“Without a doubt, a key quality every successful person has is perseverance: the grit and drive and will to keep pushing forward in spite of challenges and obstacles.”
When I met James a couple of years ago, I was once again reminded of how strong the human spirit is and how, with the right mindset and determination, you can achieve anything – no matter the verdict of the medical profession. Our mind is powerful beyond comprehension.
James wrote an article for his Club Trifactri and you can read it here by clicking on this link. Coma 2 Comrades.
In 2013 James completed Comrades. Less than a year later he was in a coma for 6 days after a fatal car accident. His doctor told him no more running and to rather take up golf. When I met James, he was working out in the gym with his personal trainer and was starting to run on the treadmill and determined that he will run again and at least do the same times he did as before the accident.
Since then James has turned into an avid triathlete and his remarkable journey continues to inspire. He has recently competed in the second toughest Half Ironman Distance Event in the world, finishing it in an impressive time as well.
We are so honoured to feature James Lang as our Epic person of the month of February.
We asked him some questions:
In 2013 you finished Comrades and you were also an avid cyclist from what I saw. What were your sporting goals back then or was it for the fun and the friendship?
I started cycling in 2009 after being overweight and really enjoyed my cycling and then my goal was just to improve. I gave up cycling after a friend asked me to train with him to complete the 2011 Two Oceans Marathon. I completed the Two Oceans Marathon with 3 minutes to spare. I decided to carry on with the running and I improved my 2011 Oceans time by 26 minutes in 2012. My goal was then to complete Comrades after failing to finish the 2012 Comrades; I signed up with a running coach and started to improve dramatically.
In Jan 2014 you were involved in a fatal head on collision in which your friend Albie passed away. You were in a coma for 6 days! What was your diagnosis and what injuries did you sustain?
I sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury – frontal lobe injury, a contused lung, 4 fractures of the right eye socket, 3 fractured toes, broken elbow, fractured transverse processes of L1 and L2 and Grade 3 tear of the PCL on both knees. No post trauma diagnosis was provided. I also contracted MRSA (superbug) infection while in ICU; it was localized in the wounded elbow.
I will require 2 knee replacements but the doctor has advised me that I can continue training and running until the time arrives.
During 2014 as a result you spend many days in hospital. How many in total and how did you get through that?
I spent 10 days in ICU and then a few days in a sequestered ward. I spent 70 days in hospital in 2014 purely due to the broken elbow and cleaning the infection. After the elbow had fused, the infection was removed using the Lautenbach Procedure, I spent 3 weeks in hospital to irrigate the wound. It was my final stay and I had completed my rehab, so I was healthy apart from the infection. I was bored but did my best to read. Even reading in a hospital ward for 3 weeks is no fun.
I am sure you must have had dark day. What kept you going?
It is a difficult question to answer, as initially I just felt blessed that I had survived the accident. When I saw my family for the first time, coming out of the coma, they told me that I was a fighter and that has stuck with me at a subconscious level. I had been extremely restless during the coma and had to be constrained. At the time I had no idea what fight lay ahead. Initially I just accepted what feedback I received from the doctors but it wasn’t in a negative context.
Before my accident I was diagnosed with depression and GAD generalized anxiety disorder, since the accident there haven’t been too many dark days. I also started a new job in May 2014, there was more anxiety as I also had to learn how to manage my anger which is my biggest challenge related to my brain injury. I just felt that I had to keep on going, the sport has had a huge influence though.
I have two nieces that I love and adore and they reside in Durban and I try and visit them as often as I can. Really looking forward to racing with them cheering on the sidelines in June during the Durban 70.3.
From how I got to know you, you are very determined! You completed you BSc Degree in 2018 – What challenges did you have to face to complete this and what did it mean to you?
My short term memory seemed to be a challenge, when trying to remember the volume of information that I had to study. While there was some truth to this, I turned it around by not focusing on this negative aspect although it didn’t come easy. I had to work hard but fortunately most of the subjects were enjoyable. I also had a math’s tutor for 3 of my subjects, which definitely helped. I was extremely proud of my achievement and that my results were still good. I was blessed that cognitively my brain wasn’t really impacted and I am on an anti-depressant that has some cognitive benefits.
You were determined to get back to fitness and to run at least your same time as you did before the accident. Why was this so important to you?
