Q&A With Sage Canaday One Week Out From Comrades – A Race An American Man Hasn’t Won in 25 Years
April 25, 2019 to May 31, 2019
Can Canaday possibly defy the odds and end America’s 25 year Comrades Marathon drought?
May 31, 2019
Editor’s note: HOKA ONE ONE is sponsoring LetsRun.com’s exploration of the ultramarathon over the month of May (and a little bit before and after), trying to determine the answer to the question: “What are the best ultramarathons in the world?” You can join the debate here. While this is sponsored content, HOKA had no say in what was written.
We kicked off our deep-dive into the ultramarathon world a little over a month ago with an interview of HOKA ONE ONE ultramarathon pro Sage Canaday (LRC Sage Canaday Explains The Ultra Marathon Scene to LRC: Getting Helicoptered Out of Races, Carrying a Phone and How Would Kipchoge Do?). Since we had Sage, whom LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson coached to NCAAs at Cornell, on our podcast at the end of April to kick off our exploration of the ultramarathon world, we felt it was only appropriate to have him on once again as we’ll be winding down the exploration next week. But the real reason we wanted to have Sage on is because he’s running the Comrades Marathon (89km) in South Africa next Sunday and we wanted to know how he’s feeling entering the race.
Only one American man, Alberto Salazar in 1994, has ever won Comrades, but we love people who dream big and thus wanted to see how Sage is feeling about things as he finishes his taper. Our Q&A with Sage also will appear on our podcast that comes out on Friday.
Below is a slightly edited version of the interview. You can also listen to it in the player below or your favorite podcast platform. Click here
[60:35] to listen to Sage starting at the 60:35.
LRC: How are you feeling heading into the race? Nine weeks ago, you ran the Rotterdam Marathon. You ran 2:23 there but you’ve had nine weeks to get fitter. Since then, how’s the training been going? How do you feel feeling heading into what we call the world’s oldest, largest, and richest ultramarathon?
Sage: I say it’s also the most competitive hands down ultramarathon in the world.
I feel good. Rotterdam was a disappointment. But basically, I knew after Rotterdam I was going to be running Comrades and viewed it as kind of a build up for Comrades. I was like, “Okay, this was a good long training run.” I’m going to do some more 26-mile training runs in training, but a lot slower. I did one out here in Boulder on the hills and you know, just ran like a 2:36 marathon — so 6:00 pace. And then I paced at the HOKA ONE ONE Project Carbon X event. Four weeks ago, I paced 36 miles, my teammate Pat Reagan there was running 100k, so I paced him at about 6:05 mile pace for 36 miles. And that was a good training run too for Comrades.
So putting in some good long runs. [As for the] the mileage, [I] got a lot of 110-, 120-mile weeks, nothing too crazy. But I can really only compare my fitness to when I last did Comrades, which was in 2015, which was an up year, and that year I actually ran 2:19 at Boston and got 16th place, but it was only five weeks before Comrades. And I started to think that that I couldn’t recover in five weeks, whereas I’m hoping [this year] nine weeks between a marathon and Comrades is going to help me more. And I know what to expect this year too, because I’ve done the course. And it’s brutal.
LRC: So you talked about running 36 miles at 6:05 pace (which makes us wonder about your pacing strategy). Heading into the race, do you have a pace goal that you’re going to shoot for or are you just going to run with the leaders? How are you going to approach the race strategically?
It’s a little bit of both. With the time goals, you can’t, I mean, you got to react to tactics. It’s more about place than time. But you know, statistically, I know on most uphill years at Comrades, again, it’s a net uphill race (Editor’s note: It’s overall a net uphill of 2,000 feet), you know, to be in contention for top three or being contention for the win, you definitely have to run under 5:40. It’s about 55 miles exactly so that works out to being 6:11 mile pace average. Again, though, keep in mind, there’s 6,000 feet of climbing during the race, because it’s a hilly race, and it could be quite hot. So you know, if it’s really hot, maybe you go out a bit more cautious.
