south africa

Journey to Cape Town

The moment I opened the website for Ultra Trail Cape Town 100km, I knew I needed to race it this year. I have raced three times in South Africa and absolutely love the running community, I also love Cape Town and I was very very eager to get on the trails and explore a side of things that I had not been able to when I have previously raced. 

Kim and Nic. Absolutely amazing new friends and running buddies. 

Kim and Nic. Absolutely amazing new friends and running buddies. 

I also knew that I wanted to actually get to spend some time in Cape Town. When racing Two Oceans, I have come for the race, barely staying on the ground for longer than I fly. I did not want to do this this time. Instead, I devised a plan to not only get to run the 100km, but enjoy the food, wine, culture and running community in Cape Town. 

Recovery at it's finest. Stunning meal at Pot Luck Club.

Recovery at it's finest. Stunning meal at Pot Luck Club.

I arrived in Cape Town three weeks ago and settled into a lovely flat with a great kitchen and plenty of room. I tried to recover from jetleg and get springy to take on my first challenge of the trip: Cape Town Marathon. I have been feeling good about my marathon training and with coach Ian Torrence, we decided Cape Town was a good spot to make a go for the Olympic Trials standard of sub 2:43. The course is IAAF Silver status and boasted a strong field and promised a fast course. Despite flying for 40 hours, not running much that week and adjusting to life down here, I felt good to go. Unfortunately, the day itself was not a fast one for anyone. 80% humidity and a ferocious headwind (both directions) slowed the field immensely. I struggled from mile 10 on and slogged into the finish in 2:51, despite a 1:22 half. Initially, I was very very disappointed. But in hindsight, once I learned about the high humidity level (i.e. saw how high it actually was) and looked at how this affects pace, I started to feel a bit better. Sucks to have the day be a slow one, but these are the factors that you have no control over. I will go after the standard again in December at CIM, but for now I am satisfied to focus on the immediate goals and adventures before me.

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I was lucky enough to be introduced to some amazing individuals who have made my trip here absolutely wonderful. Christo & Lauren, Kim and Nic have been so lovely. They have been amazing resources, company, running companions, dinner companions, coffee runs and all around great people. They have introduced me to their friends and the running community and I am so absolutely grateful to all of them. It really has been incredibly special to have such great people to spend my time with. 

Two of South Africa's best (and world's best too!) Kane Reilly and Ryan Sandes showing me the biggest climb of the race up Table Mountain.

Two of South Africa's best (and world's best too!) Kane Reilly and Ryan Sandes showing me the biggest climb of the race up Table Mountain.

I recovered pretty well from the marathon. My energy was slow to return but I was able to get out on the trails and explore some of the UTCT course. Enough exploring to know that I am really in for an adventure. There are so incredibly technical aspects to this race, there are some incredibly steep climbs, but there are so amazing views, blistering downhills and an ultra community behind this race that will be cheering me on with all their might. I have recovered, tapered and enjoyed myself throughly here. If you've been following along on my instagram (@fastfoodie), you know I've been soaking it all in!

Nic kicked my ass on more than just one run!

Nic kicked my ass on more than just one run!

And now it is the eve of race day. I can genuinely say that I am excited. Sure, I am nervous but because running 100km is hard and one should be nervous. But I am excited and happy mostly. Last night, I went to the race briefing and elite panel and I felt like I do at US ultras- this is a community. Kim and Nic have introduced me to many different people and so instead of feeling like an outsider, I felt embraces and accepted. It felt like home to me. That is a truly special and one of the amazing things that UTCT has really worked hard to foster for their race. I left the briefing feeling charged up and ready as I can be to be off and running at 5am tomorrow.

Looking forward to this view tomorrow, mostly because it means I am done with the hardest climb.

Looking forward to this view tomorrow, mostly because it means I am done with the hardest climb.

No matter what happens tomorrow, I have been absolutely blessed to be able to be here in Cape Town for so long and be a part of the running community here. This trip has been an adventure and tomorrow will be no different. I look forward to whatever it holds. My goals are simple: Be brave. Be strong. Be happy. It is as simple as that. 

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.

 

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!

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

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.