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Devlyn meets South African challenge

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

If you think you did some traveling over the Memorial Day weekend, consider Austin runner Lorena Devlyn, who ran in the prestigious Comrades Marathon, one of South Africa's premier sports events.

More than 9,000 miles from home. A 56-mile road course through a sea of hills. And 23,000 fellow runners.

Devlyn, who is 38 and has three children, says the trip was made possible by fellow runner Michale Budde, a South African now living in Austin, who encouraged her and told her she could stay with his parents, who live in the race area.

An accomplished runner and triathlete, Devlyn began training for the Comrades six months ago. During the buildup, she ran the Cowtown 50K Ultra in Fort Worth in February, and the American River 50 Miler in Sacramento, Calif., in April.

Devlyn's coach, Mac Allen, had her run as much as 100 miles a week, and tackle some of the most daunting Austin hills on her training runs, including Ladera Norte in northwest Austin and the climb to Jester Estates. As hard as it was, the training did not mimic what she would face in South Africa.

The Comrades course runs from Pietermaritzburg to the city of Durban, and forces runners to navigate hills the likes of which Austin runners can barely imagine.

"I thought the race was going to be primarily downhill," said Devlyn. "But there are five major hills that they call the `Big Five' which even have names: Polly Shortts , Inchanga , Botha's Hill, Fields Hill and Cowie's Hill ."

Then to her dismay, Devlyn realized the course has hills without names. In fact there's an entire section of the course called the "Valley of a Thousand Hills."

How difficult were the hills? She said many of them made "the one leading up to Mt. Bonnell look like a speed bump."

Devlyn approached the event with an ambitious goal: to finish in less than nine hours. That 9-hour mark is like the cut in a pro golf tournament. Only the elite competitors break it, and those who do earn a medal named after the first race winner in 1921, Bill Rowan.

"I had no idea what my pace was, while I was running, because the markers are in kilometers and instead of marking how far you've run, they mark what you have left to go ," said Devlyn, who has run 3:15 in a standard marathon. "I crossed the halfway point in 4:02, and I was still feeling strong at that point. I figured that if I was able to maintain that pace and even if I slowed down a bit, a sub-9:00 would be possible."

Devlyn shattered her goal, finishing in 8:19:03. To put that in perspective, Rowan's time when he won the race in 1921 was 8:59.

"Lorena's pretty amazing," said her coach, Allen. "She's got a lot of guts and just keeps pushing herself. Even in our workouts, she pushes herself. I recall one time we were having a bad day, and I wanted to call it off. But she wouldn't do that. She has a lot of mental toughness. I knew she was going to finish the race, but I didn't know she was going to do that well."

"People ask me if it's worth traveling 15,000 miles on a 27-hour flight each way to run 56 miles," Devlyn said. "My answer is simple: Absolutely, without a doubt."