Why did self-designated couch potato LEATITIA GRADWELL start to run in a small circle in her front yard during lockdown? And how has it helped her crush the anxiety that was blighting her life? KATY MACDONALD (gaspingly) ran after her to find out
Leatitia (46) was born and grew up in Cape Town’s Mitchell’s Plain. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry since leaving school. Leatitia is married to Heinrich and they live in Cape Town with their daughter, Skyla (13)
‘Growing up, I was a go-getter, very jolly and chirpy. But underneath it all, I was actually quite nervous about things. Living in Mitchell’s Plain, I’d been exposed to gangsterism, and if anyone started fighting near me I just couldn’t handle it. At school, I’d freeze if I had to deliver an oral in front of my class.
This nervousness followed me into adulthood, even though once I left school I became a party animal of note! At 39, I went into early menopause and the hormonal change seems to have set off a more severe anxiety in me, because one day I woke up and felt my whole world was falling apart. I kept having thoughts such as, ‘What if the school calls to say something has happened to Skyla?’
I just couldn’t switch off from these thoughts and started hyperventilating. I got to a GP but he couldn’t throw any light on what was happening, so Heinrich took me to hospital.
dark and scary
It turned out I was having a panic attack and I was put on hormone replacement therapy and anti-depressants. I stayed at my mom’s house to get used to the meds. It was terrible leaving Skyla behind with Heinrich. I felt like such a bad mom and worried about another panic attack: it was a very dark and scary time. The only time I felt comfort was when people came to the house and prayed for me.
In time, the meds helped, though I stopped feeling like me. I was able to go back to work but, on the inside, I still got waves of anxiety. I felt so disappointed in myself. I couldn’t explain my feelings to Heinrich, even though he was so supportive, and would put on a happy act with everyone, him included. All the time, I was fighting with anxious thoughts in my head. It was really tiring.
Skyla, Heinrich and Leatitia: today, a happy family. But a few years ago, Leatitia was gripped with severe anxiety about life. Scarcely able to breathe, she was taken by Heinrich to hospital but her anxiety continued despite rest and medication. ‘I felt so disappointed in myself,’ she says
Then Covid hit! Just before the pandemic, after years of being a couch potato, I’d started running up and down in my company warehouse before work, much to the amusement of the drivers. In hard lockdown, when South Africans couldn’t go outside for leisure at all, I started running in a circle in our front yard, which was 5m by 10m in size. Before I knew it, I’d run a kilometre and was feeling less anxious.
The 5m by 10m front yard in which Leatitia ran in circles during hard lockdown
The route: satellite image showing the endless circles in which Leatitia ran in her yard!
Every day, with worship music playing in my ears, I ran a little further until I’d run a full 10k in that same circle in my own front yard! Once South Africans were allowed to exercise outside, I ran around the block. It was thrilling to be on the streets. When I ran, I left everything behind me and didn’t think about anything: it felt so good. It was so ironic at this point that the whole world was pretty much in fear and Miss Paranoia was calm!
While a Covid-struck world trembled, ‘Miss Paranoia’ started to relax | Photo: Shimi Visuals
My friend Carmen took me on a run in Constantia with a group called Adidas Runners. It was meant to be a short run, but the members of the group were so supportive that I ended up running my best ever 10k. I started running with this amazing community three times a week and in May 2022 I entered my first ever 10k race. What a joy to finish it!
Leatitia discovered she loved running in a group and entered her first ever 10k race. ‘Look at me enjoying my therapy session, might I add that it’s free?’ she quipped on her Instagram page
In 2022, I heard that Adidas the brand was looking to train up 11 women who’d never done a marathon to run the Cape Town Marathon in just 14 weeks! To be considered, you had to make a video clip and send it through. I left it till the last minute and said, ‘Lord, If I’m one of these ladies and am meant to run 42km, please show me’.
this is my breakthrough
I filmed my little video, but thanks to loadshedding, it stuck in my outbox. I decided I’d try one last time before the midnight deadline: if the email didn’t go through, it wasn’t meant to be. I heard nothing but then, one Wednesday afternoon, I got an email to say I’d been selected! I was scared as I knew it would be very hard. But I was excited too. ‘This is my breakthrough,’ I told myself as I prayed and thanked God for the door I believe He opened.
