comrades marathon

Strength

Sarah Bard and I all smiles at the finish line of Comrades 2017.

Sarah Bard and I all smiles at the finish line of Comrades 2017.

I can't believe I am doing this (terror- early miles)

I can't believe I am doing this!!!! (elation- finishing straight)

This is so hard. This is too hard.

This is dumb.

This is amazing!

Why do people do this? I am never doing this again.

I can't wait to do this again!!!

I feel terrible. I am going to pass out. I am going to barf.

I feel amazing! I can't believe I didn't pass out and now I feel so good!

This was a terrible idea. Who thought I could do this 2 months after breaking my foot.

May the lord open.

1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4

They are playing my song!!!

Ok, reel her in. Just don't cramp. Don't cramp.

Don't look back. Keep it cool. Pretend you've got it together.

(blubbering sobs) Holy CRAP, I did it! Gold medal!!!

These are my thoughts while racing Comrades. That in a nutshell is my Comrades 2017 experience. I've been trying to get motivated to write a race report for the race but honestly feel like I am over race reports for their own sake. I am just looking for the take-aways, the lessons, the things I want to remember. I raced Comrades despite having only a very short training block after Two Oceans and London, races which I did coming straight back from a very extensive and long injury.  I knew that Comrades would be hard. It is a hard, fast, competitive race and I was in good shape, not great shape. I was in good health, but not niggle free as my foot continues to adjust and settle and relearn. Comrades is hard period. And I tried to steel myself for it to be harder than a normal healthy well-trained race might be.

And it was freaking hard. I battled both mental and physical barriers to get to the finish line. I had a good day for my fitness level, but not a great day. I faced down a deep undercurrent of desire to quit that was almost incessant. I had to trick myself, distract myself, bribe myself, and make deal after deal with myself. There were moments where a DNF threatened for both reasons: mental and physical (great article AJW!). But somehow, I made the choice time after time to not quit. Yes, there were good, even great reasons (like when I nearly passed out), to contemplate quitting but ultimately, time after time, I found the strength to keep going. It was not graceful or easy or even close to a great race for me, I got super ugly, but I made it to the line.

Getting to the finish line of Comrades and two weeks later, coming in third at Rock and Roll Seattle marathon, as well as "watching" Western States stories unfold have made me think a lot about strength. Strength does not mean never breaking down, never falling, never failing. It means bending, adjusting, persevering, enduring, staying steadfast and yes, even sometimes knowing when to quit. Strength can be having a perfect day where everything clicks. Strength can be being ready for a great day and finding yourself in the chair for hours, but finally finding a way to move on. Strength can be recognizing that you have nothing left to give. In our sport, there is a such a beautiful display of strength from the first to the last finisher. We put ourselves through so so so much adversity. We prepare as best we can, but when you are out there on race day pushing limits, so much can happen. Strength is working the problem, strength is honoring the journey.

In my 11 years of ultrarunning, I have had near perfect days, had perfectly crap days, had days in which I unlocked the magical power of simply not quitting when I really wanted to, had DNF's that were both heartbreaking and some that I am totally at peace with. What I have realized through those experiences is that no matter what, whether I win, finish or stop, that it doesn't define my strength. My strength is defined by how hard I work, how much I am willing to endure, how much I honor the journey, the sport and who I want to be. Strength is going through the darkest depths and simply not giving in to the darkness, knowing that there will always be light again. Sometimes that light is a finish line, an outcome, a resolution. Sometimes that light is a new race, a new opportunity or a new life. 

There will be light after the dark.

There will be light after the dark.

The last year has been a pretty hard one for me. I feel like it has been like jumping from bad patch to bad patch, with only temporary glimmers of hope that have kept me pressing forward, slowly, painfully. There have been things in my life that I was certain would fail. There have been things in my life that I was ready to abandon. There were times when I had absolute certainty of what must be done. And yet, I did not quit and do not want to quit. Instead, I started to look at the struggle and say, "perhaps this is the only way through, perhaps what is on the other side of this is growth, is a deeper sense of connection, deeper understanding, valuable lessons and a deeper understanding of strength, both mine own and others". Perhaps, enduring what can be endured is absolutely life affirming. When I made the choice to stand on a start line, begin something, involve myself I had good reasons, big goals, positive feelings, hopes, dreams, etc. So when things go south, does that mean that I was wrong to make a start? Usually not, usually it just means that just because something isn't easy, doesn't mean its not worth doing. Just because it gets hard at some point, doesn't mean that this is a "stupid race and I am a stupid idiot for ever thinking it was a good idea". Yes, sometimes we have to stop. Sometimes we have to change, let go or choose a different path and that's ok. But sometimes we can endure things that are hard and face shredding and come out the other side saying, "I am so glad that I survived that. I am so glad I did not quit". We don't have to laud a sucky experiences, but we can be grateful for our own ability to go through tough shit, to survive and the once again live in the light and thrive.

