‘Now I run for smiles’

We share one reader’s story of inspiration that lead her to good health and an open heart.

Joanne McLeod considers herself to be an ordinary mum of two boys, Tristan (13) and Ryan (11) and a wife to Justin, her husband of 18 years. Just like any other South African family woman. Full stop. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is to this fit mommy, but you’d be terribly wrong. She loves sport, is a sucker for gruelling races on foot or by bike and she cares deeply for children born with disabilities. In particular she has pledged her support to the Smile Foundation, where children with facial deformities receive the necessary surgery they would otherwise not be able to afford, to enable them to smile again. 

After Joanne finished her studies in marketing and advertising in 1991, she opened her own conferencing and events company, which she ran for nine years. “I just loved the industry and my company was so successful, winning local and international awards, including the SITE crystal award, the ‘Oscar’ of our industry, judged in New York and worldwide,” she says. “But then I had a moment when I realised that my kids were growing up and I was missing out. Although my business was fun, I realised that it was frivolous and not making a real difference to the world – and I wanted to spend more time with my children. So, I started doing more and more charity work and found it very fulfilling – emotionally and spiritually.”

In March of this year, Joanne took her deep sense of altruism to another level for the Smile Foundation to raise funds for the organisation. She entered Racing The Planet, a 250 kilometre endurance footrace, where competitors carry all their equipment to the finish line through the Australian outback for seven days. Temperatures in the region reach the highest on earth, making the race even more arduous. 

“I struggled so much on the first two days to keep going, and I thought of nothing other than ‘why on earth am I doing this?’. That question then turned into something else, when I remembered all the people who believed in me and I felt I couldn’t let them down,” says Joanne. “I thought of all the time I had taken from my children in preparation for the race, and couldn’t let them down either. When the fog in my head began to clear, I realised people had pledged money to the children of the Foundation, based on me finishing the race – which was when my focus became crystal clear again. I knew I had to finish, despite all the pain I was in!”

Joanne shares her memory of the run and summarises it in three words; brutal, humbling and life-changing. “Brutal, because I lost most of my toenails in the race, which have thankfully started growing back again. As Lance Armstrong put it; ‘Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever’. I guess if that works for Lance Armstrong, it can work for me too! Humbling, because you realise how small you are in the great scheme of things – but that you can still work at making a difference in another person’s life. And, life-changing, because when you deal with something so huge, like Racing The Planet, you understand just how silly it is to ‘sweat the small stuff’,” she says. “Lastly, it was also a life lesson for me, because I am a naturally competitive person and I came in near the back of the race – but of all the people who started, I finished in the top half.”

Joanne started running ten years ago, just after the birth of her second child; Ryan, and entered the Comrades. “I have always loved exercise and was brought up with a passion for it – my family growing up were all quite active people,” she says. “It’s something that has also happened quite naturally in my family too. I don’t mind what exercise I do, as long as it tests me to my limit, so it was an obvious choice for me to take on the challenge to race across the Australian outback. It’s never going to be a 5km challenge around the suburbs!” She has also taken part in the Argus in 2008 and 2009 and has also ridden twice in the Cape Epics, Sani2C, Berg and Bush, and the Trans Rockies with her husband. “As I became older, and saw how quickly life was passing me by, I wanted to challenge myself. Instead of just knowing I ‘could’ – I thought I’d prove it,” she says. “The taste came when I realised I was a good cyclist and so, I applied myself…and then I won the Argus in 2009! That was a huge feather in my cap and when I ran Racing The Planet, I kept thinking ‘but I know I can, so why carry on?’ and then I realised that I had to prove that I could!”

She notes that she wanted her racing to become more than just about endurance, but also to help make a difference to a person’s life by raising funds for a deserving cause. “I have chosen to work with the Smile Foundation for a long time, because they are an exceptional organisation. Every cent is accounted for and they have a solid and honest core. Their work is also very tangible; children are given the opportunity to smile again – as simple as that – and this is important to me,” says Joanne. 