But generally, you’re keying off the favorites and a lot of guys are really tough. So there’ll be a pack of like 30 guys rolling through the first half 2:50 which is pretty much right on 5:40 pace. The second half doesn’t have as much climbing, but there’s a lot of attrition in the second half. So you know, you’re keying off that that main contender pack. If you want to be top three, top five, you definitely need to run way under six hours. So I kind of keep the mile splits with that in mind and will roll through the first marathon probably, I think last time we rolled through in 2:42 for the first marathon (6:10.7 mile pace), and there was probably about 4,000 feet of climbing in that. So it was a big uphill marathon. And then you’re not even at the halfway point. So you know, I’ll look at my splits, but it’s mainly going by heart rate, and mainly by keying off the other guys and just seeing how you feel during the race.
LRC: So since you wear a heart rate monitor, what would your heart rate be up for a race like this?
I’m not a die-hard heart rate person because sometimes the heart rate monitor screws up. I have like a Garmin 935 — it’s a wrist strap heart rate monitor. I monitor it relatively a little bit. Like early on, there’s some really big hills and if you hit a heart rate spike over the intensity of what you’d run a single [26.2] marathon at, you know it’s probably too hard. So for me, you know, that’s like, in the high 80% type of range, 88 t0 90%, that’s getting close to marathon pace, which is really close to my lactate threshold, which I know I can’t sustain for more than, you know, basically an hour, two hours. That would be kind of like a suicide intensity. So, you know, I might glance at it. But I also kind of just know by how hard I’m breathing, you obviously do not want to get any anaerobic contribution going on. And you’re mainly worried about sheer muscle fatigue and your legs having a muscle cramp. But you’re also worried about burning through your glycogen too fast. So I need to keep it more in the maybe 80% of maximum heart rate type of intensity, but it’s kind of a crapshoot if you could sustain that for five and a half or six hours. It’s, it’s going to hurt a lot, basically.
LRC: So back to the training question. Having never trained or even run an ultra, I guess coming into this interview, I [thought to myself], “I don’t know how I would know if I was ready to go [for an ultra].” I mean, when I was doing a marathon, I always would try to do a 30k run at race pace. So basically run 75% distance at race pace. And I imagine you can’t really do that for an ultra. I mean, that would be what, over 40 miles for this race (Editor’s note: 75% of 55 is 41 and Comrades is 55 miles)? But you did say you did 36 miles.
[But in general,] how do most ultrarunners sort of know that they’re ready to go? Or how do you personally know you’re ready to go? [You did the 36 miles at HOKA’s Project Carbon X]. Did that work out perfectly for your training? What would you normally do if you didn’t have to do that? Do you have like a signature workout that you like to do [before an ultra] to know you’re ready to go for a 55-mile race?
Um, you know, honestly, it’s more fickle. And I’ve only done Comrades once and it’s the only road ultra that I’ve actually done. Most of the ultras I do are really like mountainous trail ultras. [And in those] you totally throw pace out the window. But, I mean, you definitely want to spend, you definitely need to some long runs in your training and you definitely want to average high mileage weeks. So you’re, you know averaging over 100 miles a week for hopefully months at a time. You’re putting in long runs that yeah, they are not going to be even close to 75 or 80% of the distance of the ultra because that would beat you up too much. Although I have heard some of the South African guys, like Bongmusa Mthembu (the two-time defending champ), who’s one of the favorites to win, I heard he does a couple of 50k to 70k long runs in training. So I think he’s getting some like 40-mile long runs basically. Yeah.
But then someone like Camille Herron (the American who won in 2017) says she doesn’t do anything longer than like 22-mile long runs in training at a single time. But I know she averages well over 100 miles a week. And what some ultrarunners do is they do back to back long runs on a weekend. So Camille does a 22-miler on Saturday, then the next day she does a hard 18-miler. So you’re doing like back to back hard long runs. And you put in a big weekend where you did, you know, 30 or 40 miles, but especially for the longer ultras, you’re never going to get, you’re not going to run the full distance in training. So it’s more of a crapshoot.
