Six years ago a woman stood at her wardrobe surrounded by clothes that no longer fit her. A year prior she had given birth to her first daughter and slowly accumulated excess weight. She walked over to her bathroom scale, stood on it and saw a figure that was 17 kilograms over her pre pregnancy weight. “It was neither comfortable nor pretty.”
She made a decision then and there that she would do something about it and do something, she did. The next day at the insistence of her blaring alarm clock, she woke up at an ungodly hour and run/walked four times around her 750m block. “It was tough. But for some reason the thought of having to go through the rest of my life overweight was tougher.”
Fast forward six years to 1 June 2014, that woman ran the Comrades Marathon. For the fourth time. She placed 6th. She was the first South African woman to finish. That woman is Caroline Wostmann.
How did a regular mom with a common realization turn wanting to make a personal change into athletic success?
“Setting a goal which seems impossible and then doing everything in my control to make it possible [motivates me].”
It wasn’t just sheer determination that got her to 6th place position but exceptional hard work too. Caroline Wostmann built on that first walk/run and week after week she persisted. The scale numbers decreased, her fitness increased, and soon she started to enjoy her early morning jogs.
“Running is a truly amazing thing because to the unfit it can feel like torture but suddenly you cross over this barrier and it feels amazing. You reach this happy place where the world is at your feet and all your problems can be solved.”
Once Caroline reached her happy running place she recalled her long forgotten childhood dream to run the Comrades Marathon. As a child, Caroline Wostmann would wake up early on Comrades mornings and spend the entire day watching the race. One year after the race she told her father that one day she would run the Comrades marathon. He replied, “No Carrie, this race is for serious athletes, not for people like you and me.”
For New Year’s 2009 Caroline Wostmann publicly set her resolution to running the Comrades marathon and two days later visited her local running club, Midrand striders, with her sister to join them for their long Sunday run. They were warmly greeted by Penny Visser, Maz Moore and Chris Piers and the idea of being part of a club and engaging with superheroes that had run Comrades more than once was exhilarating.
“The pace was slow and included some walking and chatting. At some point my sister and I realised that we had been running for a very long time and seemed to be nowhere near where we had started. “How far do you think this run is?” my sister asked me. “I don’t know” I answered. We were both starting to feel a little nervous. I casually asked the question and got back a casual “About 20km’s or so” response. We hung in there and somehow got back to the club but it was a rude awakening as to what most club runners would call an easy Sunday “longish” run.”
From that day Caroline Wostmann displayed little interest for stats on pace or distance. She ran the Dischem half marathon as her first race, with her sister, not even taking note of finishing time. “That seemed completely irrelevant at the time. I was just so proud to have finished and of my medal. (I hung the medal on my front door for a week after the race – embarrassing but true).”
Caroline Wostmann qualified in D-Batch (Marathon time of 3h40min – 4h00min) a few weeks later at the Pick ‘n Pay Marathon and despite battling through the race and incredible doubts she made it to the Comrades start line. “I seriously doubted my ability to finish Comrades. If I felt that crap after 42km’s how would I ever complete more than double that distance? It seemed impossible but my running family came to the rescue. I can remember fellow club member Sharon Newman comforting me by saying that, it seems impossible, but somehow on the day you just manage to do the impossible and finish.”
Caroline Wostmann struggled through her first Comrades and made the impossible possible when she finished. She finished in 9h17min and still her time meant little to her. That was until Caroline Wostmann found out that finishing under 9 hours earns a runner a Bill Rowan medal. “I stood [at our running club] looking at Tim Walwyn and Leon Baker’s Bill Rowan medals and the flame of desire for something greater was ignited.”
Caroline Wostmann sat out of a back-to-back Comrades 2010 to have her second child and watched the race again from her couch, 35 weeks pregnant. “It wasn’t easy watching Comrades from the couch that year and highly emotional but it definitely made me even more set on achieving my goal.” Six weeks later, running pram in hand she began training. “I had continued running during my pregnancy so starting again wasn’t very difficult. Running had become a way of life and it was more difficult taking the break from running then returning to it.”
Caroline Wostmann arrived at Comrades 2011 armed with a C batch Seeding (3h20min – 3h40min marathon time) with her husband Haiko and two kids (one 3 years old and the other 11 months) and spent the day worrying about them. “I was worried about the race and the kids, my stomach was in knots and standing at the start line I felt nauseous and was experiencing stomach cramps. I can remember thinking that it was going to be a tough day but I had to get to the finish as quickly as possible to help Haiko with the kids.”
In the first 20 kilometers after facing severe stomach cramps Caroline decided when she saw her husband she was going to pull out of the race. “He would understand. I wasn’t feeling well. It happens.”