Giving, she explains, is extremely therapeutic; “I wake up in the morning feeling great. My body feels good, my mind feels clear, and I feel happy, because it’s not just about me. There is no greater joy than giving back. It sounds so cheesy, but really, there is no other way to phrase it. I believe in ‘paying it forward’ and by putting this in action, we can all make just a small difference, which really does mean the world to someone on the receiving end.”

Balance in all things and setting realistic goals play a crucial role in her successes. Joanne sets herself realistic goals and sets about achieving them in any way she knows how. “There are always challenges, but these must be kept in perspective. And if the downside outweighs the upside, then perhaps the goalposts have to be shifted. If I know I have to take part in a race, I always have a training programme. It helps me get up in the mornings at 4am, when I know I have to. And then, the ‘rest days’ feel that much sweeter, because I’ve earned them. Be it sport or life in general, I think it’s important to have direction.”

As a stay-at-home mother and project fundraiser, her time is flexible, allowing her to plan her life accordingly. “So many people complain because they can’t do what they dream. My life is how it is because I have made it this way. To those who think they can’t do something – I say – just do it,” she says.  

From a nutritional health standpoint, the McLeods take the approach of all things in moderation. “We eat anything and everything. But I guess one gets into a cycle. You run, so you feel good, so you don’t eat rubbish, so you feel better, so you go to the gym, so you eat healthy to not undo your workout, and so it goes on. But then, because we exercise, we can eat and drink more too. A wise man once said, ‘I cycle so I can drink more, I don’t drink less to cycle more.’”

Their friends joke that they will all be dead before the McLeod family, because they are just so healthy. However, Joanne says that it is important for her to feel good – and her family agrees. “I think every person should do what makes them happy. I like to be able to just get up and run 10 kilometres, or cycle with the guys, or swim across the ocean, or climb a mountain. It just creates so many possibilities and so many new experiences.” 

The Australian outback, she says, pushed her to her limit. “It’s easy to wander through life losing your way and your identity, but when you get pushed so hard, and spend so much time alone, or fighting your pain, it takes you back to who you really are. It gives you perspective you would not otherwise have seen before. I hope that this is instilled in my boys so that they can also face the world with courage in their own lives – and also to stop and think of someone else in need – and what they can do to change the world for the better.”

Awaken Your Altruism
Tanya Vandenberg, a Johannesburg motivational speaker, explains that Joanne has taken an incredibly important step of choosing to be the director of her own life. Joanne’s ability to step back from other peoples’ definitions of ‘success’ – her own company, awards and status – gives her a high level of satisfaction, and that contributes to an overall sense of well-being.

“We all need a sense of purpose, a reason to be here, and Joanne’s charity work clearly helps her to feel that she is accomplishing the fulfilment of her place in the world. She has identified the values that mean the most to her, which also makes her confident of what she is passing on to her sons,” says Vandenberg. “She sees herself as being a person who helps others, and acts that out, which means that she is in harmony with her own idea of herself.”

Giving unselfishly, without expecting anything back doesn’t always come naturally, but when we do, we feel energised and fulfilled. Vandenberg points out some other benefits:

  • Helping others boosts our self-esteem, because we are essentially proving to ourselves that we are needed, that there is a place for us in society and that we are stronger than others. 
  • It reminds us of the good things we have and has a way of putting our own problems into perspective.
  • When you give, you often receive much more in return and this leaves you feeling invigorated. 
  • Continued altruism makes room for new experiences and relationships and this is what being human is all about!   
  • It gives you an awareness of compassion and awakens a sense of proportion within you, when you see others in the world who are less fortunate and don’t have what you have. 

Vandenberg reminds us that charities are not the only conduit for giving. “Some people prefer to create their own personal, intimate giving, like helping a family that they personally know through a bad time, or being involved in their church or other community groups,” she says. “Have a look at the skills you can offer, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Like Joanne running 250 km, sometimes we have to push ourselves beyond anything we’ve tried before.”

Joanne’s Response:
“Start small, but just get out there and prove to yourself that you can do it! I lead a charmed life, and it’s wonderful to give others an opportunity to have a happy life too. It’s a feeling beyond comparison to actually make a difference,” she says. “So many of us are complacent and it’s great to help make things better in South Africa.”

Author: Charlene Yared-West, Longevity Magazine, October 2010, p18. 

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