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From fending off a health disaster to fit and fierce – Bianca Leigh-Nagel’s remarkable running story
From fending off a health disaster to fit and fierce – Bianca Leigh-Nagel’s remarkable running story

14 August 2019

‘ Unless you change your lifestyle, you’re headed for a stroke. In fact, you’re lucky to have avoided one’. The year was 2014 and the patient was Bianca-Leigh Nagel. The place? The Emergency Room. At 92 kilograms, and just back from a food-filled holiday with her sister, Bianca had collapsed thanks to painful cramps and after finding herself short of breath.

Those were the words from a nurse that changed the then 35-year-old’s life. The nurse may have been trying to jolt her into action but her sentiments were far from an ‘idle threat’ – Bianca’s blood pressure had been very high and many of her family members have diabetes. The intentional diatribe from the nurse worked: Bianca would go on to lose between 35 and 40 kilograms, over a period of three years. Gone was adhering to an eating plan half-heartedly, or going for the occasional jog. In its place now was a resolve to be the best version of herself she could be.

Where did Bianca’s weight gain journey begin?

Bianca (40) says she’d always used food as a crutch thanks to a sequence of events, and long working hours as an excuse not to exercise. Poking fun at herself, she tells of having been born the proverbial heavy baby, weighing 12 pounds (slightly more than 5kg). ‘The fact is though my weight yo-yo’ed most of my life and I just got used to the fat-shaming and taunts – to the point where I avoided my matric ball for fear of having to ask someone out,’ Bianca tells us.

One sad event in the ‘series’ she alludes to was her boyfriend’s sudden death. Bianca was only 21 at the time, and it left her depressed and ‘suicidal’. Things came to a head as far as her weight escalation was concerned, when she was retrenched in her 30s. ‘I’m an emotional binge-eater. The last number I ever saw on the scale was 97 and my way of dealing with this was never to look at the scale again, but I know that I hit triple digits at some point’.

Bianca’s tips for losing the weight and keeping it off

Bianca now weighs between 63kg to 65kg depending on the number of ‘post-race koeksisters’ consumed on any given weekend, and says the biggest myth is that there is a magic formula. It takes common sense, sound nutritional and lifestyle principles – and a good exercise routine.

  • The ‘best’ diet is one that’s sensible and that you can stick to.
  • I follow the ‘calories in vs calories out’ principle – I don’t cut out any foods; I love bread and potatoes way too much!
  • I pay attention to my portion sizes.
  • I keep 80% of my diet nutrient-dense and enjoy pizza, ice cream or wine occasionally.
  • I run 4 to 5 times a week, and cross-train twice a week.
  • You can’t out-train a bad diet.
  • Choose consistency over perfection. It’s fine to fail as long as you keep trying. My success definitely was not a straight line and I still fall, but make sure I get back up.
  • Slowly does it.
  • In the words of Madiba, it always seems impossible until it’s done.
  • I no longer equate my happiness with a number on a scale – there’s just so much more to be happy about! Right now, for example, I’m not happy with my current weight as Brrrrrr, this weather has made me want to eat! The important thing is how I view things now.
  • Join a club! I call mine my ‘tribe’; my other family. Training with like-minded people makes speedwork sessions and long runs way more fun and gives you that extra push. And they’ve been so instrumental in me achieving my goals. I always say: it takes a village!
Challenges and cheerleaders
  • My biggest health challenge was my Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). As it affects my hormones, the PCOS made my weight loss slow and sometimes very frustrating.
  • As a shy and not-very-confident person, being in a gym or crowd was daunting at first. The running community is actually most welcoming and supportive – this is what I soon realised. Also, everyone has their own demons and they really are not looking at you.
  • Maintaining the right mindset was, and still is, a big challenge.
  • I have supportive family and friends.
  • I started publicising my commitment to running early on and in a sense, this keeps me accountable.
  • I have been and continue to choose to keep my own work hours, helping me harmonise the work, life and training balance.
If you’re new to running or thinking about running, what are the rewards?

Running has shown me that I can and you should at least try – try running, try getting out there and try changing to the ‘I can’ mindset. It’s fine and even normal to fail sometimes.

Of course transforming physcially and being stronger has been wonderful, but the greatest improvement has been the mental one. I always thought ‘I couldn’t, I can’t, I shouldn’t’ – and this related to anything – work, relationships, ambitions. My friendship circle has exploded and I have people from all backgrounds, cultures and ages that I call friends. Running has taken me out of my comfort zone; it has taken me from my couch to places I would never have had reason to visit before.

My face lights up when I see friends taking to the road for the first time, knowing I had a small part to play in that; and I hope to keep inspiring others – to show that if you put your mind to it, it is possible.

Four years ago, Bianca was huffing and puffing around a 900m circuit – here’s how far she has come

Much to her delight (and surprise) she had now run six full marathons, plus two Two Oceans Ultra Marathons. ‘I’ve absolutely loved Two Oceans Ultra experiences,’ says Bee, as she’s affectionately known.

I also attempted my first Comrades Marathon this year. Unfortunately, I picked up an injury in March which didn’t heal properly and hampered my training so I only made it to Drummond. But I loved the whole experience and will definitely be back – older and wiser!

Pictures: Jetline Action Photo/Supplied

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