Learning to Race again: Tale of Two Oceans 56km

I never really thought it was possible to forget how to race. Once I started ultrarunning in 2006, I raced so frequently that it was a skill sharpened and refined often. Between 2011 and 2012, I frequently nailed A, B, and C races. It felt good to know how to push, how to plan a good race for myself and how to get the most of out my body on race day.

My last big A race I completed was Comrades Marathon in 2012. That is nearly 3 years ago and it didn't go as well as I would have liked but it was an amazing experience. Since then, I have completed a lot of marathons. Some even could be considered "C" races, like Napa Marathon last month which felt perfectly executed. I thought after that race that I still knew how to "race", but really, as I learned over the weekend, it is a skill and sometimes being out of practice in its subtleties will stop you in your tracks from having the race your fitness might warrant.

Doing airport laps in Heathrow on my 5 hour layover. 1.5 hours walked in my fresh Oiselle styles and HOKA Cliftons!

Doing airport laps in Heathrow on my 5 hour layover. 1.5 hours walked in my fresh Oiselle styles and HOKA Cliftons!

Last week, I flew half way around the world to take on my first ultra for the first time in two years. I was excited to return to Cape Town, South Africa for my second attempt at the Two Oceans Marathon 56km event. It is the second largest ultra in the world with 11,000 entries in the 56km distance. That is insane compared to any US ultra. I love the event, the energy and the insane competition. I had goals for the race which thankfully didn't need modification when the course was rerouted due to wildfires in the cape. The reroute meant doubling the size of the first climb and the outlook for weather was extremely windy. I wanted to "race" this but didn't feel any pressure internally or externally to perform. I've fallen off most people's maps in the last two years and it puts me in a nice comfortable dark horse position. My racing this year has all been training so the efforts don't really reflect the kind of shape I am in. Going in to Two Oceans, I felt fit enough to win if I ran a good race. I feel strong and good on the hills. My goal however was to be smart and use this race to prepare for my big goals at Comrades. Comrades is THE race I am focusing on and I would give up everything else for that goal. I wanted to use Two Oceans as a solid lead up for Comrades, remember how to get my legs under me while traveling so far and make sure I still know how to race.

Live streaming of the televised coverage of the race

Live streaming of the televised coverage of the race

I flew to Cape Town on Tuesday, arriving on Thursday morning after 30+ hours of travel. My body was ok, I had slept enough (more than I usually do, ha!) on the plane, I was tight but thought I would be fine. Thursday turned out to be quite hectic and I was unable to get anything to eat until almost 2pm after eating nothing since the evening before. It was a product of being in a group of people and having to go with the group (picking up everyone, picking up the van at the airport, going to the expo) I believe this underfueling was the root cause of some of my energy issues on Saturday. Thursday to me is the most crucial day of fueling for a Saturday race and I barely ate that day, let alone ate enough carbs. This will be one of the main things I focus on for Comrades.

Ultimately, a few things leading up to the race including tightness and bad fueling lead me to not have the race that I wanted. A few mistakes on race day further held me back. I don't think that my fitness was accessed at all due to these mistakes. I could be disappointed about it, but I am not, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn them now so that I can better prepare for them next time.

Photo by  4OMTOM .   Used with Permission.  Finishing kick. I came from very behind this lady to beat her by 1 second at the line.

Photo by 4OMTOM.  Used with Permission. Finishing kick. I came from very behind this lady to beat her by 1 second at the line.

I flew halfway around the world and lined up with some incredible talent. The gun went off and I had the day that I did. I fought the 30 mph headwinds, the hills and myself. I battled to the finish line and was incredibly proud to finish strong passing two women in the last 1000 meters, including one woman at the line. I finished 7th place in a stacked field on a really off day. I am pleased with my progression even if at times it seems to be incredibly slow. 

Photo by   4OMTOM  . Used with Permission. Happy to be done; with Nedbank Team Manager Nick Bester

Photo by 4OMTOM. Used with Permission. Happy to be done; with Nedbank Team Manager Nick Bester

I am working on coming back. I am working on regaining and surpassing my former fitness and taking on big goals. That is not easy, it is not glamorous and it doesn't always go to plan. If the journey were easy, it wouldn't be as worth it to undertake. I absolutely love Two Oceans Marathon and I will go back again, and as often as I can. I really appreciate being a part of the Nedbank Green Dream team. I am so happy I had the opportunity to put myself out there on this big stage and begin to learn to race again. It makes me even more excited and dedicated to what is to come.


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.