Anna Pearce was 22 years old when a brutal attack almost took her life. Some 10 years on, she is not only finding the courage to talk about her ordeal, but she is proving – with empowering action – that she is stronger for it. “I’ve seldom talked about the incident,” Anna says.
“Not out of any emotional or physical discomfort, but because I worry people will think I’m wanting pity or attention for what I went through, which is not the case. It’s also out of fear that people will think negatively of my beautiful home, South Africa. But I strongly believe in being open about my story, in the hope that it may bring a positive message: to focus on love and light instead of darkness or hate.”
In January 2008, Anna, who had just finished her undergraduate human physiotherapy degree, was beginning a year-long compulsory work placement at a rural hospital in the Transkei, on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. “The Transkei is very rural,” explains Anna. “There are only dirt roads and I was placed about two to three hours’ drive from the nearest town. But I was very happy to be there, and everyone was friendly and welcoming.”
On the first Sunday of her placement, Anna was driving back after visiting a friend who had been placed at a nearby hospital, when she came across a crippled baby donkey by the side of the road. “I stopped and wound my window down to look at it,” she remembers. “There was a hill to my left and an embankment to my right, and suddenly five men appeared. In that moment, it never crossed my mind that I should fear them.
“They approached my car and I asked them about the donkey. But within a split second, their demeanour changed. Two of them attacked me through my car window. One went for my keys, trying to forcibly pull them out of the ignition, while the other held me back. I had a whole bunch of keys and key rings attached to it and they all broke: I thought he’d got the key. They were swearing and shouting at me. I was frozen – I didn’t know what they wanted. I tried to wind the window up and, in that moment, I saw my car key was still in the ignition. I put my foot on the accelerator – too hard initially, so the wheels skidded – but then I started moving. They were hanging onto the wing mirrors, trying to stop me, but I managed to drive away. However, in that final moment, I was stabbed.
“The only way I can describe it is a feeling of being winded, like when you come off a horse and you can’t breathe initially. It felt like he’d punched me with a rock. I managed to drive a few hundred metres before I looked down and saw a five to seven centimetre gash in my chest, at the edge of my v-neck t-shirt.”
Anna explains the rest of the day as “a series of miracles” that saved her life. She managed to drive several kilometres and call the friend she’d been visiting, before she passed out in her car by the side of the road. Just as she was coming round (“My body was filled with adrenaline and I woke up because I felt like I needed to throw up”), a family of holidaymakers drove past and stopped to help, carrying her into their car and driving in the direction of the hospital.
After intercepting her friend and a team of doctors, who hooked her up to a drip, they made it to the hospital, where there was an ambulance and blood. “These are basic, rural hospitals,” explains Anna. “Blood normally gets delivered on a Monday and there’s never an ambulance just sitting around at the weekend. But, for some reason, blood had been delivered early and there was an ambulance available.”
Anna had lost two litres of blood in the first hour after the attack. Hospital staff began a transfusion and prepped her for major surgery, before she was transferred to the nearest city hospital, in Mthatha, where she underwent a life-saving thoracotomy operation.
She spent a week in intensive care, during which time community leaders from Transkei villages visited her. “There were 14 or 15 of them, and they drove for three hours to come see me,” remembers Anna. “They connected hands around my bed and prayed for me in their language, Xhosa. It was incredibly powerful, because I felt their support and love, and, at the same time, their anger at what had happened to me.”
Incredibly, with the help of the local communities, Anna’s attackers were caught within 24 hours and, 18 months later, the two main perpetrators were each sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Despite the obvious physical and emotional trauma, Anna has always been determined to move on with her life. “I clearly remember, within a few days of the incident, I’d very much decided that the part those men played in my life stopped the minute I drove away. And they don’t get to play a part any more beyond that. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to let this continually affect me.”
Despite her brave resolution, Anna struggled with physical pain after the attack. Previously a keen runner and horsewoman, she was scared she would never be active again. However, in 2010, she was strong enough to start horse riding again and, in 2012, she signed up for a half marathon. “That was the start of my running again,” she recalls. “That first half marathon made me realise my body was stronger than I thought it could be. I did quite a few half marathons in 2012 and 2013, and then in 2014, six years after the attack, I thought, let’s try a marathon. I did two marathons that year and, again, just felt amazed my body could do them. It was empowering and healing – the realisation that, actually, my body was capable.”
Anna has since run numerous marathons and ultras and, after moving to the UK in 2016 with her husband, became an ASICS FrontRunner – a movement she credits with helping her settle so well into a new country: “I’d only been in the UK for six months at that point and, all of a sudden, I inherited this whole big running family!”
Currently pregnant with her first child, Anna’s running journey is looking a little different this year. “This is the one year where I really don’t care for ultramarathons!” she laughs. “But the plan is to keep running. I’ve cut back on my training and I’m being sensible. But I’d like to try to keep active, run/walking I guess towards the end. This is just a completely different part of my story now.”
Indeed, Anna has been proactive in rewriting her own story, refusing to let that near-fatal attack destroy her life. And running has been a huge part of her recovery. “For me, running is a privilege. I’m just grateful my body can do it because, after the incident, I didn’t think I’d be able to. I’ve always been determined to never let that part of my story change me or my future, or take away from my life. So for me, running is incredibly empowering – I am actually able to do more than I genuinely thought I was capable of. I think that’s my personal reason for why I run: because it’s something that I thought was taken from me. But it actually never was.”