'They told me I would never run again – so I did the Ironman'

By Litaletu Zidepa
06 March 2016

Completing the gruelling 3,8 km ocean swim, 180,2 km road cycle and 42,2 km run that makes up the Ironman triathlon is an incredible achievement in itself.

Completing the gruelling 3,8 km ocean swim, 180,2 km road cycle and 42,2 km run that makes up the Ironman triathlon is an incredible achievement in itself.

But finishing the world-famous race just a few years after doctors told you would never run again is another matter entirely.

Keri Delport (31) from Muizenberg, Cape Town competed in the Iron World Champs, the Half Ironman events in East London and Durban, as well as the full Ironman African Champs in Port Elizabeth.

It’s hard to believe that in 2008 doctors had told Keri, an avid athlete, she would never run again.

Keri had been diagnosed with Schurmann’s Disease a year earlier, after struggling with excruciating back pain and constantly having to rely on crutches to walk.

“Schurmann’s Disease involves the crumbling of my spine, or the vertebrae in my back,” she explains. “If I look at an X-Ray of my back, it basically looks like someone has taken a hammer and chisel to the vertebrae, as they are jagged and look broken.

"The discs are the spongy cushions between the vertebrae which support your back and contain nerves, etcetera. Mine are disintegrating.

"I live with back pain. It’s become my norm."

Her surgery in 2008 was to fuse her lumbar spine, and to put in a prosthetic disc just above the fusion.

Race prep

But while it helped relieve her pain, doctors had bad news for her. They believed she would never be able to run again.

“The build up to that moment was difficult. I was given the news while recovering in hospital after the spinal surgery.

"I initially was devastated at that time,” she tells YOU. “I have always done sports and couldn’t imagine my life without it. But something inside me trusted that there was a bigger plan or journey that was about to unfold, and so I needed to trust," she says.

But just a year later, she faced another hurdle – her father,  John Delport, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and was given just three weeks to live.

"My dad fought for three months before he passed away in March 2010.”

Keri says in those months, her father taught her the spirit of endurance. "I decided then that if he could fight for his life for three months, I could do a race for which had 17 hours to complete," she said.

After her operation, Keri says she was flat on her back for a few months recovering but she started swimming at home and that’s when she told herself she could push herself to run again.

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“I did power walking to get core and back strength up... and walked a half marathon in the process… and then started running.

“So it’s all about looking at what I could do in each moment, rather than focussing on what I couldn't.  I knew where I wanted to go… I just needed to work out how to get there, in spite of doctors.  I wanted it badly enough, so worked hard for it.”

She trained between 20 and 26 hours a week while working a ten-hour work day as an education and outreach manager for Autism Western Cape from Monday to Friday.

Keri says though she has had a short moment of wanting to give up, the triathlete always kept her dad in mind.

"Getting up at 3am through winter a few times a week is definitely not for the faint hearted, but I just had to keep focussing on my goal and dream," she says.

When she finally made it to the starting line of her first Ironman, she was incredibly emotional.

"I stood on the beach at the start line, listening to tribal drums, followed by the national anthem, and I just allowed my tears to flow. I couldn’t believe it was happening."

She completed her first Ironman in 2011 finishing at 12 hours and 49 minutes.

Keri says the moment she crossed the finish line will be etched in her memory forever.

She remembers hearing her mother’s voice encouraging her to hold on.

“As I turned the corner to head onto the red carpet and to run down the finish line, I broke out sobbing. I saw my mom and was inconsolable.

"My mom ran through the barricade just on the other side of the finish and just held me. It was an indescribable moment, really.”

Keri chose to dedicate her Ironman participation to Autism awareness. "I see on a daily basis their own journeys of endurance," she says of the children she works with.

“Having to endure living in a world where people just don’t understand you, it’s all about endurance and resilience at the end of the day."

Her journey from the doctor’s office to the Ironman finish line has taught her one crucial thing, Keri says.

"Whenever someone tells you that you cannot do something, take that as encouragement to try harder."

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