And if you do the long runs like I do, I did some 22-mile long runs, 26-mile long runs, I do them at a faster pace. So okay, I did this marathon and training at 6:00 pace and my goal race pace for Comrades is 6:15 mile pace. So you know, hopefully, when I taper I could hold that for the longer distance. But you know, [the HOKA Project] Carbon X [event] worked out really well. It was a great event. It made it easy for me because we had aid station support and the miles just flew by. If I was training by myself, though, I definitely would have done a hillier route because Comrades is all about the paved hills. So Carbon X was a relatively flat course, at least compared to Comrades, but it was good, I think.
LRC: So you were 13th four years ago, what’s the goal this year? When I was coaching [at Cornell], I’m not sure if I ever made you do it, but I made a lot of guys do it – come up with an A goal, a B goal, and a C goal. So let’s do that for this race. What sort of something you’d be satisfied with, what’s something that’s aspirational and what’s the dream?
Yeah so I still do that too — the ABC goals. I learned that from you, Rojo. So yeah, the first goal, I guess, the C goal is just to improve. So, you know, logically, significantly under the 6:02 I ran last time — it was a pretty bad meltdown in the last 20 miles. So I’d like to be under six hours, at least significantly under six hours, and be top 10. Because like I said, I was 13th. Well I was 15th, but there were two guys that that tripped drug tests on the day in the top 10 that year. So you know, top 10 under six hours would be great.
As a B goal, I’d say would be to be top five, I’d be really, really happy if I was top five, as it’s such a competitive race. There’s so many really great South African runners especially. They do the race every year — they peak for it every year — they know the course really well. It’s competitive, there’s a lot of prize money and you’re starting to make more prize money when you get top five as well. So that’s a big incentive. And you know, sub-5:45 on the time goal, that kind of corresponds to about top five, if you run in the low 5:40s.
Then you know, the pie in the sky goal, the ultimate A goal would be to try to win. I’m trying to say how realistic that is for me at this point. You know, it’s extremely hard to win, it would be great. Maybe I should just say top three, that would be a huge honor. So yeah, top three and sub-5:40 is the A goal, but being in contention to win. But you kind of have to make a choice during the race. Do I want to try to be top three and win? Or do I just want to be top 10? And if there’s a break in the last 20 miles, you could risk it all like I did in 2015 with Max King? I risked it all. And I said, “Okay, I want to try to win.” And I totally imploded the last 20 miles. So I might be more conservative this year.
LRC: If if there was a betting house putting odds on a win, how large would your odds be?
Oh, I would not be betting on me for the win. I would bet on Mthembu to win probably.
LRC: But how large would the odds be to win? 100 to 1?
Oh, no, no. I’d say the odds are better. The odds are better. I mean, this it’s not like running a marathon major. Like, you know, I’d say oh, you know, there’s a zero percent chance of me winning Boston or New York. Like, I could be top 10 maybe, you know, I could be top 10 at Boston, maybe like in a bad weather year. Like, you know, I was 16th at Boston one year, but you know, [Comrades] is not as deep as a marathon major, for sure. So there’s a chance I could win. But it’s still very unlikely. I’m more likely probably to win like a trail ultra, much more likely to win UTMB or something like that.
LRC: You talked about the South Africans being the biggest threat for the win — they’ve won seven years in a row. You talked about Mthembu, the up and down repeat winner the last two years. [But] do you know who all the key players are? Like, my brother was asking me, “Hey, if we write a preview of this race next week, is there a list of all the elites that are in the race?” Like could we break it down like a World Marathon Major, or is it kind of happenstance to figure that out?
Um, you know, honestly, I haven’t researched all the favorites. Most of them, you’re correct, are South African, at least on the men’s side. Obviously, on the women’s side, we have Camille Herron, who won the last up year. But yeah, Mthembu he won the last up year, he won last year down year, and I believe he won Two Oceans Marathon (35 miles) a couple months ago as well. He’s definitely a favorite.
There’s some lists, I think, and if you look in some of the South African blogs, they do a big like, you know, there’s a lot of press conferences leading into the race where they bring up all the favorites. And you know, the list is quite long. And yeah, most of the South Africans, you know, these guys do it every year for the last five or 10 years. They have their super experienced on the course. And they train all year just for this race. So it’s a really big deal down there. And, you know, these guys are good, maybe a lot of them haven’t run maybe to their full potential in a marathon, but a lot have run maybe like 2:15 or so. So they have plenty of speed to win Comrades, I’d say.