Lucky for her, her husband had changed his plans and decided to meet up with her later on in the race. “I was cursing and running and walking and hiding behind bushes and cursing. Life was not good and I was not happy and Haiko was going to find out exactly how unhappy I was when I finally found him. I had no idea what my average pace was and quite frankly I did not care. I was just praying that Haiko would be in the next crowd of people and that my stomach would stop giving me such a hard time.”
At Arthur’s seat a friend in Angela Fourie who was supporting on route gave her an Imodium and waved off her complaining. Caroline struggled on for the next 20 kilometers, still no husband in sight. “At that stage I was still planning on bailing. I was seriously dehydrated and exhausted and too scared to drink or take any gels because of my stomach.” On a whim Caroline Wostmann ignored the conventional wisdom of not trying anything new on race day and took a potato and energade from a water table and started feeling better.”
“Nutrition is very important to me and I try to eat a healthy and balanced diet. When racing I will drink an electrolyte energy drink before and during the race and take gels or other supplements as I need them.”
“I started to feel fantastic. I’m not sure if it was the Imodium, the potato or the Engerade but I was floating, I was flying, I was on top of the world.” Caroline Wostmann thought a Bill Rowan was off the table but it didn’t matter because life felt good again. She finally saw her husband in Camperdown. She shared her sob story; he gave her a protein shake and told her that she could still make the Bill Rowan if she really pushed herself.
Caroline saw him another three times on course, each time he fuelled her with the words that she was going to make it. Caroline Wostmann finished in 8h33min, gained a Bill Rowan medal and a life lesson.
“Comrades taught me to never give up despite the odds. I had come so close to giving up. If Haiko had been at the side of the road earlier I would have quit and I would never have realised that I could have achieved my goal despite the difficult patch I was going through. After that I decided that I would never give up on something again because I would rather finish a task after giving it my best and know that my best wasn’t good enough than wonder what could have happened if I had just continued.”
All this time, Caroline Wostmann still ran and trained without a watch or running log. She had no idea the paces she was running or what she was capable of. A week after her second Comrades, she started to imagine what a silver medal would be like and asked her husband if he thought she could do it. “In Haiko’s world everything is possible so he replied “Yes of course you can”.” That was all she needed to set out on the next chapter of her running.
She invested in a Garmin watch and introduced speed work and hill sessions. “Getting a Garmin watch had a huge impact on my training. Being able to see what pace I was running significantly improved my training and racing.” She remained diligent and consistent and that year saw huge improvements in her performances. “My half marathon PB improved from a 1hr48min to 86min and my marathon from 3hr35min to 3hr05min. When Comrades came around I was confident I could run a sub 7hr30min.”
For the first time Caroline Wostmann ran a very structured Comrades. “I had set my Garmin to alarm if I went too fast or too slow and to beep every km, chime every 30min and perform some sort of whistle at 10km intervals. I had practised eating banana’s and potato’s and had learnt the names and positions of all the big 5 hills down to Durban. I was ready.” Her race went according to plan and she finished her third Comrades comfortably in 7h16min.
“Something changed in me that day. Before I never believed I could be a great runner. It was all about enjoyment and self-fulfilment and competing against myself, but suddenly I had this longing to be a top runner. I started to imagine how amazing it would be to get into that top 10, to have a Comrades Gold medal. It was something that had never even entered my wildest dreams a few years before when just being a Comrades finisher seemed like an impossible task. And yet it suddenly became something I longed for and obsessively began to think about.” Her husband once again encouraged her, saying she could achieve anything she wanted to.
Caroine Wostmann reached out to Bruce Fordyce for advice which led to her meeting Nedbank Green team manager, Nick Bester, who offered her a position on the elite team. “I felt a little out of place being on the same team as running legends such as Rene Kalmer, Christine Kalmer, Irvette van Blerk, Myrette Filmalter and later Charne Bosman who are far more talented than I am but it also made me determined to prove that I did belong there and to get that top 10 position in Comrades.”
She switched training partners to Duane Newman, introduced more speed work and a long Wednesday run. “I was consistently sore but determined to push through at all odds.” The additions proved to be hurtful and eight weeks before Comrades she was diagnosed with a stress fracture ‘and a broken heart’ and had to sit out Comrades 2013.
“That year I learnt a valuable lesson. More is not necessarily better.”
After a full six weeks of rest and a rehab program from the Tuks High Perfromance centre (HPC) Caroline Wostmann was back on track. “I knew that I wouldn’t give up. I would train smarter and fix my weaknesses and be back in the next year to achieve my dream.”
“I ate, breathed and slept Comrades marathon. The days, weeks and months became a blur of work, kids, strengthwork, homework, sports massage and plenty of running in the dark to fit it all in and I had so much support. It was unbelievable to have so many people believing in me.”