Each woman was chosen for a different challenge she was going through, from a hectic work schedule to issues such as depression, infertility, deafness, marital separation, abuse recovery and a heart problem. We were given a coach called Kathleen, who created an intensive programme for us that included weekends away. What a bond this formed between us all. Though the schedule was mentally and physically gruelling, we were able to spur each other on. The emotional support from all these women took my mind off everything. I never gave up on the programme and it was a beautiful 14 weeks.
Leatitia (middle) with the 10 other runners selected by Adidas to train for a marathon in just 14 weeks. Coach Kathleen Shuttleworth is on the far right
Above and below: ‘Community is everything,’ says Leatitia, who derives great pleasure from exercising with a group. Here, she’s having fun with friends from two running groups, Adidas Runners and MustLoveHills
The Cape Town Marathon took place in October 2022 and it turned out to be practically the hottest day of 2022: some elite runners didn’t even finish. But all 11 of us managed it! Crossing that finish line at 5 hours 25 minutes, oh my word, I was so emotional. At the age of 45, I’d gone from 10km to 42km in 14 weeks: I felt I’d proved to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to.
I’ve pretty much been running since then. Some days running just flows, and other days it feels as if I’m going through hell. But I keep making the choice to show up. I entered the Cape Town Marathon again last year. Eight days before the race, I woke up with flu. I cried terribly because not only was it our wedding anniversary, which I was now too sick to celebrate, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to beat my time from the previous year. Then I thought: I’m not that woman anymore! Why be sad? I’m going to have fun instead. I showed up and even danced some of it! I haven’t stopped entering local road races, and recently did a mountain trail run which I absolutely loved.
WHY BE SAD?
Flu just one week before her second Cape Town Marathon meant that Leatitia wouldn’t be able to run fast. After a crying fit, she said to herself, ‘Why be sad? I’m not that woman any more!’ and had fun all the way 🙂
During one recent race, I got an anxiety attack that started with the usual tingly feeling in my fingers and progressed to hyperventilating. I was going to call Heinrich, but instead I sat down in the road and connected with God on a new level. ‘You got me this far, so I know this is not of you,’ I said to Him as I prayed. I got over myself, got up, ran the rest of the race non-stop and finished strong. I started putting up ‘transformation posts’ to show how running was helping me.
Above and below: Leatitia started putting up before-and-after ‘transformation posts’ of herself. ‘I love bringing positivity wherever I go, so that’s what I try to do on my social media,’ she says
I still have anxiety about some things, but now I can control it. I remind myself I’m going to be ok: I must breathe, calm myself, pray, take a nap or go for a run. If I wake up anxious, while in the past I might have stayed in bed and felt sorry for myself, now I force myself to get up and get moving, and also to talk to someone about it.
I’ve always loved doing community work and giving back, and now I can use my social media presence to bring positivity. I run for different causes such as autism, cancer awareness or blankets for the homeless, and put up before-and-after motivational posts on my social media. I find that many women open up to me and message me about being stuck in a rut. Despite my aversion to public speaking, I managed to do a talk at Salt River High together with Rape Crisis about how simply moving your body can be so good for anxiety.
My social media has helped me find beautiful humans out there with kind hearts who are prepared to help others. Last year, I visited Lavender Hill High School and offered a matric dance makeover for one girl. It ended up being Elizabeth, a single mother who’s gone back to school to give her baby a better chance in life. I found sponsors for her hair, her dress, her nails, her lashes and a car for the night by asking on my Instagram and Facebook accounts. I was so blown away that people donated all these wonderful things to her. Every time I got a donation, I’d end up in tears. Witnessing it all come together in the last two days was so heartwarming and emotional.
