Friday, April 27, 2012


Earlier this year I wrote about long-term relationships (in running). It had dawned on me then that I had had a short-sighted view of my running career, even if I fully intended to run for the rest of my life. Over the last few months, I have not been great about incorporating a long term mentality into navigating my training. I piled a lot of big challenges on my plate this year, so it is easy to get sucked into a short sighted approach. My default mode has become extreme discipline and intensity, starting back when I decided to train for the Trials. That is a long time to be pushing the envelop. It is not a long-term strategy but I have found a way to physically and mentally endure (hell, enjoy!) this long streak. I thought "this is what it means to be truly committed to something".

This past Saturday, Nathan, Brett and I set out from Muir Beach for a nice long run around Mt. Tam. It was a gorgeous morning, a perfect blue bird morning. The day before I had done a super hard tempo workout before a jam packed day which didn't leave me feeling very recovered. I was worried that the run was going to be a slog, but we all fell in comfortably, chatting as we cruised along the road to Deer Park Fireroad. I managed the climb (and by managed I mean I didn't get dropped) and we got to Pantoll feeling happy to be out on the trails. It was just what I needed. I love cruisey runs where you just fall into pace and don't necessarily have to worry about feeling good or bad.

After a quick stop at Pantoll and a run re-route due to all the wash-outs, we headed over to Mountain Home Inn via Matt Davis. At Mountain Home Inn, we ran into our friend Mike and he joined us for a few miles along Sun Trail and down into Muir Woods. Mike was in the process of trying to start a bread starter from the Tartine bread book and so Nathan spent time answering his questions and talking him through the process. I think it is super cute when Nathan starts talking about bread because he gets so excited!

Mike turned off at Muir Woods and we headed over to Redwood Creek to connect to Miwok. Nathan and I had planned the route over breakfast and he really wanted to run down Diaz Ridge to finish the run because he'd never run down it. I figured it was going to be a beautiful way to finish a run so I was into it.

Miwok (from Redwood Creek) Trail is a special place for Nathan and I. In all the time we've been running together, no matter how far we run, whenever we get on this trail, one or both of us totally bonk (usually epically). Thankfully, we always have a gel to get our energy up, but we usually stop to have a quick kiss (ok maybe a make-out session) about halfway up the hill before taking our gel and carrying on.

This time was no different. Or so I thought.

We were cruising up the hill when Nathan said, "It never fails....I am totally bonking". I asked him if he had a gel and if he wanted to stop. He said he had a gel and would take it. He told me to keep going though so I kept on running. A minute later, he told me to hold up. So I stopped. He asked Brett to hold his waterbottle and after handing it off immediately pulled me into a kiss. Brett said, "Aw man, I didn't know I was going to have to hold your water bottle so you could make out with your girlfriend". I pulled away from Nathan to make a face at Brett (and was about to harass Nathan about taking his gel). As I pulled away and looked at Brett, Nathan dropped down on to his knee. He looked up at me, pulled a engagement ring off his pinkie finger where he'd been hiding it, held it up to me and said, "will you marry me?" I was shocked, so surprised in fact, I didn't believe this moment was actually happening. I asked him if he was kidding (actually first I called him something not very nice I was so surprised, oops) and then bumblingly told him, "YES!"

Meanwhile, Brett is in shock as well because he wasn't in on the secret. He told me "quick give me your camera!". It was nice to have someone else there to experience and capture the moment. I had witnessed Brett and Larissa get engaged a month earlier and it was such an emotional high! 

I was overwhelmed. I cried, I laughed, I swore, I kissed Nathan over and over again. I couldn't believe it. We are so excited about our future together!

I learned something in that moment too. Something about me, something about my running. As I said earlier, I believed that I understood what it meant to be truly committed to something.  I thought I was at the highest level of commitment with my running because I was rampaging forward with serious momentum, doing work, racing hard. I realize now that part of pushing so hard for so long comes out of not truly understanding what commitment for the long haul is. Real commitment for the long haul is not about precise execution, flawless discipline or perfection all the time. Sometimes it ugly, sad, messy. Relax, quirky or a total flop. I am excited about the heights to which my training has taken me in the past few years, it is exciting and wonderful. But at the same time, it has made me lose sight a bit of what I am truly committed to in running: doing it for my whole life. I have been driving myself so hard, there has been no room for balance (the good, the bad, the perfect, the totally flawed). I have enjoyed my successes less and taken my failures harder. I see now that I was trying to squeeze it all in, get out every last drop before some perceived inevitable end. I once loved something as much as running and now, it is not even a part of my life (basketball) at all. I think deep down I thought the same thing would happen with running. And so I pushed.

