FROM JAPAN TO SA: THERE'S NO STOPPING NOLENE CONRAD
by Michelle Carnegie
08 February 2019
South Africa’s Nolene Conrad has just returned from Japan where she competed in one of the most competitive all female marathons around, and though the race didn’t exactly go her way, she is as determined as ever to rise above circumstances and focus on some exciting racing challenges ahead.
The year 2018 was a big year for Conrad. Not only did she finish in the top 25 at the World Half Marathon Champs, but she also achieved IAAF Gold Label Status because of that. Based on this performance, Conrad was approached by a Japanese agent to compete at the this year’s OSAKA Women’s Marathon, which is also an IAAF Gold Label race. To top it all, it is seen as one of the most competitive all female races around. For runners to qualify to run this race, they need to run a marathon under 3:10, a half marathon under 1:28 or a 10km under 37 minutes. Very fast times indeed for recreational runners, but yet 400 women lined up, a clear indication of the strength of the field ranging from recreational runners right through to the elites.
Training for the big day
Conrad decided to join a high altitude training camp in Iten, Kenya, in December as part of her preparations for Osaka. “I really needed to focus on my training, and because it was the festive season, I knew it would be challenging with all the distractions at home,” says Conrad.
On her return from Kenya she felt stronger and fitter than ever. “I had done a few track sessions which really impressed my coach (and that’s not easy to do). It also got me very excited. I was in really good shape and confident I could get a PB. So my goal for the race was to run under 2:34.”
The organisers allowed Conrad to have two people accompany here on her trip to Japan. Conrad asked her mentor, Elana Van Zyl-Meyer who is a former World Half Marathon record holder and current IAAF Gold Label Status Cape Town Marathon Ambassador, as well as her coach Ernie Gruhn. “This was the first international marathon where I had my support team accompanying me and that was a great help. They supported me on the route, where they were at the 15km and 30km mark and then in the stadium at the finish,” says Conrad.
“Elana is well respected in Japan as she has ran over 20 races there, whereby she won 19 of them. The race organisers were very pleased to have her there. My coach was so intrigued by the Japanese culture, so he was very happy to be there and very impressed by the race organisers.”
Weather conditions were far from perfect come race day. “When we looked out the window from the hotel room we noticed a breeze outside. My coach told me that I needed to tuck in and try and find a group to run with. Because I am so light the wind would have a huge impact on me. About 10 minutes after that, we were shocked to see snow starting to fall outside. That is when we starting cutting my long shirt to wear over my running vest, so as to see the race number in front.”
Conrad was amazed at the amount of support for marathon running in Japan. “When we got to the stadium, I was amazed to see so many people coming out to watch.”
At 12:10 exactly the starting gun went off, and the women first completed two laps around the track before exiting onto the road. “There were two pacing groups: a 71:00 minute pacing group and a 72:30 minute pacing group. Both pacing groups were too fast for me as I wanted to go through the 21km mark at 75:00 minutes. So when they accelerated after about 2km, I decided to hang back and find a group that was more or less on my pace. My body was feeling weird, as if it was not warming up. I was cold (it was 4 degrees) and I was struggling to move into a pace. I could immediately feel the wind and knew if I got isolated that I would be in big trouble. After about 4km I caught up with 2 Japanese girls. I thought I could work with them, but their pace was inconsistent and I decided to move on around the 10km mark and get to the next group. I ran on my own from 10km to 21km when I caught the other group of 3 runners. That was tough as there was a heavy headwind, but I took comfort in knowing that when we take the turn at the 22km mark, I would have a tailwind and could pick up the pace. I was wrong! When we took the turn we again ran into a headwind, which was so weird. The group that I had caught up with was slacking off the pace and I continued on my own. From the 22km mark until the finish I had passed 7 runners - to finish in 16th position in a time of 2:36.22.”
Conrad felt relieved as she crossed the finish line. “It was a tough race for me. I had battled with the wind most of the way and mentally I was tired. “
Japanese road running scene
One of the things that impressed Conrad most was how serious road running is taken in Japan. “When it comes to distance running Japan is right up there with the East Africans. The depth of Japanese women is incredible. In Japan there are corporate clubs that pay runners to compete for a corporate team. They earn a good salary each month and can therefore just solely focus on training. They only have one big race to focus on and that is Ekiden. So they receive a lot of support and the system is well developed. The athletes are really committed to performing well for their teams and there is an incredible team spirit.”
