Non-runner to ultra-marathon finisher: one daughter?s mission to fight Neurodegeneration


Running helped Illona Meyer, 29, reclaim her life when her mother passed away suddenly from complications of a Neurodegenerative disease. Today Illona is a multiple marathon runner and, this #WomensMonth, she's raising funds for victims of Neurodegeneration.

In his final years, Springbok rugby player Joost Van der Westhuizen set up a research and support foundation for fellow sufferers of Neurodegeneration. Illona Meyer's mom died four months after the rugby legend succumbed to the disease.

On one of Illona's last visits to her mum at Life Brenthurst Hospital in Parktown, Illona promised her she'd take up running to achieve a long-standing ambition of hers; to enter and complete a 10km race. When her mum suddenly contracted pneumonia and died, Illona, inspired by her mother's courage and good humour, transmuted the crippling power of her grief into an all-consuming passion for running. And, she became unstoppable.

On one of Illona's last visits to her mom in hospital, Illona promised her she'd take up running to achieve a long-standing ambition: to enter and complete a 10 km race. When her mom passed away, Illona transmuted her grief into an all-consuming passion for running. And she became unstoppable.

"Neurodegenerative disease is awful in that it causes severe nerve damage and muscle wastage to the point where a person cannot move, talk, swallow or eventually even breathe," she says. "When I came across a video by someone who'd run a marathon for the first time, an insane goal formed in my head: to run one in honour of my mom and raise funds for the Joost Centre, which drives research and offers care and equipment to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it."

She started out having never run more than 3 km and having done no exercise for over a year. In March 2018, seven months after she started, Illona successfully completed the 56-kilometre Two Oceans race, raising almost R10 000 for the Joost Centre in the process.

From zero to 56km in seven months

Following a "Couch to Marathon" training guide by a renowned running coach, Illona built up from a 5 km event in 2017 to an ultra-marathon in 2018. Today, she has multiple races under her belt, including international events, and is still raising funds for Neurodegeneration research and support.

"Other runners probably consider me crazy going from zero to ultra in seven months," she admits. "My initial journey as a runner was exceptionally tough physically, but incredibly rewarding mentally and emotionally. I literally just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other," she says.

"I joined Vitality and Team Vitality in September 2017, which also helped me greatly, because I needed the gym membership for non-impact and strength training I also used the Vitality benefits to up my nutrition game and buy proper running shoes and other gear."

"Running saved me. Training and racing gave me focus and a sense of control and accomplishment and it spilled over into other areas of my life," she explains. Soon after completing her first half-marathon in December she submitted the dissertation for a Master's degree at Oxford.

"No matter what happens in your life, you can just keep running."

"Now, I still run for my mental and physical well-being, and I still race in memory of my mom, to honour her courage, humour and tenacity in my small way." To celebrate Women's Month and mark the two-year anniversary of the start of her running journey, Illona will once again raise funds for the Joost Centre by running three marathons and a half-marathon across seven weeks: the Cape Town Marathon in September, the Oxford Half Marathon and Yorkshire Marathon in October, and the Soweto Marathon in November. Her fundraising effort can be supported here.

Illona adds, "I would encourage anyone and everyone who is able to, to take up running. It is therapeutic and fun, has enormous physical and mental benefits, and, barring injury, no matter what happens in your life, you can just keep running."

Enjoy getting active in a variety of ways with Vitality

Did you know that people of all ages and fitness levels can participate in a Walk, run, cycle, swim, golf, race ... Vitality offers you many ways to get fit. Join a health club, link a fitness device to track your activity, take part in race events and join Team Vitality, our running and cycling club. Like to hit the gym? Save up to 75% on your monthly gym fees, or head outdoor and earn points for walks and runs.

Are you running enthusiast, or keen to become one?

Team Vitality is South Africa's most popular running and cycling club, and it can help you get fit, save money and connect with like-minded people. Join Team Vitality and get 50% cash back on registration entry fees for selected events.

You'll also receive a great Team Vitality starter pack with race gear and vouchers worth over R1 000. Plus you'll have access to our VIP hospitality at certain events on the Team Vitality race calendar!

Get into gear by signing up today.

Related articles


Why running is the most effective anti-aging medicine

A new study claims that the benefits running offers include three extra years of life - and far better quality of life during those years. We dug into the research to learn more about this weighty claim.


Great minds... run alike! How 3 members are championing parkruns

Invigorating, addictive and healthy, parkruns have taken South Africa by storm. Best of all, these outdoor events take place weekly, so act as a regular prompt to integrate fitness into your lifestyle. Thousands of people take part in parkruns, but three passionate Vitality members stand out.


How to become a morning exercise person

You don't have to catch worms to enjoy the merits of being an early bird. Exercising in the mornings has many advantages, so it's worth rearranging your daily schedule to fit it in. Here's why and how to give it a go.

Log in

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id