Thursday, April 12, 2012

Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (56k) Race Report



It is a long way to go for a race. 22 hours flying over, 31 flying back. Fatigue, jet lag and being lost in time.

I wouldn't change the experience for anything.

Several months ago, I contacted the Nedbank Running Club about running Comrades with them. I knew that Kami, Mike Wardian, Ellie, Lizzie had all run with them in the previous iteration, so I was keen to sign up with them. Comrades was my big focus after the Trials. I figured it was a down year on the course and I had the speed that it would take to fight for a podium spot. I didn't even know about Two Oceans Marathon until the team managers Nick and Adriaan offered me a chance to come and run it. As luck would have it, my schedule allowed for it and I coordinated my details and set my sights on running a strong race in the 56k road event. I thought it would be an excellent introduction into racing in South Africa and give me a taste for what I had coming in June at Comrades. I trained hard for Two Oceans, researched the course as much as I could, and covered every little detail and before I could turn into a raving monster was on my way back to Cape Town, South Africa to race.



Flying for that long is an endurance event. Luckily, on the first leg between San Francisco and Amsterdam, I was able to upgrade to Business class using mileage and was able to get some sleep on the 10+ hour flight, which made the remaining 11+ hours a bit more bearable. I arrived in Cape Town, downed some food and went straight to bed on Wednesday night. Thursday and Friday I passed the time easily with short runs, hanging out with my Nedbank teammates, resting and checking out the expo. As much as I would have loved to revisit some of my old haunts from when I lived there, I was very focused on being boring and resting. I planned my days around eating and napping. The only excitement of the week came when I got to go to a press conference and answer lots of fun questions from the media.

I quickly realized that ultrarunning in South Africa is different. Not only does Two Oceans have 9,000 people running the 56k, it has live TV coverage, a course lined with people (even in the rain, I would find out) and is a huge deal. Ultrarunning in South Africa is not ultrarunning, it is just running. There is no dividing line between 42k and other distances. Running is just running. Coming from the states where ultras are so niche, it is down right shocking to have the "big city marathon" feel at a distance longer than a marathon. We could stand to learn a lot from the way they are doing things there. 

Race Day:




I was up at 3am downing sweet potato puree, bananas and sunbutter, staring out the window to see if it was going to rain. I knew it would eventually but was hoping it would wait at least until we were underway (thankfully it didn't start raining until 12k into the race). We left the hotel promptly at 4:30 am to head to the start with about 40 total athletes for the Nedbank "Green Dream Team". It was quite the international group and included runners who were doing both the half marathon and the 56k. We managed to get quite close to the start line and park away from the major crowds down a quiet side street. 

Homemade gel carrying device 

My new race kit 

 Rocking the bun huggers.

 Always travel with duct tape.

Eventually Mike Wardian and I roused from the car and went for a short warm-up jog down the street. I couldn't really tell how I was feeling. My legs felt fine, my mind felt fine. Not excited, just fine. It was like I couldn't decide where my head was at or how I could wrap my brain around the journey in front of me. I have never been in a race like this. It is an ultra distance race, but is going to take some serious speed to excel at. I really had no idea what to expect. I think my mind was torn between a marathon approach and an ultrarunning approach. Now in hindsight, I see that, much like the US running community, I just need a running approach. I need to run my races ferociously and be unafraid. I think when I toed the line at Two Oceans, I was a bit timid, my strategy conservative. I was not lining up going for broke. I was lining up playing it by ear. I don't regret my approach at all, but see now where I can work on for the next time.

I tossed my clothes in van and trotted over to the startline. Nick and Adriaan were suppose to be around to escort me to the front for media, pictures and a good position, but I was unable to find them, so I just tucked in to the front of the A corral a few seconds before they let the B corral move forward. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder with people. For 12 minutes, I just stood there hoping that when the gun went and the pack charged that I would stay on my feet. 

The most beautiful thing to me right before the race was when they sang the national anthem "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika". Everyone around me raised there voices and sang loudly and unabashedly. When the singing was over, we all braced ourselves and with a bang, we were off.

I am not use to being in such a big crowd and I also knew that I had no idea how fast the leaders, mainly Elena Nurgalieva (one of the Russian twins), would go out. Elena and her twin (who was not running due to injury) have won the race a bunch of times. I knew I wanted to stick with her if it was comfortable and at the very least, whatever I did, not go out in front of her. 

Huge masses of people (ok men) took off like it was a sprint. I zigzagged around looking for some space and finally managed to spot Elena and the rest of the leading ladies. We fell into a pack of about 8, along with about 30 guys who were determined to pace off of us. Pretty soon we were joined by a small army of cyclists all clad in matching Garmin kits and they were trying to do a head count of the top ladies in the pack.