Another aspect that stood out was the incredible support along the marathon route. “There were so many people. This was the first marathon that I have raced where there were supporters along the entire 42.2km route! They were cheering and although I could not understand what they were saying, most of the time I could hear them saying my name. It was an unbelievable atmosphere, even at the start and finish inside the stadium there were so many people on the stands. It’s wonderful to witness how the Japanese people love their running and how they all come out to support and cheer on the runners.”
Conrad says she loved Japan for many reasons. “From the moment I landed in Japan, I had noticed how disciplined and punctual the people were. They like things to be neat, clean and precise, so everything was so well organised. The woman dress very elegantly and the men are all neatly dressed, not a hair out of place. I admire the Japanese people because they are so respectful, very friendly, well mannered, and have an incredible work ethic. They bow down to greet you, which in their culture is a sign of respect. They also always smile when they greet you. It is also very safe in Japan and people in Japan love running!”
She felt very welcome from day 1 as the organising committee went out of their way to treat the runners like royalty. “The organising committee was so happy to welcome us to their race and they kept thanking us for choosing the Osaka Marathon. When I arrived at the hotel the race organiser was waiting to welcome me with a bunch of flowers, which was a really sweet gesture. They treated us to a feast the evening of the race, and also the day after. It was wonderful to experience the amazing food post race, as I could not experiment too much before the race. We also met a running legend in Japan - Toshihiko Seko - a world class marathon competitor in the 1980’s. He was quite a funny guy and very entertaining.”
Conrad did not have too much time to go sightseeing, and did most of her sightseeing when she went for some runs around the Osaka Castle. “On the last day we went to a mall to buy some gifts. It was pretty amazing to experience the Japanese cuisine, we went out to a different restaurant each day with Elana, Ernie and my friends Ellie form Australia and Camille from New Zealand. We really enjoyed each other’s company and trying out different meals was lots of fun.”
She was intrigued by the neatness and cleanness of it all. “It was super clean in the city, as littering is an offence punishable by law. Yet I did not once see a bin, except when I bought a meal in MacDonalds…” jokes Conrad.
She usually takes a total break from running for about 2 weeks after a marathon. “I take Magnesium supplements at night to repair damaged tissue, and I’ve also had a physio treatment session and a massage session as I returned to SA. “Occasionally I would get into the pool as this also aids recovery.”
There are a few goals she would love to achieve this year such as a sub 33 minute 10km as well as Gold Label status again. “However my major focus for this year will be World Championships Marathon in September – I really want to do well. Then I would like to improve my half marathon PB at the SA Half Marathon Championships in July. I would like to go under 71 minutes this year and am planning to race an international half marathon later this year. I would also want to defend my Two Oceans Half Marathon title in April.”
Conrad recently joined the newly established Murray & Roberts Running Club, which is making waves in road running circles with their spectacular performances since their launch. “I am happy that more companies are investing in athletics, it’s good for our sport. Murray & Roberts have made quite an impression in its first few weeks and I am sure going forward this club will be the top club in the country. The club has many talented athletes with huge potential and a great management team.”
Conrad is known as one of the most inspirational and humble runners in South African road running circles. It is well known that she’s not had it easy, but despite circumstances achieved what many only dream of.
Born in Bishop Lavis and surrounded by drugs, violence, unemployment and poverty Conrad was also diagnosed as a chronic asthmatic, a medical condition that nearly killed her. She vowed to change her lifestyle and rose above circumstances. She has not looked back since, and is currently a role model for many younger runners at Endurocad.
“I always remember where I come from. Life was not easy growing up and I know what it feels like to struggle and hustle. It was part of my upbringing to be grateful and to give thanks to God. Sport has taught me humility amongst many things. Visiting places like Kenya also humbles me even more because I see how people struggle and how happy people are with the little that they have. Sport has given me a lot, even though I have worked hard for what I have, I realize how blessed I am, and that is why I always try and give when I can. I am my mother’s child, she has a good heart, and is a loving and giving person.”
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