LRC: Let’s talk about the logistics. When do you leave? I mean, it’s a long way away. And what type of fueling do you do during a 55-mile race?
Yeah, so I’m going to leave this weekend, you know, it was kind of based on the plane ticket prices. You know, ideally, I probably should be leaving a little earlier, but I’m flying through Europe on the way there. So I’m gonna actually take a day and try to reset and get a lot of sleep and then do the 10-hour flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg the next day. So it’s going to be like a two- or three-day travel day, leaving this Sunday. I’ll get there basically Wednesday, after spending the night in Europe, so, you know, try to adjust the jet-lag as quickly as possible and try to survive the journey.
[As for the fueling], it’s really great. There’s a basically an aid station every two miles, [plus] I carry my own, like basically a fanny pack. A Nathan belt we’ll call it — full of gels, my own gels — Spring Energy Canaberry, which are 100 calories a pack. So maybe have like six or seven gels in my fanny pack that I’ll be taking, like one every 45 minutes. And then being part of an elite team, you actually get custom fluid bottles or your own fluid bottles that get handed to you at some of the aid stations. So I think we have eight fluid handoffs, that I could fill with electrolyte fluid, which also has carbs and calories and sugar in it. So I’m looking at getting in over 300 calories an hour of mostly carbohydrate, and then there’s the regular aid stations for the masses and for us as well.
There they have these bags full of water. Basically they’re like little plastic tubes full of water and you bite into it and you can drink water. They have electrolyte fluid, some of the aid stations have like Coca Cola and potatoes. And then they have like maybe like sports gummy chews and candy. It’s like a major marathon though, they’re really well-stocked aid stations. As an elite though, you don’t want to be slowing down too much so you’re running through pretty fast, you know, 6:00 mile pace through the aid stations.
But the thing that really impressed me with Comrades is these guys in the lead pack will help hand out water to their competitors. So we’re running up to an aid station, a big pack of 30 guys, and the guys on the inside who are close to aid station will start grabbing these flasks of water and they’ll hand them over to their competitors off to the side. So everyone’s helping everyone make sure they get the hydration they need. You know, if you want something and you can’t reach it at the aid station, your competitor will hand it to you. And a lot of these guys are coming out of poverty. They’re competing for $38,000 for the win. And they were really generous. Another example of that is my bib was coming undone on the back of my jersey while I was running and this competitor offered [to help]. He’s like, “Hey, your bib’s coming off.” And he pinned it for me back on to my jersey because he didn’t want it to fall off.
LRC: Well, that’s cool. And I think there’s also a huge like $25,000 bonus for the first South African (Editor’s note: It may not be that high. It was 200,000 South African rand in 2017, which is $13,492).
Plus there’s time bonuses, a course record bonus. There’s sometimes club bonuses for a lot of the native South Africans and then, you know, full disclosure like I would also get a bonus [from HOKA] if I placed really well too. So it’s more than just that open prize money.
LRC: One the last question. I promise the rest of LRC to keep the interview under 15 minutes and it’s already over that. So if you do win, let’s say your dreams become reality Sage and you win, you’ll be only the second American man to win it and the other man to have won is Alberto Salazar [a fellow Oregonian like yourself]. Given your strong anti-doping stances, how would it feel to be on a list with Alberto Salazar as an American champion of Comrades?
I mean I’d be hugely honored to win Comrades. And yeah, to be on the list with a guy that ran 2:08 in the marathon would be pretty extreme. You know it would be a huge honor — it would be a dream come true for sure. You know, realistically, it’s honestly probably not going to happen. So I don’t think I have to worry about it too much. But, you know, it’s, it’s the ultimate dream.
LRC: Well that’s what motivates us to train. So good luck Sage. And if you do really well, you could be a three-time guest on the podcast.
Oh, thank you. That would be an honor. Thanks for having me on.
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