In Season One: Comrades Marathon

I love to run in part because running is never just one thing to me, right? On any given day, when I wake up, I can utilize running for a lot of different things. Some days I’m running just to be the best athlete that I can be, to grow as an athlete, to challenge myself physically; some days, it’s running as an emotional outlet; some days it’s a mental exercise.”

– Devon Yanko

Episode summary

In this episode, American racer Devon Yanko shares her experiences about running Comrades—why this race is so close to her heart, and why she has unfinished business there: even with three top-10 finishes, Devon says Comrades is her white whale. She also shares what running brings to her day-to-day life.

Devon is an elite ultra distance and marathon runner. She excels on the trail and road, an uncommon achievement. Of her many accomplishments, Devon has qualified twice for the US Olympic trials marathon, and she has also won and set course records in trail and road ultra races up to 100 miles long.

Devon is also co-founder and -owner of M.H. Bread and Butter in San Anselmo, California, as well as a nutrition and running coach.

You’ll also learn details about the Comrades course, and why it is so difficult. A few things to know about Comrades: it’s a 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile, road race that takes place each year in South Africa. And It’s the oldest and largest ultra-distance foot race in the world. Comrades turns 100 years old in 2021 and entries for the 2020 race are capped at 27,500 runners.

Show notes and Recommended Resource

This episode, the recommended women and running resource is Devon’s blog. I’ve found many takeaways in her honest, in-depth, and insightful writing. The best way I’ve found to describe what she shares is that it feels like she squeezes every last bit of learning that she can out of the challenges she experiences. She goes deep, and she’s very open.

Devon Yanko’s blog: www.devonyanko.com/news

Follow Devon on Instagram: @fastfoodie

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Full episode transcript

Cherie Turner: This is Strides Forward, a podcast of stories about women and running. I am thrilled to welcome you to the very  first episode. I am Cherie Louise Turner, your host and producer.

For the first series of episodes, each of which will center on one runner, I’m focusing on experiences in and around the Comrades Marathon.

The very first story features a runner who has strong ties to this race.

Devon Yanko: My name is Devon Yanko. I live in San Anselmo, California, and I started running. I ran my first marathon in 2005, and my first ultra in 2006.

Cherie: Before we hear Devon’s story, there are a few things to know about Comrades. It’s a 90-kilometer, or roughly 56-mile, road race that takes place each year in South Africa. And It’s the oldest and largest ultra-distance foot race in the world. Comrades turns 100 years old in 2021 and entries for the 2020 race are capped at 27,500 runners.
Now you may be wondering about the fact that this is called the Comrades Marathon but marathons aren’t that long. And you would be correct in this wondering. Corades is an exception in this area, where marathon is used to mean a very long distance. In almost all cases when someone is referring to a marathon, like the Boston Marathon, New York City Marathon, the Olympic Marathon, they’re talking about a race that is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers long. And so terms like ultra marathon, ultra, or ultra distance, those are all referring to anything that’s longer than that 26.2 miles. That is why you’ll hear people, like me in this podcast, call the Comrades Marathon an ultra. OK, now back to it.

The 90 kilometers that the Comrades covers goes between the coastal city of Durban, and the smaller town of Pietermaritzburg, in the hills; each year the race switches direction, making for up years, when it finishes in Pietermaritzburg, and down years, when it finishes in Durban.

The course features what’s known as The Big Five: 5 climbs, or descents depending on the direction the race is going, each of which has been given its own name, it’s like the way we call the last climb in the Boston Marathon Heartbreak Hill. But where the infamous Heartbreak rises 91 feet in just over half a mile, the shortest but also steepest climb at Comrades, Polly Shortts, or Polly’s goes by, on for just over a mile, and climbs almost 400 feet. Again, that’s the smallest climb.

Most of the rest of the course is continuously undulating, so even outside of the big five there’s more climbing, or, on down years, descending. And lest you think that the down run sounds like the easier choice because of all that gravitational help, know that running downhill for that long is punishing to the legs and feet. Experienced Comrades runners will commonly say they actually think it’s harder. Especially because, unlike ultras in many other parts of the world, and especially the US, this course is not run on trails; it’s on pavement. That pounding takes its toll.

And there’s more. Comrades is also notoriously exposed; that is, there’s little in the way of shade. And it’s hot, even though it’s run during Africa’s winter.

