Running for clean water

Wendy Freeland Ploegstra ’03


Fall 2013

Wendy Ploegstra with friends

Wendy Ploegstra with friends

“I’m still tired,” said Wendy Freeland Ploegstra ’03. “I’m not sure if it is the race or the travel.”

It was probably a combination of both. Ploegstra had just completed the Comrades Marathon, one of the most storied tests of running endurance in the world, a 54-mile trek between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in South Africa.

Ploegstra, a nurse practitioner from Chicago who didn’t run competitively as a Calvin student, raised close to $40,000 through World Vision for clean water projects in Africa. After finishing her grueling ultra-marathon experience, she visited some of the water project sites in northwest Kenya.

“This whole thing started about eight years ago when I read an article in Runner’s World about the Comrades Marathon,” she explained. “I had run marathons before and this seemed like a crazy and awesome challenge to attempt someday.”

Ploegstra was introduced to Team World Vision—a part of the charity’s effort that involves raising dollars through athletics—at Moody Church, her home congregation in Chicago. She ran the hometown Chicago Marathon with Team World Vision and was asked to be part of a larger endeavor, the same Comrades Marathon she read about years earlier.

“I prayed about it a lot,” she said. “My husband, Nick [’03], was supportive since he would be caring for our son, Mo, and I thought that such a difficult challenge would bring me closer to Christ. The effort would certainly involve some suffering, and suffering brings you to your knees. This would be a suffering by choice, but sometimes we don’t have a choice and many people in the world don’t have a choice.”

The Comrades Marathon began in 1921 as a memorial to soldiers who had endured pain and hardships and for those who had perished in World War I. The route alternates each year starting at Pietermaritzburg or at Durban, called the “up” and “down” runs since one way has more upgrade than the other. The “up” route is 54 miles, ending 6,000 feet higher than the start; the “down” route is 56 miles, ending 5,000 feet lower than the start. Ploegstra ran the “up” route. It is the largest ultra-marathon in the world, with 18,000 runners from all over the globe signing up in 2013.

“There is an incredible spirit of camaraderie in this race, like no other marathon I’ve run,” said Ploegstra. “It is indescribable to be in that setting, surrounded by people from all over the world.”

Ploegstra was hoping to finish in less than eight hours, but at mile 40 found the going particularly difficult and had to walk some of the way by mile 48. Bystanders were incredibly supportive and encouraged her to continue and to start running again. She completed the 54 miles in a little over nine hours.

“I was told it was a good time for a ‘first-timer,’” she said.

There was a lot of support for the runners under the blistering African sun—aid stations every kilometer or so—and in the second half of the race, nutritious offerings of protein biscuits and Ploegstra’s favorite: small baked potatoes covered in salt.

“I really appreciated the chance to see the water projects in Kenya after the marathon,” she said. “Villages with clean water can thrive; kids can go to school instead of walking long distances for water, women can get micro-financing for small businesses, some of the young people can go on to university.”

She began to run longer distances while a Calvin student—and took away important lessons.

“It was impressed upon me at Calvin that Christ should encompass every part of one’s life, so He has been part of my running, too. I commune with God when I run, get clarity on things,” she said.

She and Nick met in the residence halls at Calvin—Noordewier-Vander Werp—and they enjoy living in Chicago. Ploegstra works at Lincoln Park Family Physicians and Nick as a basketball coach.

“It has impressed me, both in running and in life, how important discipline is—following through with commitments,” she said. “If you do something, do it well. Those ideas were strengthened and enriched for me at Calvin, and it is a blessing in all areas of life—work, church, parenting, running—to do things that have a lasting impact.”