Getting engaged unlocked a deeper understanding of commitment for me. I thought I had always had a long term view of our relationship and yet, in that moment, I realized that I can in fact love more and my commitment can, in fact, deepen. In the days since, it has provided food for thought about my relationship with running. I want to get back on track with my primary goal of running for my entire life. I want to truly embody a long-term view. I want to remember that that kind of commitment takes work, discipline and execution, but it also takes forgiveness, balance and perseverance. If I can remember that, then each step is a little bit lighter as I see the path ahead of me for miles and miles, disappearing beyond the horizon.


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:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I came here by: Uthando

The following poem is one I wrote for my Honors thesis under Professor Linda Bierds after returning home from three months living in Cape Town, South Africa.  Today, I journey back there and this journey is much more to me than just another race. It is a return to find an important part of myself.

I came here by: Uthando

I came here by two: they were barefoot and shy, they held to the outer edge of the circle of older basketball players like the shanties, dilapidated shacks and streets made of dust held the
lush green oasis of the Peace Park.
Everyone was watching the coaches talking,
while they watched me with expressions
I cannot unravel; they gained
courage and divided and conquered me,
one to each side of me, head on hip,
my hands reaching down to cup the
sides of their faces; they each took my hands
and kissed them softly with little lips that seemed
to have only known their mothers and
fathers, they kissed my hands with knowledge like children grown old in too few years; I picked
them up in my arms off the cool wet grass,
one to each hip and carried them away
with me as far as I could, across the sanctuary,
yet not crossing from grass to dust.
I carried them back again, away from the sun’s heat
into the cool shade of the lemonwood tree,
staring into their dark brown eyes and saying
nothing because there was no language
between us, they kissed me on my pale white cheeks and I on their deep black foreheads until someone said we have to go now; I placed them on the ground, waved goodbye and I watched them run behind the car, so
as not to be left behind. But it was I who was left behind. 

copyright 2003 Devon Crosby-Helms

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hungry hungry hippo

On Robben Island, 2003. Yes that is me. 

Photos in this post are from my time in South Africa in 2003.

Inevitably at some point during taper week the following conversation will take place:

Me: "I feel fat"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No really, I am feel like all I am doing is eating! I am going to be a hippo before I get to the start line"
Nathan: "Taper crazy"
Me: "No you aren't listening, I am stuffing myself. I just can't stop eating."
Nathan: "Yeah, you are getting really fat on all that butternut squash you are eating."
Me: "I hate racing. I am never racing again."
Nathan: "I loooove you. Taper crazy."

No matter how perfectly you plan your taper, or how precisely you execute it, chances are, at some point you will feel tired, sore, fat and out of shape, all of this will likely be accompanied by a ravenous, insatiable appetite. In other words, exactly how you should feel during taper. 

Despite racing 18 marathons and 28 ultras since I did my first race back in 2003 when I lived in Cape Town, I have yet to really make friends with this aspect of taper. I can know its coming, steel myself against it, but somehow some proliferation of these feelings occurs. I often ponder how nice it would be to arrive on race day not feeling like this. But I know, deep down, that these feelings and distractions are actually a vital part of getting to the start line with my mind and body right.

When I break it down, the hungry, hungry hippo I become during my taper (of any duration, usually a two week taper), makes a lot of sense. I come in to taper off of really high mileage, high intensity weeks. I feel primed and like I could do a little bit more, not exhausted or in need of a taper. Just one step removed. Coming off 100-120 mile weeks into a period of comparative rest allows your body the space to feel tired, sore, the flood gates of hunger opened. It is a necessity of a good taper not to be restrictive, to nourish your body to give it strength for the race and to recover from the work. I keep my diet super clean during taper, but there is really little departure from my regular day-to-day diet than usual.

The fat and out of shape feeling that accompanies the ravenous hunger is a little mind trick that comes out of simply having more time on my hands and nothing to do with it. When I start cutting back mileage, I am spending less time running and more time in my own head. I don't necessarily fill up that new found time with stuff and instead try to do what you are suppose to do in taper: rest. 

All of these things are crappy to think and feel, no one enjoys doubting them self or berating them self or questioning their training. The longer I race, the more I recognize this whole thing as a neurotic preparation process. Feeling like a hungry, hungry hippo who is utterly destroying my careful preparation through an imperfect taper process, destroys any unconscious expectations on myself and mentality prepares me to have whatever kind of day is in store for me. It makes me more present, because I ride the spectrum from feeling super fit and primed to feeling completely incapable, and therefore have no choice but to just accept my fate. Usually by race day, I am simply at a point where I say "we'll see how it goes".

Tapering is not a fun process. It is a necessary process however and absolutely vital to going into a race fully prepared. While I may never embrace the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies taper, I am slow learning to recognize the patterns, not fight it and let it produce the result it needs to.

I may still feel like a hungry, hungry hippo (yes, I know that I am not), but I as I enter my final week of taper, I am embracing the process, instead of fighting it. I am preparing to do battle, to enjoy the heck out of myself at Two Oceans in Cape Town running for the Nedbank Team, to return to where my running career (as an adult) began and to explore what is possible.

Besides, hippos are super cute.

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