Johannesburg - She’s been winning races and smashing records for years.
But little did people know that South African long-distance runner Irvette van Zyl (32) has been battling with a numb leg for seven years, leaving her running with just one limb.
Last year Irvette defended her Soweto Marathon women’s title in a new course record of two hours 33 minutes and 43 seconds (2:33:43), IOL reported.
And she smashed the record not knowing she was pregnant.
Another victory that also made headlines was when she completed two races back to back in Johannesburg and Cape Town within 24 hours in September. She crossed the finish line in 33:41 at the FNB Joburg 10K Cityrun and won the Sanlam Cape Town 10km Peace Run/Walk, clocking 32:49 minutes for the win, City Press reported.
But Irvette has faced numerous challenges since her leg went numb in 2012. She’s had an array of tests performed as well as having numerous physio and chiropractor sessions, but to no avail.
Fortunately things are finally looking up for the runner after undergoing surgery on Monday 1 July to release her left iliac artery.
“The artery was entrapped,” she explained.
During the operation, doctors cut through the ligament and muscle in her leg, freeing the artery and allowing blood and oxygen to travel through it to her foot.
“That (entrapped artery) had caused seven years of running with a numb leg and no power on the one side,” Irvette said.
It had been a frustrating journey and she’d spent lots of money trying to search for answers, she added. At some point, she’d even thought it was all in her head.
“I thought maybe it was a weakness in me and I wasn’t strong enough. I just got tired of hearing that there was something wrong with me and nobody understood it,” she said.
Her condition was only diagnosed in 2017. “The doctor realised that it might be a vascular problem and not the one we’d been looking for.”
Her vascular surgeon was almost certain the entrapped artery was the problem, Irvette said.
“I just want to start running again, just to see if the problem is fixed.
“The numbness would happen while training or on an easy run – it would just come.
“Usually, when it started it flared up in my groin. You could feel the numbness there. You’d lose control of your hamstring, it would go down to your calf and you’d lose complete control of your foot placing and then there’d be no strength in your leg when you stepped on it,” the runner explained.
To this day, Irvette doesn't know what kept her going and said she's never given up, even though she was losing between 20-30 seconds/km.
“Every time it would happen, you’d lose a lot of seconds because your pace slows down. That’s how much it affected me,” she said.
But the runner tried to push herself harder, although she put a lot of weight on her right side.
“I just learned to make the best of it. Every race I’d pray it wouldn’t happen, but every race it would just flare up,” Irvette said.
But it affected her mentally more than anything else, she added.
“It was more tempting to stop than just continue. If it’s gone now for good, I won’t miss it.
“My husband had to put up with all the complaints after the races,” she said.
Irvette is married to Louis Jacobus van Zyl, also known as LJ, a former world junior champion, a three-time Olympian and double African Champion in the one-lap hurdles event. He’s also a South African 400m-hurdles record holder.
“I will only be relieved when I start running and it’s gone,” Irvette said.
She’s going to start swimming and cycling a bit before getting back on the track, she said.
There’s a more intense operation she may have to endure if this recent one doesn’t yield results. But the mother of two says she doesn’t even want to think about it.
“My husband said, ‘Maybe you can run faster now’. And I said, ‘I don’t know. I just want to enjoy it and have a leg to run with and never have a problem again’.”
Irvette is looking forward to getting back on her feet to conquer more races.
“It’s actually my birthday tomorrow (July 5) and my husband asked me a few weeks ago what I want for my birthday, I was just like, ‘Just a new leg, that would be fantastic!’ ”