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Michelle Enslin, SA’s new Ironman world champion. Picture: CHRIS HOWES
Michelle Enslin, SA’s new Ironman world champion. Picture: CHRIS HOWES

She undoubtedly lives her life to the fullest but as SA’s Michelle Enslin raced to her third full Ironman age-group title in Kona, Hawaii, at the weekend, she had not one but two grim reapers latched onto her shoulder. 

Her well-planned race build-up had been ripped apart by the tragic deaths of two close friends, one on Women’s Day and the other five weeks later.

First, Gqeberha’s well-known Pink Physio, Marolien Schmidt, a close friend of Enslin, was stabbed to death on Women’s Day.

“I’d just finished our regular 3.8km pool swim with my hubby Chris, and was looking forward to breakfast when he took a call and his face went grey as he told me Marolien had been stabbed.

“I thought it wasn’t serious although she’d miss out on her training for the Cape Town Marathon and Double Century cycle race but then he said, no she’s dead.”

Enslin said her life stopped and she let out a guttural scream in the middle of the gym. But her day was only going to get worse as she received news that a close friend in Cape Town, Dave Grobler, had suddenly come down ill and was in hospital where he would end up paralysed from the neck down before also dying about a month later.

But things didn’t get any better and she had to postpone her flights to Hawaii due to funeral arrangements.

“And then my bike went missing in transit in Seattle,” she says. “It took us six days to find it and get it on another flight to Kona.”

Lady Luck was still not done with her, though. She’s already had three hip operations, a broken foot, and on the second day of arriving in Hawaii she hurt her hip again, and was unable to run for the next 18 days, or swim because she could not kick.

My run is my weapon and all my success has been down to my running skills.

But this 55-year-old champion of life wasn’t prepared to throw in the towel ahead of the gruelling 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km standard marathon run. “I hadn’t come to compete, I’d come to win the world title. And anyone who knows me knows I hadn’t come to compete I’d come to win the world title in honour of Marolien and Dave.

“My run is my weapon and all my success has been down to my running skills. I got out of the water in 14th place and by 90km of the cycle I was in first place. At 110km this tall German girl just came flying past but I had the presence of mind not to chase and just stuck to my numbers.”

She started the run thinking that her natural physicality would haul the German in. “By 16km the Gatorade energy drinks are hot and not working for me so I started drinking only water — at 27km my body shut down.”

Enter hubby Chris Howes. “He yelled at me that I’m not cutting it and must up my game and that I’d made a pact to run.

“It was the closest I’d ever come to changing my ‘relationship status’ on social media.”

Chris told Enslin that the German up ahead was in a world of trouble and that she’d be able to catch her.

And that’s when Enslin entered a whole parallel universe. “The hills were long and I was dragging myself up them, having long conversations in my head with Marolien and Dave and then through the heat I heard Shakira singing This Time for Africa and [could] see Chris dancing next to the road.

“I remember the steep hill down to the finish line and suddenly I was finished, both literally and figuratively, and to this moment, I still can’t remember passing the German girl!”

She ended up in the medical tent for the first time in her life, 2kg lighter than when she started and with her body’s electrolytes all out of kilter.

Her winning time of 10hr 40min 06sec proved to be 10min better than the runner-up.

Back to the sad theme: Enslin’s no stranger to death and came close to it herself when she was 39. “I went into theatre for a routine removal of some cysts on my ovaries but the surgeon nicked a major artery and I bled out and spent three weeks in ICU. It got so bad they called my family to my bedside. I had heart failure, clotted... I had a shopping list of trauma events.”

Chris brought up the idea of tackling Iron Man as a way of celebrating life after the local version had gone past the couple’s house in Gqeberha.

“Seventeen Iron Mans later here I am. But I am still petrified of swimming. All our biggest fights have come about swimming, I panic every time I get into water, especially the ocean. The only consolation is that I know I have to get through the swim to get on my beloved cycle and run — I have a huge mental on-off switch when it comes to swimming but the emotional energy it takes is draining.”


Now that she’s paid tribute to late friends, what is still on the bucket list for Enslin, a former businesswoman but who now devotes her time to being a mom, housewife, and “looker-after of horses, dogs, donkeys and hubby”?

“I’d like to run a marathon without the swim and bike beforehand and would like to run 3hr 15min or so ... and I’d also love to climb Mount Everest.”

But apart from all of the above she’s also very closely involved in former Springbok rugby ace Garth Wright’s Iron 4 the Kidz charity in the Eastern Cape. To this end, hubby Chris built a 25m four-lane pool recently in less than a month for the Khayalethu Youth Centre in Gqeberha.

And of course she’d got to find time to get all that three-discipline training in. “I regularly train 15-16 hours a week ... a big week would be 25-26 hours of training but it’s never less than 15 hours a week. So an average week would be 9km of swimming, 35-40km of running and because riding is natural to me I sit at around 250km a week.”

She also credits Alec Riddle, former national triathlete and father of one of SA’s rising stars, Jamie, for her success.

“Alec’s belief and positive attitude and calm influence has had a huge impact in my life. His belief in me leaves me dumbfounded. Ernie Gruhn [Olympian Elana Meyer’s former coach] is also something of a sage in my running life.”

Victory in Kona helped conquer her emotional grief but she still admits to thalassophobia. “I’m still absolutely petrified of the sea, and swimming in it, and I like to think that when people realise that they are not alone in feeling that way, it will help them overcome their own fears.”

One thing’s for sure, in Michelle Enslin SA has a natural-born winner!

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