All these factors combined–the length, terrain, weather—make Comrades a uniquely tough challenge. And this is what keeps many runners, returning year after year.

Devon is one such runner. A bit about her running career, since her start in the sport back in 2005, Devon has established herself an elite ultra distance and marathon runner. She has range and she’s versatile, excelling on the trail and road, which isn’t common, especially at her level. For instance, she’s qualified twice for the US Olympic trials marathon and she has also won and set course records in ultra distance trail and road races up to 100 miles long.

As regards Comrades, Devon has placed in the top 10 in each of her three finishes there, 2012, 2017, and 2018. And yet, she’s got unfinished business at Comrades, and it may not be what you think.

Devon: It is a race that I, I started this year calling it my white whale because I feel like, there are some races that I’ve done that i’m like, I feel satisfied, I don’t necessarily have to win a race to feel satisfied, but like I feel like there are a lot of races where I’m like, I feel like I’ve run to my potential and figured out enough factors that I can walk away from a race and never need to do it again, but there’s something about Comrades that is so complicated to get right that I’ve never felt like I’ve nailed it.

Cherie: So how did Comrades become Devon’s white whale? That has its roots in a time before she even called herself a runner.

Devon: When I was in university, I actually did a study abroad and spent three months in Cape Town. It’s actually, interestingly enough, also where I started training for running really because some of my roommates were like, hey we should run a couple days a week, and then it was, hey, we should run this half-marathon, and so I have this strong connection in terms of place, but also it’s where my running career really started.

Cherie: There are a lot of great races near Devon’s home in Northern California’s Marin County and beyond that, there are excellent races throughout the United States, so why fly halfway around the world for Comrades?

Devon: So I just love it. I keep going back despite the fact that 30 hours on an airplane shreds my face every single time, but it’s just such a unique experience. I have tried for years to explain to people what it is like and it is just something that people have to experience. There’s just nothing that equates to what it is.

Cherie: While it is difficult to get across what it feels like to experience Comrades, there are several things you can point to that begin to create the picture. There’s the fact this race has existed for almost a century:

Devon: I mean that’s incredible to think of everything, to think of the fact that this race has existed for so long and been a part of so much history and also embraced the cultural diversity of the country, before politically they did, like that race has always been a unifying force.

Cherie: This unifying force Devon talks about; this is a powerful factor here, and it’s fueled by several factors, including the difficulty of the event: when people are joined in suffering, differences tend to disappear. From the spectating standpoint, running differs in an important way from many other popular sports: there are no teams that pit us against them. People may have a particular runner they’re excited about, sure, but no one’s going to be rioting over wins and losses. Even more to that point, the support and enthusiasm extends far beyond the racing aspects of this event. Because while Comrades attracts top elite runners from around the world, the event is largely about the masses. Add to all that, South Africans have a deep passion for sports in general, and a particular pride around Comrades.

Devon: It’s as iconic as like the New York City Marathon or Boston, and my thing is, it’s that iconic but the whole country cares, and there’s nothing like that in running in America that you can find where, if you say, “Oh, i’ve done this race,” not everybody knows what you’re talking about. If you go to South Africa and say, I’ve done Comrades, like I’ve gotten waved through customs because they had seen me on TV.

Like, I had a really short connection through Johannesburg on my way home and I get to customs, and I hand him my passport and he’s like, he looks at it but he’s like, I don’t need to see this. I saw you on TV and I was like, what? And he was like, just go.

And how? It’s so, in the States, ultra running is so uncommon that to have somebody that I would have thought wouldn’t know anything about running or ultra running, to have just your average per know what that means, it’s just, it’s so important to the country, and that just to me makes it a different race.

Cherie: The amount of television coverage is another of those elements that sets Comrades apart: if you can’t be there in person, you can watch all 12 hours of live coverage on TV.

And it all begins at the startline. I’ll get into the beloved traditions of the startline proceedings in future episodes, because they’re really quite special, but here I’m just going to focus on one aspect of getting off the line that is particularly critical to racers at the front: everyone starts at the same time. With most major races where there are thousands of athletes, the elite fields, or in the least the elite women’s field, starts before the rest of the runners. Races like the Boston and New York City marathons break it down further and start non-elite racers in waves. But at Comrades, Devon and her co-competitors have over 20,000 athletes crushed in behind them, eagerly waiting to be cut loose. Oh, and the start time is early enough in the morning that it’s still dark out.