A sports socks company called Versus liked what I was doing with my social media, and contacted me. I’m now a ‘Versus Athlete’ who features on their posters and social media, I have to pinch myself when I think about this!
‘Appealing through my social media helped me find beautiful humans out there with kind hearts who are prepared to help others,’ says Leatitia
Leatitia appealed for donations to facilitate the matric dance of Elizabeth, a learner at Lavender Hill High School who had gone back to school to give her baby a better future. ‘Witnessing it all come together in the last two days was so heartwarming,’ she says. ‘Elizabeth said to me, “I will never forget the way you made me feel.”‘
Above and below: Approached by a South African sports socks company which admired her social media, Leatitia is now a proud ‘Versus Athlete’. ‘I have to pinch myself when I think about this!’ she says
I feel I’m in a beautiful season of life now where I have the inner peace that only God can give. I am so grateful to Him for pulling me through the hard times. In lockdown, I had a couple of t-shirts printed for myself with bible messages on them. My friends liked them so much that I started a small company called Faith Forever, which creates clothing with faith slogans. The most popular item is a t-shirt that says ‘Faith Over Fear’. I believe that if you trust in God with all your heart, nothing can stand in your way.
Encouraged by her friends’ positive reaction to some biblical messages she printed on her t-shirts during lockdown, Leatitia started a small business called Faith Forever
My advice to would-be runners is to start out slowly. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Start just by running from one pole to the next, and as the days go by you’ll see that you can go further. Before too long, you should be able to run 5k. Keep showing up. It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop.
Leatitia’s advice for runners: ‘Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Start just by running from one pole to the next’
Don’t overthink your running, stay in your own lane. It’s your race, your pace, don’t look at the next person: there’s enough space for us all to shine! When you’re on the road or the mountain, let go of everything, your family, your children, work, friends and your problems. Sometimes we need to disconnect from the world to reconnect with our thoughts and emotions! In my view the best connection is with your Creator. As you run, thank Him for a body that can move, the breath in your lungs, the new day that you are blessed with. There are so many people out there who can’t run, so we can do it for the ones that can’t! It’s such a privilege.
Since I started running, I’ve been able to stop all my medication, which was a personal goal of mine. However, it’s obviously essential for people to consult their doctors over such a move. I always say to the women who contact me, just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for you. My message to people suffering with mental health issues is that they can do almost anything they can put their mind to. There’s always going to be negativity around them, but they can learn to be comfortable with themselves, be active, help people and be kind in this cruel world that we live in. We rise by lifting others.
I don’t regret my anxiety because it’s made me who I am today and has really grown my faith to another level. I always knew who my God was, but the relationship I have now with Him is amazing. I turn to Him whenever I have a decision to make. Another thing that’s enhanced my relationship with God is the Alpha Course, which I recently completed at a local church. It provides a space to ask the big questions in life and it’s been so great to hear everyone giving their point of view, and also to have questions answered. I found another great community and loved it so much that I’m training as a leader on the course. I look forward to this new adventure.
This year, I plan to spice up my running with more trail runs. In addition to all the other benefits, I believe they will help my concentration levels so I’m going to push myself beyond my limits again!
I put on weight this Christmas with all the festive eating and a running break, and have just posted candid photos of my upper body on my social media inviting other people to join in a 12-week reset with me. I’ve learnt it’s important for me to be upfront about things rather than hiding my feelings. Nothing in this world can torment us as much as our own unspoken thoughts.
Leatitia posted some candid photos of her upper body on social media inviting other people to join in a 12-week reset. ‘Nothing in this world can torment us as much as our own unspoken thoughts,’ she says
While I want to lose the Christmas weight, I also know that I’m already good enough in life and, as the bible tells me, I am beautifully and wonderful made in the image of God. I’m going to make a habit of being brave and am blocking out all the negativity and noise, doing what makes me and my family happy. I even swam in the sea recently though I can only do doggy paddle! The day you know you’re good enough for you is the day you set yourself free.’