The Art of Unlearning

Women Run Strong Panel w/ Kelly Roberts, Susie Chan and Sophie Walker. Photo by @annarachphotography. 

Women Run Strong Panel w/ Kelly Roberts, Susie Chan and Sophie Walker. Photo by @annarachphotography. 

What seems like forever ago now, on April 21st whilst in London for the marathon, I had the awesome opportunity to be a part of a Women Run Strong panel, hosted by Kelly Roberts and Susie Chan. Over 100 women and a handful of men, joined in for a shake out run and question and answer panel. It was so cool to be part of, so many interesting questions and great connections with people that I might not have had the opportunity to make. Personally, I don't love public speaking, but in the question and answer format, I felt like for the most part, answers came easily and I was able to share my thoughts and experience in a way that I am proud of and possibly was helpful to those at the panel.

There was one question that did hem me up. It was the self-introduction, the question of "who are you?". I awkwardly mumbled something about "I'm a runner, I own a bakery....yep that about sums it up." Thankfully, Susie had mercy on me and bragged a bit on my behalf. I found it to be an interesting moment for me. After such a hard few months with injury, setbacks and personal struggle, the question of self-definition is in fact a hard one. And I realize now, maybe it always has been. After that evening, I realized that I needed to unlearn somethings about identity, self-definition and how confined self-definition can be limiting. And over the last month, I've thought about this a lot.

Before I was in London, I was in Cape Town, South Africa. I had arrived there two weeks prior, hoping that perhaps some time away could help me reset after everything, especially after the month of March. I had hoped I might find some peace, some resolutions and mostly my mojo. I had hoped that I might start picking myself up off the floor of the arena and doing the real rumbling I needed to to get back to myself. Oh, and race one of the biggest and more competitive ultras in the world, Two Oceans. It was going to be that easy, I would just get on a plane and fly about as far as I could away from everything.

But of course, it wasn't. I got off the plane and was met with terrible jet lag, insomnia and face shredding and swiftly descending depression. The earthquake that was my month of March had passed, but I was not prepared for the tsunami of emotion that would come in its wake. It flattened me. One of the major problems I now faced in my mind was one of self-definition and identity as it pertains to racing. Though I don't self-identify as "Devon, the 2:38 marathoner and 14:52 100-miler, etc, etc", when I show up to a big race (like Two Oceans) I don't view myself as "participant", I view myself as a "competitor". And yet, I realized, I was not in a place to race or compete in Oceans. I was not in a place to run a fast marathon in London 8 days later. I was hoping to complete the races, I was hoping to simply not hate every step. I had got on the plane because I simply couldn't bear the month of March, heck all of the preceding 6 months, to cost me a visit back to a place that very much holds my heart. I hadn't thought about the implications of racing until I was nearly toeing the line to do it.

One run can change your mind. The moment it flipped.

One run can change your mind. The moment it flipped.

One of the errors I had made was skipping the middle part of recovering from injury. The process should go: get healthy, train, then race. I had gone from get healthy to racing. I had internalized some pressure to get back to racing and cause me to rush once I was back running. And now I was toeing the line with a foot that had broken a month earlier, fitness that was questionable at best and a mind that was trying to wrap itself around the very real possibilities of not just slow times, but struggling to even finish. I was limiting myself by my competitor self, I knew I had to mentally be at peace with every available outcome. And I didn't want to go into the race afraid of any outcomes because I knew I would miss the experience. It would be hard and I would hate it, I would leave myself and I would fail myself, and likely be miserable.

Good friends can help you see yourself better.

Good friends can help you see yourself better.

I didn't want to be miserable in my experience at Oceans or London. And so through a lot of reflection, and a lot more friend time, especially with my lovely friends Kim, Susie, and Nic I started to understand that accepting who I am right now is not a failure. Accepting where I am now and what I am capable of right now, doesn't mean that this is who or what I will be forever. If I run slow now, then I simply ran slow, nothing more. If I run slow now, it doesn't mean anything about what I am capable of in the future and certainly means nothing in the scope of my career. I finally found a way back to my core values that drive who I am as a person: passion, patience, hard work, perseverance, intelligent stubbornness and fight, so much fight. And I realized that those who matter don't mind, and those who mind (how fast I run), don't matter. I am enough, just as I am.With that, I found my mojo, my peace and my perspective.

The two performances that followed made me so proud. Yes, I ran my slowest Two Oceans, but I ran far faster and stronger than I had expected in my wildest dreams. And I recovered so quickly and well, I was shocked how good I felt. I followed up 8 days later with a 2:54 marathon in London. It was hard, I suffered, but I fought and far exceeded the "best case" scenario 3 hr finish that was expected. Most importantly, I discovered a part of myself that is scrappy, unafraid. A part that celebrates how hard I fight for the day I have instead of a time on the clock or a place in the results. Between these two races, I started to redefine myself as "Devon, the warrior" instead of "Devon, the competitor". Yes, I love to compete, but if I am going to race for a long time (I've been doing this for 12 years and hope I get another good 20-30+!), I have to connect with my own journey and my own battle for the finish line above all else. Yes, I can have audacious big goals, but I can also race just for myself and against myself. My wallpaper on my phone currently reads: "You are far too smart to be the only thing standing in your way" and I believe it.