Devon: That startline experience is unlike anything else i’ve ever done because it is so intense. The elites are sequestered away to the side and then 20 minutes before we get put in front, and the women are put on one side and the men are put on the other side and I always get a lot of emotions, some terror, some excitement,  some nostalgic, oh I love this country, I love this race kinda feelings, but it is also funny because, the start line for me is also knowing you have to essentially run as hard as you can off the line so you don’t get trampled because the people behind you charge so hard that you would think they’re running a 5k.

I just think it’s funny, you have this mix of this sense of like, OK, I’m going to race but the first thought in my mind is, just get out of the way. So, yea, you just start an 89-kilometer race with a full sprint.

Cherie: And then of course, there are the supporters all along the course, who go wild from the gun.

Devon: The crowds are amazing, I’ve run some major international marathons, Boston, New York, London, and that’s the only thing I can equate it to, it’s like, except for it’s more than twice the distance, and you have people lining the course, and they’re so excited, and they’re so into the sport and there’s so much enthusiasm and you can tell that everybody cares about this race.

I have had so many times in the race where the crowds have lifted me up, when I’ve gone through a low moment. I can remember last time I did it, running through literally like a tunnel of people, it was only as wide as my body, running through this screaming tunnel of people, and it lifted me in a way I needed right at that moment.

Cherie: Runners, including the elite women, of course, are continually surrounded by spectators, yes, but also by other racers because of that mass start. At other large races where the female elites start on their own, they typically end up running either in small packs or by themselves. At Comrades, they’re in a sea of primarily high caliber male runners; whoever can keep their pace. For Devon, she’s found upsides to this format.

Devon: If I’m on my own I can definitely get all up in my own head and get all aboard the crazy train, so it’s nice to have someone there to be like, I’m having a hard time and they’ll be like, welp, just keep going. Just to have someone to bounce your ideas off of instead of marinating in them, it makes a big difference.

Cherie: All of the attention the race generates can also lead to dynamics that top ultra racers don’t usually deal with.

Devon: My first time doing Comrades, I was leading at 50k. It is very different because ultras here, you’re running around in the woods by yourself basically and even when I’m running a marathon, for the most part, the marathons I’m doing, there’s not that type of coverage. I don’t have a camera in my face going, I wonder what they’re saying about me right now. Do I look like a T-Rex when I run? Am I making a face? All these things, and you get caught up in some of the hype. I was kind of unprepared for how much that would affect me because I got caught up in the adrenaline of it a little bit. It’s so different.

I’ve run in races here where I had a bike pacer and you’re rolling around just talking to this one person in the race and then coming to the finish line and they’re like, OK, you’re done. And Comrades is the opposite of that.

Cherie: Taking a step back and stripping away all of the awesomeness of this race, you’re left with the foundation of any proper white whale challenge: it’s really hard to conquer. Note that here Devon mentions Western States, which, founded in 1977, was the first 100-mile trail race and it remains one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world.

Devon: It’s particularly challenging in that, with Western States 100, it has a lot of factors, but there is some forgiveness in there. For instance, when I came in third at Western States, I sat in a chair for more than 30 minutes, and I still came in 3rd place. That’s how trail ultras are. There’s just a little bit more wiggle room and flexibility to how a race is going to be run, and for Comrades, it’s a lot more like a marathon, like a regular-distance marathon in that, if you make a mistake, there’s not a ton of room to come back from that. So I think that that’s what makes it challenging is knowing that the people are at the top of their game, and that you have to run a very fast pace, you have to run it on very difficult terrain, it’s going to be hot; I just think that the margin of error to get it right is so much smaller and that’s in part because of how fast the field is and how hard the terrain is.

Cherie: And never to be overlooked, those 90km at Comrades, that’s a long way to go.

Devon: The middle of the race, either direction, is the worst because it’s rolling and you’re not close to anything, so ya know, the excitement of the start is gone and the excitement of the finish is not there, so it’s just a grind. You’re just in this hard part of the course; there’s not a lot of distraction and you just have a really far way to go, so just rolling through those hills is very difficult and it takes a lot of perseverance.

