entire body felt like I had been run over by a 30-ton truck. For the next few weeks I couldn’t even face our MD, feeling embarrassed at having let the team down. I realised I had to change my lifestyle.”
A friend suggested Tapiwa join his running club, and so Tapiwa’s seven year long journey to better health started.
Learning curve
Tapiwa’s first step was to join the Jeppe Quondam Athletics club. At first his only goal was to get fit. “I wasn’t too worried about my weight, it seemed OK for my height.” The road to fitness wasn’t easy. Even though Tapiwa joined a slow pacing group, he still found himself at the back, being the one everyone came back to fetch.
He ran 2-3 times a week, but continued with his carefree eating habits. His weight stayed the same and running buddies advised that Tapiwa lose weight to see improvement in his running. “I tried a number of diet programs but consistency was my biggest enemy. I never really stuck to anything for more than two weeks. For a long time I would lose a few kilograms and then within a short time gain the weight back again.”

The Comrades bug
Then the Comrades bug bit. The more he ran the more he fell in love with running. His desire to do better at every race motivated him to turn up for training sessions. “Running as part of a team motivated me to turn up for training without fail. Even on days when you don’t feel like waking up, the thought of disappointing your buddies actually gets you out of bed.”
By 2011, only a year after first joining Jeppe, he decided to enter the 2012 Comrades Marathon. But Tapiwa’s dream was soon to be shattered. A combination of trying to clock enough mileage and chasing the elusive qualification saw him doing too much too soon.
After a qualifying marathon of 04:43, followed by a 32km races a couple of weeks later, his dreams were shattered when he picked up an injury. Barely 4 weeks before the Comrades Marathon Tapiwa underwent emergency knee surgery.
He could not run for six months and by February 2013 he tackled a Masters-degree, which meant running had to take another backseat. “Due to pressure and spending most of time sitting at my desk or studying I slumped back to my bad eating habits, gained more weight and lost all fitness.”
A dream come true
After completing his studies in 2015 Tapiwa decided to start running again from scratch. “My first half marathon in August 2015 took a good 02:57. But I knew I had unfinished business with Comrades.” Although he desperately wanted to run Comrades 2016, he realised he was not ready, especially after finishing a marathon in 4:58. He continued training with his buddies who were preparing for Comrades and when they all took their winter break after Comrades, Tapiwa pushed on and continued training.
As soon as the entries to Comrades 2017 opened Tapiwa started his training in earnest. “With all the experience I had gained and the fitness from an uninterrupted year of full training I was able to smash qualification at Soweto in November 2016 in a time of 04:48. With the pressure of qualification off my shoulders, I then focused on training and getting the weight down.”
He joined a private gym and the combination of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and his back-to-back long weekend runs started paying dividends. His running improved; from running a 10km in 1:20 he now clocked a PB of 55 minutes. On top of that his endurance on the longs runs improved significantly. “Colleagues at the club and at work started noticing the changes and making positive comments about my weight loss. This further motivated me to work even harder! By the time I lined up for the 2017 Comrades Marathon I was weighing an incredible 81kg (a whopping 26 kg of weight loss in less than 6 months).”
Race day
Tapiwa lined up at the 2017 Comrades fighting back tears. He put everything into his training and sacrificed a lot to get to that point. Fortunately everything went according to plan. He followed a conservative race plan, starting slowly and walking up all the hills, keeping at least 20 minutes ahead of cut-off times. He smashed the race in a time of 11:31.
He has already entered for the 2018 Comrades Marathon, as he would love a back-to-back medal. “I feel very positive, confident and am in a good space in my life. Running has made me a happier person. I now watch what I eat, do my weekly gym sessions and club training. The Comrades training program is always demanding and will keep me in check.”
Tapiwa has the following advice for others in similar situations:
·      First set a goal, then put a prize on your goal (how badly do you want it?)
·      Make a plan (what do u need to achieve that goal?)
·      Stick to your plan and keep your eye on the ball at all times
·      Whatever happens, do not give up!
·      The human body can achieve anything that the mind wants to.
“Running has become therapeutic, whenever I feel stressed or grumpy, I feel much better after a run. A run early in the morning before work wakes up my engine. I feel I have my most productive days on the mornings when I go for my 5am run. The conversations and sharing of experience and knowledge on the road beats any coach or specialist you can find. Running has become an integral part of my life and it will always be.”
Tapiwa also remembers the lighter moments on his journey. “My best friend who happens to be a Pastor cried when he saw me a month before my first Comrades. I explained that this was due to exercise and my intense preparation, but he was adamant that this was due to the devil tormenting my soul! My mother was so worried she pestered me for weeks asking if I had any problems. She told me she was fasting so that any problems that were ‘eating me’ could disappear!”
Tapiwa’s remarkable journey has inspired many of his friends with a “couch potato lifestyle.” Some of them have started exercising and some have even entered for Comrades. “The mere thought of not disappointing all these people who now look up to me because of what I have managed to achieve, will keep spurring me on.”

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