I was initially told that I shouldn’t attempt to run again. My podiatrist referred me to a foot specialist as I was experiencing some minor pain in my broken toes and I believe that it is more advisable to rather see a specialist. I took it upon myself to be proactive and manage or reduce all future medical issues. I saw a sports doctor and he advised that I see a bio and start some non-weight bearing treadmill running. I decided to rather start exercising by seeing a personal trainer and running up to 10 km’s as my furthest distance. Once the foot doctor told me that I could run as long as there is no pain, my mind had shifted and I was able to run although my gait had changed. I have always believed that I am a strong runner and now I wanted to prove to myself that I could still improve. I never have used the accident as an excuse and it doesn’t hinder my sport at all except that I am unable to straighten my elbow.
What made you get into triathlon?
I didn’t plan it at all. I had a friend who was being trained by a triathlon coach. I sent an e-mail asking for guidance to complete the 2020 Down Comrades. I met my current coach and she recommended triathlon for the cross-training and that was the start of an incredible journey.
You finished 70.3 Ironman East London recently in a very good time – E.L. being the 2nd hardest Half Ironman Course World Wide. What drives you to compete and complete and cross the finish line?
I am competitive and I am doing well at the sport and I have probably reached or bettered my output from prior to the accident. I feel I have potential and I want to find out what that potential is. I feel an immense sense of pride of having been in a coma and achieving what I have. I love this feeling and can’t get enough of it. I appreciate the fact that I am able to partake and I can’t waste the opportunity given to me.
Your next adventure is Full Ironman. Have you become a tri-addict?
I think so but I do have some unfinished running goals to achieve but between the running races, I will still do triathlons. I currently love each triathlon distance especially the 70.3 distance but will decide properly after the full distance which is my favourite distance. I will then focus on my strongest distance.
I also want to focus on speed especially my running and cycling. I will be going for a PB at the Durban 70.3 in June 2019. Running is my strongest discipline and I seem to get a bigger kick from it.
What does keeping fit and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone mean to you?
I have high cholesterol and exercise induced asthma and these are both well under control due to being fit. Being fit also contributed to me surviving the accident. Triathlon races are tough and finishing on the red carpet makes all the hard work pay off. When my internal voice becomes negative during a hard session or a race, I change it by reflecting on the positive feeling at the end.
What inspires or motivate you.
You have to love what you are doing, if so, it is actually enjoyable and no special motivation is required. My sport is like this and I am continually working on other areas in my life.
As I said earlier in the piece, sub-consciously I had imprinted on my brain that I was a fighter after hearing those words from my family. It has helped me immensely. I am inspired by people who have to work hard in the sporting arena to achieve their goals, especially if they have any mental challenges that they have overcome.
What is one of the funniest moments in your life?
I had found a bottle of perfume outside our school premises and I picked it up knowing that I was going to spray people with it the next day. Later in the day there was an announcement over the intercom informing us that this perfume had been misplaced. Unfortunately one of the teachers reported us. The perfume was by another tennis player Gabriela Sabatini, the headmistress asked us who she was, expecting none of us to know. My friends were clueless but I blurted out some tennis facts of who she was. I come from a sporting mad family.
What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?
I had a crush on a school teacher and at times battle to keep my mouth shout so most of my class knew. It was in Standard 7 / Grade 9 and my classmates decided to write a letter on my behalf and handed it to her during one of our lessons. I just went red and fortunately she was a good sport about the whole thing.
Which book/s have made the biggest impact on you?
I enjoy autobiographies, especially those of sportspeople and Andre Agassi’s had a big impact. He didn’t enjoy playing tennis as his father forced him to play and practice. Only later did he enjoy it because he wanted to but it was an ongoing battle through his career – well that is what I remember from it. It is important that you live your own dreams.
I am currently reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and it is a hard book to put down.
What is one dream you have yet to accomplish?
To complete a Down Comrades probably in 2021 and I hope to run a sub 5hr Two Oceans Ultra in 2020. I want to compete in my triathlon age category and the answer to the question below.
If you were a giant, what would you like to do?
I would love to become a high school mathematics teacher and a running coach at the school. I wasn’t accepted at Unisa to complete my Post Grad Certificate in Education, so I will apply next year again (they have limited positions available). Being a full time athlete would also not be too shabby.