Cherie: So, how does Devon approach such a challenge, one that she knows going in will be brutally demanding?

Devon: So for me it’s probably the race I anticipate the most, but at same time, I know that the way I’ll perform the best is by running my own race. I just have to know, I basically just tell myself, this is going to be hard; it’s going to be harder than I’m even preparing myself for. I think it’s going to be the hardest thing ever and then it’s twice as hard as that. But essentially bracing myself to not expect it to be easy, at any point, really helps me get in that mode. Because it is, it’s just relentless. I just kind of get myself into the mentality that, this is going to be hard, and that I just can’t quit.

Cherie: And when those tough times arise, as they inevitably do in a race like this, Devon’s ready to deal with those in the moment, too.

Devon: I think it’s one of those things where it’s like, I know I can do hard things because it has been so hard every time I’ve done it that it’s a reminder that I can persist even on the bad days, I can persist through that and that tomorrow will come. It’s actually funny, my second time doing the down year my mantra was “tomorrow is Monday”; that is what got me through the race was thinking, the sun’s going to come up tomorrow, right? Like, it was harder than I wanted it to be. I had hoped for a good day, it wasn’t a magical day and I was just like, Tomorrow is Monday. Essentially I was focusing on the fact of, how do I want to feel tomorrow about this experience?

Is your future self, going to be like, oh, I know I could have kept going, oh I let myself off the hook. Or is your future self going to say, I did everything I could to get to that finish line? I might not be able to convince myself in this moment that I’m having such a great time, but I could convince myself that my future self would be satisfied with fighting through and finishing in spite of that and I think that that was a special lesson for me because there’s plenty of things in life that aren’t going to be superfun and that you’re going to want to go through but you just have to look at it from the perspective of, how am I going to think of this in the future? Is it worth it from that perspective?

Cherie: Another important factor for elites like Devon is that, while she is running her own race, she’s also racing against other women.

Devon: These are your competitors but they’re also people who are there to help, especially on womens side, all of us are trying to lift each other up for the most part and push each other and help push sport to new levels. We tend to be more collaborative in that way because we want to see other people succeed just as much as we want to succeed.

Cherie: To be clear here, collaboratively pushing each other and the sport to new levels means engaging in respectful, but still fierce competition. Fierce enough, it turns out, to override the pain of a broken foot.

Here, Devon mentions Polly Shorts, that shortest but steepest climb on the course. It’s also the final climb in the up run. Runners hit it at the 79 kilometer, or almost 50 mile mark. This makes it the critical make it or break it point because from there, it’s downhill for the remaining kilometers to the finish; it’s where you throw the final gantlet. Or to use Devon’s words, this is the point where you experience what’s going to be the hardest thing ever, and it’s twice as hard as that. Polly’s is that part of the competition.

Devon: Unfortunately, the high moment comes at the expense of my own teammate from KPMG because in the last, was going up Polly Shortts, I’m going up that hill, and I had been in 11th to 14th place most of the day so I was like I’m not going to be in the top 10 do what you can but I had moved up and I have been solidly in 11th for a really long time and going up Polly Shortts I see my teammate Mary and I’m like, Oh no, I have to run her down.

I’m going to do everything in my power to get in that top 10, and she put up such a fight. It was a pretty amazing battle, and I finally caught her and I went by her so hard and I felt so bad because she was my teammate but at the same time this was this amazing moment for me, too, I had been injured for so long, and I still didn’t know my foot was broken at the time, I had been misdiagnosed so I had been running in pain for so long, and I had missed races that I had wanted to go to, so to come back from all of that and be able to do that, it felt so amazing and so hard earned that, as opposed to my position being I didn’t have the day I wanted, it’s like I exceeded what I thought was possible on that day and I really fought to the end

Cherie: The miles run, the battles fought, the crowds embraced, the end does eventually come.

Devon: It’s always very relieving to be done. It’s, it is really a special experience to run into the stadium. I always get choked up and I’m, ya know, I’m definitely a finish line crier when it’s important and Comrades is always important. I just understand how special it is to run in the top 10, and so I really just appreciate that experience and I try to savor it.