Crushing a 3:10 marathon during a 115 mile week.

Crushing a 3:10 marathon during a 115 mile week.

I returned home to California invigorated. Mojo found! And started training in earnest for Comrades, which will be held in a weeks time, June 4th here in South Africa. I had a solid 4 weeks of training, averaging over 100 miles per week, but that is by far not the most special part about this training block. To me, the most important part of this training block has been waking up every day and simply doing the best that I can with what I have. Gone is the instinct to compare every run with a former fastest self. Instead, I was finally able to see myself getting stronger each day, feeling better each day. I stopped lambasting myself for not being fast enough, doing enough, being skinny enough, etc and started to see that each day I was doing the work, hitting the milestones I needed to and most of all, enjoying and being excited by the process. This is the first training block, perhaps ever, that I have done, where day in and day out, I've celebrated where I am and what I did do. I've done what I can in a short amount of time, I'm as fit as I could hope to be, and ready to journey and to fight. Whether that means I finish first or last, fast or slow, perfect day or shit hit the fan sideways day, I am ready. To me, who I am truly is the person that stands on the start line, knowing that all I need is within me, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.

Comrades Marathon Race Report

Ever since I began running ultras, I have always said that the things I truly love about running ultras is the spectrum of factors that can affect your race, the variation of emotions you can experience and the extreme highs and lows you can weather.

Never have I experienced those things so completely as I did at Comrades marathon. If you asked me how I felt.....

At 30k into the race, I would have described the race as surreal, I was leading the race, joking to the motorcycles that they should find a better way to radio back about me other than "the tall one". It was truly surreal. I was leading the biggest race of my life. I was telling my bicycle escort, this wasn't exactly where I wanted to be right about now, pushing to the front of the pack towards the first hotspot (a Bonitas money mid-race cash prize).

At 45k, I was devastated and debilitated by abdominal cramping. 

At 60k, I was on the verge of quitting, tears streaming my face, being convinced by Nedbank handlers, strangers I didn't know to continue. Just to keep going.

At 75k, I refused to quit.

At the the finish, I would have described myself as relieved.

The day after, disappointed.

Today, proud.

There came a point during Comrades where I cursed the race, wondered aloud why the HELL anyone would want to run the damn thing, let alone over and over again. But now I know; it captivates you. And now I feel like if I could only ever do one race ever again (or over & over again) it would be Comrades (preferably paired with Two Oceans) .

Comrades is everything I love about running (except for the lacking trails part), it is intensely challenging, competitive, supported by the entirety of not just the community itself but the nation and absolutely embodies why I even bother to race at all. I did not have the race I was capable of fitness wise. But I didn't quit. I did not have the race I wanted mentally- I struggled to enjoy it. But I realized now, sometimes gritting your teeth and bearing the extreme pain surpasses the experience of simply enjoying every step.

Last night, I fell asleep on the airplane disappointed, frustrated I didn't have the race I know I am fit for and without answers for why I cramped so bad. When I woke, the whole race experience seemed to slip away, like it never happened, with each passing mile I flew away from Durban. Then, in one conversation, my entire experience truly set in.

Although I'd had many conversations about the race from the border patrol agent who recognized me from being on TV to the extra chatty seatmate on my flight from Durban to Joburg, all of those conversations did little but remind me of my own disappointment. This morning was different. The conversation itself was not much different than the others I had had about the race. He'd run the race 4 times before, although not this year. But something triggered inside me.

I realized the true depth of my experience. I realized that I had accomplished something incredible, even if I hadn't had the result I wanted. I was a part of something special. They call it "the ultimate human race" and it truly is the ultimate human experience. After that conversation, I went from disappointed to feeling like the member of an exclusive club.

Those who know what it is like, KNOW. I feel inducted, in the club. I have NEVER been more proud to cross a finish line and that is regardless of position, time or even the struggle to get there. Comrades is truly, incredibly special. There is just no other way to describe it.

I know I usually write complete blow by blow recaps, but I feel, for maybe the first time ever in my short running career, that words can't even begin to capture my experience. I cam to South Africa to run an epic, classic race. I left with an epic experience. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.

I truly appreciate my sponsors, Nedbank and North Face for making it possible. 5th place in 6:39 in the biggest ultra (and one of the biggest races in the world, period). First novice, first American. It doesn't matter, what matters is entering that stadium to the deafening roar of the crowd held held high, tears on my face and crossing that finish line. It is unlike any other experience I've had before and I will return time and time again.

Check back for photos and videos soon. I am not home from my journey yet!