It took me a while to find my groove. I was hanging out at the back of the pack but found that I was having to significantly alter my stride to accommodate for the shorter runners in front of me. About 7km into the race, I hit the brakes for a minute and let myself get out of the back of the pack and have some room to stretch my legs.


There was ample water on the course, so I grabbed a pouch (like a water ballon) every other stop or so, whenever I was feeling in need of it. Soon it started pouring rain and I settled in for the long haul. At this point, I was still not sure how I felt. I knew there were some big hills ahead and I was uncertain how a big climb would feel immediately before and right after the marathon mark. I resolved to just play it smart and not run outside of myself. I made a conscious decision to run my own race and let the pack go if they pushed.

I was never at a loss for someone to run with. From the time the rain started at 12k until we began up Little Chapman, I was accompanied by a Swiss runner and a experience South African runner. We chatted, grabbed waters for one another and laughed at the ridiculous amount of rain that was falling. At one point we had to run out of the road onto the sidewalk to escape the completely flooded road. The Nedbank folks had handlers out on course at 27k and 36k and I grabbed another batch of Gu's from them each time.

We started to head up the long approach to Little Chapman (which is about 2-3km of 2% grade), it then pitches up much more steeply along a winding coastal road. My South African friend bid me farewall as he prepared to dig in for the climb. I felt good, so I kept motoring on and found a new group to run with. On some of the switchbacks I could see the lead women's pack a few minutes ahead and felt good about where I was. I was nearly 35k into the race and felt like I was just getting warmed up. I was relaxed and comfortable.

I fell into step with a fellow named Hans and we pushed our way to the top. Nearing the top, I caught up to a female runner who had been dropped from the pack. It gave me a nice boost of energy and I hit the top feeling very confident. The next 7k run you right back down the other side of the hill into Hout Bay where the marathon mark is. Running with Hans, I was very careful to heed all the warnings I'd been given and not trash my quads running too hard downhill. The kilometers clicked by quickly and I breezed through the marathon mark somewhere around 2:50. I had initially planned to possibly try and run as fast as 2:45 through the marathon mark, but the weather and the way the race unfolded lead me to be more restrained. I didn't feel like I was racing. I just felt like I was running along, enjoying the cheers from the spectators (to me there were a ton, but evidentially, when its not pouring, the course is lined) and clicking off kilometers. My brain wouldn't allow me to think about the race itself for some reason, it was only allowing me to focus on getting up and over Constantia Nek, the biggest climb of the day. It seemed my whole effort was moderated to get me to the top of the hill with minimal suffering. 

After the marathon mark, I began the climb to the top. I didn't back off on my effort level and put my rain soaked head down to dig in. Pretty early on the ascent, I was passed by Adinda Kruger who was 3rd in 2010. She looked super strong and so I didn't make any attempt to go with her (and her husband who was pacing her the whole way). I had resolved to run my own race up to this point, why would I change that now. It was the first time in the entire race that I felt a slight twinge of competitiveness. I told myself, "I'll get her on the down".

Constantia surprised me or maybe I surprised Constantia because I cruised up the hill very well and arrived at the top feeling good. Really good. Right at the top is the Nedbank Green Mile and I was cheered through an army of supporters and over the top. I waved my arms wildly and incited the crowd into a frenzy.

The slight twinge of competitiveness became a flipped switch. I was at the top. It was game on. Just like that, I had a moment where I realized that I had been running way too easy and I had way too much left. I also knew that the majority of the last 8km were downhill. The slight uphills were short and sweet and since I had nothing but energy to burn, I began the chase.

I tossed aside my remaining gels and turned into a hunter. I knew that the leader(s) were about 5 minutes ahead as of 48km, so I could only be sure that Adinda was close enough to catch. I began flying. I was possessed. My legs didn't hurt, the previous kilometers melted away, feeling like a simple warm-up to get me to the point of this tempo workout.

I hammered down the hill and spotted Adinda just ahead, now joined by one of the Garmin clad cyclists. I knew I was in 7th place at that point and on a slight uphill just past the 50k mark (which I went through in 3:23, a 50k PR), I passed Adinda and left her behind. She seemed to be spent and didn't try to keep up with me. I kept pushing, harder, harder, harder. I wanted to squeeze every last saved ounce of energy out of my legs. I knew I was strong enough to sustain the steep downhill pounding so I urged myself on.