Ya know, I’m always a little paranoid that someone’s going to pass me, so you have that, like, I’m going to soak this up so much but also like, I’m not going to get caught. But yeah, the crowds are amazing, and it’s just such a satisfying thing to cross that finish line; I mean granted i cross that finish line every year and I’m like, I’m never doing that again, because oh my gosh that was so hard, but that feeling lasts for about 5 seconds.

Cherie: And it appears that not too long after those few ticks of the second hand, Devon begins recommitting herself to another go at this behemoth. You may be wondering, with such incredible performances already realized, what exactly is this white whale she’s chasing? To answer this, Devon draws on insight from 2014 Comrades champion and friend Ellie Greenwood.

Devon: It’s actually funny, Ellie Greenwood, who obviously has won the race, she has this phrase, she calls it a Devon Day, and a Devon Day is where everything comes together in this very magical way and you just have like the race of your dreams and I’ve had enough of those in my career to know that it’s possible, and I just am holding out hope I can have one of those at Comrades because it’s, ya know, it is so important to me and I just know that that distance, that speed is really in my wheelhouse, so I think that that’s where that sense comes from, is just knowing I have not had yet the race that I’m capable of.

Cherie: In pursuit of her eponymous day, Devon keeps training and keeps exploring all that this basic act putting one foot in front of the other has to offer.

Devon: I love to run in part because running is never just one thing to me, right? On any given day, when I wake up, I can utilize running for a lot of different things. Some days I’m running just to be the best athlete that I can be, to grow as an athlete, to challenge myself physically; some days, it’s running as an emotional outlet; some days it’s a mental exercise, and I think that especially given that I run every different distance, every different surface, it’s this opportunity, I see running as an opportunity to kind of explore a lot of different avenues and it always surprises me that running can be so many different things to me, and that, that is in part possible because I made the commitment to myself when I start running and becoming competitive that I wanted to run for my entire life, if that was possible, and so having that mentality means that I’m always mindful of the long-term approach and not getting too caught up in one specific outcome or one specific path because I don’t want to ever have running be something I burn out on, and so it’s something that I feel like I’m always cultivating my relationship with running and making sure it is a very positive thing in my life.

Cherie: This is where Devon turns Melville’s classic whale tale of corrosive obsession and death on its head.

Devon: Ultimately running has been a way for me to work through things and grow as a person, and the lesson I’ve taken away, I’ve taken a lot of lessons away but a lot of it has to do with the choice of how I see the moment and like how I deal with hard things, and ultimately I’ve come to a place now where I tend to go toward the hard challenges when they’re optional, like in running, I want to do a hard thing because I know that I’m capable of it and the consequences are pretty low, and so then when I take the lesson to life, I know that I have the stamina to do whatever it takes to get through a situation. I’ve had plenty of hard things happen to me in my life but running has helped me, it mirrors my actual perseverance and strength and so if I can do something in an environment like running, it shows me that I am capable of doing it in real life.

Cherie: And that concludes Devon’s story. For more information about this episode or about Strides Forward, please visit, stridesforwardpodcast.com. One section you’ll find there provides resources related to women and running. Each episode, after the story, I’ll highlight one such resource.

The easy choice for this episode is Devon’s blog. I’ve found many takeaways in her honest, in-depth, and insightful writing. The best way I’ve found to describe what she shares is that it feels like she squeezes every last bit of learning that she can out of the challenges she experiences. She goes deep, and she’s very open. For more frequent updates from Devon, where she also shares thoughts and insights, see her Instagram account, @fastfoodie.

Please join me in two weeks for the next episode of Strides Forward. In the meantime, please be in touch. You can reach me through the website, or on Twitter @stridesforward. I welcome all thoughts, questions, feedback, and community building efforts and suggestions.

I want to thank you to Devon Yanko for sharing her story and, like all of the runners in this first series, for taking a chance on a podcast that was just a passionate idea when she granted this interview. Thank you, as well, to April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative for the logo and website design; you can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com. And thank you to Cormac O’Regan for the original music and sound design. And thank you to you, the listener. I’m thrilled you’re joining this podcast journey. Please subscribe and share.

One of the reasons I was inspired to start this podcast, and to focus only on the incredible stories of women, is because I was reminded recently that female athletes only received 4% of sports media coverage. We can change that, and there are loads of amazing stories out there. Let’s start sharing more of them. Until next time, this is Cherie, wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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