Caroline Wostmann stopped speed work until March to focus on building an injury free base and ran a half marathon PB at the end of March which sparked her confidence. In April, after being invited by Charne Bosman to join her on a 3 week training camp, she took all her annual leave and set off for something she thought would help her cruise through Comrades. “Training camp sounds a lot more glamorous then it really is but training with Charne was awesome. She has so much experience and is so willing to share her knowledge and I was truly grateful for the opportunity to train with her.”
A week later Comrades threw at her another valuable lesson when a pain in her calf arrived, just below her stress fracture. “I learnt that it is silly to run on someone else’s program when your own program is working for you.” Caroline rested, returned to HPC, did stretch therapy but still nothing helped. “I was convinced it was a stress fracture but I didn’t want to find out for sure. I was determined to run Comrades anyway, even if I had to hop to the end.”
Caroline spent the five weeks leading up to Comrades as an emotional misery to be around but still received incredible family support. Her husband bought an audio book by Scott Jurick to listen to on the drive to Durban. “In the book he spoke of a time when 44 miles into the Western States 100 Mile race he had caught his foot between rocks and heard the pop as he ripped the ligaments in his ankle. He had a choice to stop or continue, but chose to continue. He ran the next 56 Miles with a busted ankle and still won the race. That put it into perspective for me. You can chose to run through pain. I would push through it and I would not give up.”
The run was not easy and a couple of kilometers into the race Caroline was struggling to catch her breath. “I realised that whilst I was fighting with my injury over the last five weeks I had probably lost a bit of fitness.” Caroline Wostmann took an unconventional running approach, to hammer the down hills because she was losing too much time on the ups. She had a base of quad strength and was able to push a 3:40/km pace to make up the time for lost time. She drew on her mental strength and the support from her family on route and pushed through.
“Family support is crucial. I would not be able to succeed in my goals without the support of my family.”
“After Pinetown I saw the bright Orange of Zola Budd’s Hooters outfit. She was walking and given the fact that I felt pretty shattered I decided that this would be a good time to be star struck. So I walked with her for about 100m but despite being such a fan, she was still another female athlete fighting for a gold medal and I wasn’t going to hang around this close to the end. So I continued towards Durban”
“It was now beginning to get really tough. My body was screaming “NO!” but my mind was screeching “YES!”. It was taking longer and longer to get to the next km board but I was refusing to give up. My quads were starting to cramp and it was hot. I was thirsty but felt nauseous. I wanted to stop but I wanted the gold medal more. I was fighting with every step. With 6km to go a motorbike pulled up next to me and I realised I was on TV. I put on the most elegant running style I could muster (no one really wants the country to see them when they are feeling completely shattered).”
Caroline Wostmann held on and at 6h51min was the 6th woman to enter the stadium. “When I crossed the finish line to the announcement that I was not only a gold medallist but also the first South African woman home it was almost unbelievable.”
Almost unbelievable that in only six years of running an ‘ordinary’ woman was able to pick up running, improve consistently and go on to place 6th in her fourth Comrades. It takes one back to the debate ‘Are Champions born or bred?’ “That’s an interesting debate. I do think that there is a certain element of genetics involved but even the most talented will not find success if they are willing to work hard.”
Caroline Wosmann has a few things in her favour. Does she probably have an innate ability in her to run as she does? Yes. How did she go on to place top 10 when the sister she started her running journey with or the woman she trained with for her third Comrades did not? Not only did she have the incredible discipline to put in the work required but she has the mind-set to achieve the impossible. She dares to dream and powers through the tough moments and with ultra-races there will be tough moments.
“I don’t think anyone can say that they didn’t hurt towards the end of Comrades. But overcoming that difficulty is what makes it so great. Comrades 2014 taught me that your mind is your biggest asset on an ultra. My mind had literally forced my body to keep on going. I may not be the most talented athlete but I am determined and that is why an ultra-marathon allows me to do things I wouldn’t be able to over a shorter distance. You don’t have to be the fastest or the lightest, you just have to believe and be willing to endure some temporary suffering for a sense of achievement.”
Every year Caroline Wostmann has consistently set her sights higher that we can’t help but wonder if winning is next. “Yes, I would like to win. Realistically I need to improve my speed quite significantly before that can happen so it is unlikely that it will be in the next few years but the long term goal is to win. Maybe in 3-4 years time.”
We may have titled this ‘The Caroline Wostmann Story’ but in truth this is not the story, this is merely touching on the beginning of one of the greatest sport stories we have heard. Watch out world, Caroline Wostmann is just getting started.
Read our follow up article on Caroline post Comrades win here
Feige is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to code things, design things, and all things beauty.