On 15 January 2022, 8 weeks before my first Absa Cape Epic, I had to withdraw from Attakwas. during the race, because I felt so horrid. The Attakwas is a difficult race, and it was hotter than normal this year, but I had completed it twice previously and in theory this particular occasion should have been fairly routine for me. I had been building up to the Cape Epic, and in the 5 months prior I had done some of the best training I had ever done in my 10 years as an amateur endurance cyclist. However, in the week leading up to the Attakwas my stomach wasn’t good. In fact, it hadn’t been good since November / December 2021, and I had been noticing a slow and steady deterioration. Despite being very anxious about it all, I had kept on telling myself that it would come right.
Unfortunately, it didn’t come right. On that Saturday the 15th January and about 2 hours into the Attakwas race, I could feel that I was really struggling. I slowed down, drank more, ate more, spent more time at water points. But I got worse still. After 3 hours I could barely produce more than 150 watts (normal average 250 watts). Then, after 4 hours, and the third discussion with myself and my good friend Dino (and Cape Epic partner) as to whether I should be continuing, I decided to pull out after some violent cramping. Knowing that I would regret it if I didn’t push on, I had already convinced myself to continue on two occasions before this. However, when this third moment arrived it was clear that continuing was a very bad idea. Afterwards, I was shaken. I knew my body wasn’t in the best place, but barely being able to move forward was not something I had ever imagined would happen to me, especially after all the good training I had done over a long period of time. What was scarier was that I was about 2 months from the start of the Cape Epic, an event I had been dreaming about doing for almost 10 years and something I had been actively working towards for 2 years (the cancellation in 2021 due to Covid meant the build-up had been longer than normal).
Only a few days after the Attakwas I met with Chantal Du Chenne, Functional Medicine and Performance optimisation coach. I explained what I had been experiencing for the past 2 months, and in the week leading up to my DNF (Did Not Finish), and what I had gone through on the day itself. Poor gut health /leaky gut was the likely cause. I was assured that we could turn things around, but I realised that to do that, I needed to be open to changing what I believed and understood about food and sports nutrition. Because I was still shaken by my experience at Attakwas, I was all ears. I had also previously experienced how passionate Chantal is about her profession, and her own cycling performance. So, my sense was to listen and learn, as I intrinsically sensed there was truth in the philosophy “it all starts in the gut”. In hindsight, I am so thankful I came across these learnings. Thinking back on it, I could have been eating far better than I had been and the sports nutrition that came with the many hours of training had finally got the better of my stomach.
Was I really eating that badly previously? No. I was eating clean (no takeout, no ‘heat and eat’ meals etc.), I was eating a lot of good carbohydrates when I needed them (sweet potatoes etc.) and I was eating some vegetables and fruit fairly regularly. I’m 178cm and I weighed 68kg at that time so I couldn’t have been eating that badly. I was, however, probably too partial to general sports drinks (like Powerade) and fizzy tablets (Vitamin C) that I would use during big blocks of training to maintain energy levels and stay ‘healthy’. What I’ve now learnt is that I was eating far too narrowly, and that all the things I thought I was getting from the fizzy and general supplementary tablets should have rather been coming from food. Going forward, I needed to make sure that my plate had enough variety and color on it, and I needed to include the foods that my stomach needed to function well.
Chantal gave me a lot to think about and I set about adopting as much of it as I thought I could manage in the short period of time leading up to my big date with the Cape Epic. I stopped eating all dairy and gluten immediately and I expanded the length of my shopping list significantly. I also made a big change to what I was eating on the bike. Previously it was the bars you can buy at your local shop, and it changed to my own homemade rice cakes. It took me a few batches to perfect these, but it was worth it! I saw an improvement in my stomach after 2 weeks and it was probably 70% right at that point. The last 30% took some time as I worked out what things (healthy things) I needed to avoid because my stomach was still so sensitive. Over time I also found myself eating less meat simply because I was experiencing the benefits of eating more of the other things I was now eating, and I wanted to incorporate more of it.
Thankfully I made a full recovery in the 2 months leading up to the Absa Cape Epic. Through that process I also developed some confidence in my body again. It was a giant relief, and I was so happy I could start the race knowing that my body wasn’t going to let me down, and I wasn’t going to let my good friend and partner down. We had a great race, finishing 105th overall in our first Cape Epic as a team (my first Cape Epic). We got stronger as the race went on, and in the last 2 stages we were comfortably in the top 100 in the stage results. The race was hard (that is what makes it so special), but I couldn’t believe how all the training and ‘cultivation of a happy gut’ had enabled me to keep going at the same speed, and faster, all the way to the end. I seemed to recover so well each day and being 2kgs lighter certainly helped when the trail went sharply uphill. I have very fond memories and I am so proud of how we rode together.
Two months post the Cape Epic I am still eating like I have now learnt to eat, and I won’t be changing any time soon!. I love it now. I think that’s because I love feeling healthy and energetic. I can work long hours at my desk, cycle big distances when I want to, give more of myself to family and friends, and I am happy. Even if I compare pictures of myself from the day of Attakwas to the last few days of Cape Epic, I can’t believe how much healthier I looked at the Cape Epic. Through my experience of this transformation, I now think so much more is possible in life and in sport and I’m looking forward to having the strength and energy for more audacious goals in the future.
Thank you, Chantal!
BIO: Chantal is a B.Sc.Hons Allied Health with an international diploma in Nutrition and Sports Nutrition as well as an International certification in Functional Medicine. Chantal is a passionate Gut Health advocate and works as a Functional Medicine Health and Lifestyle Coach, facilitating the improvement of her clients health conditions and sporting performance with a focus on healing leaky gut, correcting dysbiosis (imbalance) of the gut microbiome and addressing inflammatory lifestyle factors.
Over her 25 year career, Chantal has held various positions within the health and wellness industry – including 10 years as the Executive Head of Vodacom’s corporate wellness & mobile health programs. Chantal is the former owner/ founder of the DripBar www.thedripbar.co.za which offers vitamin and mineral drip therapy in improving micronutrient deficiencies. She is also the former founder/owner of a Kombucha brewery which produces the brand of ‘booch’ called theFarmacy.
Chantal is a competitive cyclist, a plant strong vegan and mom to two grown up girls.
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