And then I spotted my next prey. I was able to identify the next woman up ahead because she had her own bike escort (I had one at this point as well). I pushed to catch up with her and flew past her without a sound. I was into 5th place and she could not move to keep up with me. I rounded the next bend and spotted 4th place up ahead. I cracked a joke to my bike pacer about going in for my next kill and I swept past her in a turn, moving in to 4th place. I was ecstatic. I had gone from being overly conservative to back in it. I knew I had more in me and I also knew that the last two kilometers were rolling uphill and I would need to be ready to run eyeballs out to the finish. I was nearing the turn on to the highway which marked the end of the downhill and the final push to the finish line when I saw her- 3rd place. 

In that moment, I had to learn how to race. I knew nothing of how she was feeling, how much fight she had left and how my move on her would effect her. I knew I had to go by her with authority and not give her the chance to hang around. I used my ninja skills to silently approach from behind and then kicked passed her in a bold move. I pushed and pushed and pushed and didn't look back. I couldn't look back. I had to urge myself ever forward and not show fear. I had no fear, I felt too good to feel fear. I knew in my heart there was no way that she had enough to keep up with me feeling that way. I was flying. 

I didn't relent. I just pushed until with 1/2 kilometer to go, I looked over my shoulder and she was long gone. I kicked up my pace and shot off the road onto the grass at University of Cape Town which was now a complete mud pit and tip toed my way to the finish line in 3:47:29. Good for third place and a huge late race comeback. Crossing the line, I felt a deep abiding sense of satisfaction in my accomplishment and in my race.

I was quickly ushered into the press room to answer questions at the press conference, then off to pee in a cup for drug testing. The rest of the day flew by in a flurry of socializing, awards ceremonies, and dodging the rain and mud puddles.

Looking back on this race now, I realize that I barely tapped my potential in this race. And that is ok. It is awesome to think that I am still in a place in my running where I can learn more, do more, race differently. I have room for growth. I played this race very conservatively because I had no idea how to wrap my head around everything: the course, the distance, the pace, the competition. In the end, I ran one hell of a gutsy race and a flawless finish. I am stoked, so stoked to have made it onto the podium in such a huge race. I don't think I have ever come in 3rd place in an international race or a race with 9,000 people. Two Oceans was just the beginning. Now I have my sights on Comrades and I am excited and nervous to see what I can do at it; the world's biggest ultra!

 Nedbank teammate in the top 10!

Ladies Top 10

Some fun post race adventures before getting on my flight:









15 comments:

  1. I had a close-up view of your last 3km and you were super strong! Prepare well for Comrades - it's a long way and the hills are steep!
    - Will (guy in blue)

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  2. Congratulations on your third place finish! Fantastic race report. :)

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  3. Fantastic mix of words with your pre-race video. Thank you so much for sharing Devon! Congrats on a great race!

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  4. Devon, I really enjoyed the recap. You write very well, felt like I was right there with you through the finish! Excellent race.

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  5. Your pre-race video had kicked me out of the house for my own hard workout, and I didn't even finish the report at the time. Absolutely amazing energy from every word! As I said after OTM, "a staple of American dream" - work hard and rip the benefits. Way to keep the chase alive! Totally inspiring.

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  6. Great race report and congrats on your finish! My husband and I ran Comrades last year and had the same thoughts you did about the big city feel at an ultra. You are exactly right- in South Africa there is just "running," and the states could learn somthing from that! Good luck at Comrades! You will do great!

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  7. Your race reports always keep me on the edge of my seat. Congratulations on an awesome race and tremendous finish! I went to South Africa this past summer so I also enjoyed seeing your photos and reading about your flight. :-) Good luck at Comrades!

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  8. This was just the BEST race report ever. I love the way you found that NINJA-self and, yet, still find a place to grow more in your racing! I can't wait until you do Comrades! So exciting...

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  9. Way to rock!!!! That was so awesome! Good luck in your preparation for Comrades and I wish you nothing but success at Comrades!

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  10. I got chills reading this. Way to flip the switch and go ninja! I am so impressed.
    You should market your Gu carrying device.
    Question: What is sunbutter?

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  11. Thanks everyone!

    Sunbutter= sunflower seed butter. I am not currently eating nuts, so it is a great alternative!

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  12. Great story, felt the excitement. Good luck with the Comrades!

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  13. Awesome report, you do seem to underemphasise how wet it was though, i think my shoes are stil damp... That section from 42 was really epic for you, colour me impressed!All the best with the last few weeks till comrades, won't see you there, i'll be too far behind.

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  14. Congrats Devon, thats one heck of a strong finish, goodluck with comrades ahead. awesome report.

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  15. Thank you so much for this. I am running my first two oceans in just over two weeks. The half marathon is what I going to conquer as this is my first ever marathon. Your honest account of the race and what it entails has been a great help. Thank you so very much and congratulations again.

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