The search for oneself, personal fulfilment, one's own happiness. It is she who requires a very special kind of courage. A kind of courage that makes it possible to face change, see it through and endure it. Change requires stepping off the beaten track, into uncharted territory, in order to find that one path destined for itself.
Anke Esser went in search of this very path. The 29-year-old has been living in the Kenyan runners' Mecca Iten since the beginning of 2018 to pursue her big dream - a career as a professional runner. For a long time, the life of the late starter looked like a completely different path. As part of an equestrian family, her life was determined by her love of horses for a long time. However, the joy, passion and her immense talent for running won out in the end. At the 2018 Berlin Marathon, she drew attention to herself as the fastest German with a time of 2:48:53 hours. In the interview, the inspiring athlete gives deep insights into her life in Kenya, talks about her self-discovery in Africa and gives an idea that she will be a marathon runner in the future. In addition, the native of Munsterland encourages people to face changes in order to find happiness out there...
"It was touching how enthusiastic the people there were for this sport."
You've already made an impressive journey. From a hobby athlete without a team or coach to a professional runner who emigrated to Kenya to pursue her big dream. What was the key moment for your decision?
Anke Esser (AE): The decision to try running professionally was made during my first visit to Kenya, when a local Kenyan trainer asked me if I wanted to try it. However, I initially traveled there with a completely different intention. Namely for a social aid project in which I was allowed to help as a volunteer for six months. The project also had a location in the runner's stronghold Iten, which brought me into contact with this unique local runner's bubble for the first time. It was touching how enthusiastic the people there were for this sport. Out of personal interest, I signed up for a two-week training camp – it was fascinating. The time and life in Kenya inspired me so much that back home I couldn't let go of the idea of trying it. Anyway, I was at a point in my life where it was time for a fresh start. I quit my job and finished my studies. I knew it was now or never.
You have been living in Kenya since early 2018. How can you imagine a normal day in your life as an athlete?
AE: On a normal day, I do my first running session around 6:00 am. This is followed by one or two more training sessions, depending on the situation. There is also a lot of regeneration time, both active and passive, as well as mental training. If I have also taken care of my own food, the day is usually very busy. At the same time I am also learning the language of the Kenyans. This opens up further opportunities for me to get to know the people and the culture even better. In weeks with less training, there are smaller jobs that I can continue to do from Kenya for former employers. Other athletes fly to Kenya, South Africa or Portugal for their training camps. Thanks to my location, I now have these special training opportunities all year round – I am very grateful for that.
With a way of life structured in this way, a lot will definitely fall by the wayside. Or?
AE: I have a lot of respect for the fixed structures that many athletes go into to be in top shape at time X with all distractions excluded. I don't see myself that way though. I feel more comfortable and can train even better if, in addition to focusing on my sporting goal, I continue to integrate the people to my right and left into my life. I like to take the time for valuable moments with the neighborhood children, whom I meet every day. I don't consider myself less focused because of this - on the contrary. Only this togetherness gives me the energy that makes me stronger.
In the meantime, did you have major concerns about doing the right thing?
AE: Surprisingly, I didn't have that at all when I started in Kenya. However, things have not always been carefree since the beginning of this new phase of life. Especially in situations where the training isn't going as well as I wanted, or I can't train because of a minor injury, there's more room for concern. I think it's always the moments when I can't work on my dream by running that need to be overcome. But I haven't had any acute doubts for a long time, which is certainly also due to the fact that I now feel very much at home in Kenya and have settled in.
"When the excessive demands become joy and fun in training, then the spell is broken."
The high training workload certainly meant a big change for you - both physically and mentally. How are you coping?
AE: In the beginning, the change was very big for me because I had never trained to this extent as a professional runner before. Training alongside my full-time job and studying – this is what my life looked like in terms of running up until then. The change, to take the next step, to raise the whole thing to a professional level and to only see the sport as the focus, initially cost me some time, both physically and mentally. In addition, I not only switched from free time to full-time, I also moved everything to 2400 meters and trained with a Kenyan training group from the start. It was certainly the overall package that challenged me enormously. But I knew that if I can get through the beginning, I can keep going for a long time. In a book I once read the sentence "All change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and georgeous at the end". I can confirm that. When the excessive demands become joy and fun in training, then the spell is broken.
You don't formulate your goals publicly, instead you want to convince with performance in the future. Nevertheless: How did you come to the definition of your goal and what if you should not achieve it?
AE: I think it's important to have the courage to set goals that initially seem unattainable. Goals that drive you to grow beyond yourself. I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself. My personal feeling: the head is unbeatable in the end. Should I not achieve my goals in the end, the disappointment would of course be huge. But I am sure that it would never have been greater than the frustration that would have accompanied me throughout my life if I had not at least tried. Now that I'm about to pursue my goal, I'm not afraid to fail.
"I would like to be an inspiration for people who are longing for a change inside."
Your development is certainly a great motivation for all late starters...
AE: I really hope that's the case. Because I definitely see myself as a late starter. I would like to be an inspiration for people who are longing for a change but don't dare to put it into action. However, I would not recommend such a reorientation to everyone. It can certainly be just as nice if you feel comfortable with your life within familiar structures. But for people who want to change and don't do it because they are afraid of giving up their own security, I would like to be a role model. I can say from experience that if you really want something and are willing to do everything to get it, it is really worth taking the step into the unknown.
What would you like to say to people who are afraid of change?
AE: Suppose we are all on a path in life where the purpose is to be happy and content. I think that you can achieve this very well by asking yourself the central questions: "Who do I want to be?" and "What do I want to do?". If the personal answers to these questions do not match the current situation, then I think you have to have the courage to change something and go a new way. Even if that means doing something differently than everyone else. In my opinion, happiness in life can only be achieved by striving for self-realization. And in my opinion, this self-realization is only possible if you know who you want to be and if you are not afraid to change things. For me, in the end it's not just about where you want to go, but above all why and how you want to get there. Hopefully the path itself and not the goal alone is what is most fun. I have found that the best way to do this is to stay true to yourself. For me that means, in addition to all sporting ambitions, above all trying to be a good person.
Finally, will we hear more from you?
AE: I really enjoy using messages to encourage people to achieve their goals, regardless of sport. That's something that fulfills me. First of all, I would like to gain more experience and learn more myself. I'm sure there is so much more to come that will bring greater power to my voice.