Calum Neff is a member of our rabbitELITE team. He recently paced Sara Hall to the second fastest American marathon ever and quickly followed it up with a Canadian National Record in the 50k. Read all about Calum's experiences, insights, and more!
How do you define yourself? What sticker(s) do you put on the back of your car? When given only 160 characters to write your bio, who do you choose to be?
If you are familiar with Houston culture or have ever driven Interstate 45 South right before downtown, with that incredible skyscraper background, you have noticed a popular graffiti tag across a railway bridge: “BE SOMEONE.” It’s such a great reminder to the millions of zombie-like morning commuters just moments before they clock-in to a desk job that their attitude can make a difference that day. This “define yourself” mantra is what echoed through my otherwise transcended mind the final miles of breaking the Canadian 50k Record in the very same Houston park it was set, 30 years ago. This is what it means to me.
I’ve never liked the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It implies you must choose only one ‘thing’ and stick to it before you’ve made the journey of discovery. While at the end of our lives we all have notable definitions. They are like an exclamation mark without a sentence, useless without the trial and tribulations for context. Defining-moments, while occurring in an instant, are made over years of circumstances, decisions, and yes-- luck.
The Performance Mindset
Before I describe my last two (and most defining) moments of my running life, here is who I am and how you can begin your own self-improvement journey:
In a recent performance mindset course, I was taken through a series of mentally and emotionally demanding exercises to define my personal philosophy and establish the foundation of my operating system. Engraining a solid base is important so that when integrity is challenged, whether self-inflicted through athletic endeavors or real-life obstacles, you know that it will not only be stable and continue functioning, but perform optimally allowing for peak reaction time, thoughts, and actions. This also allows for accelerated growth, both internally, but with relationships too, and so I will share mine with you now.
I am a rock, withstanding the test of time, accepting of all conditions.
Part of this personal journey is to think of your own role models and what their attributes are. Then, begin defining your own characteristics, whittling the list down to your true core, then making a defining statement that describes you. For me, this was coaches, family, and writers that influenced me into a long list of personalities and mannerisms.
My personal philosophy means; I am always on your shoulder, as a competitor, rabbit pacer, or friend. I may be moved but my presence will always be remembered by the impression I leave behind. I will relentlessly endure all circumstances and am amicable to conflicts. Part of my own growth is making that very statement public, as a generally quiet and humble person it can be a challenge to speak up, but I also believe in actions doing the talking, or in most cases, my legs. I can say it with conviction, under pressure, and when someone that truly knows me hears it they say “that is you”.
Be a rabbit
My legs did some talking, shouting if you count my green shorts, at The Marathon Project on December 20th, 2020, and at my own event, the Hardloop Endurance 50k Project just four weeks later. These two performances redefined who I’ve been known as in the running world and are labels I wholeheartedly embrace.
I am a rabbit.
I am the Canadian 50k Record Holder.
I am new this year to the rabbit family, joining the rabbit ELITE team in May 2020 as “stroller dad” and other notable performances in everything from the mile to ultramarathon on all terrains over 33 years of running. I took the new role personally and through a lot of hard work, and some luck, found myself as the rock on Sara Hall’s shoulder as she ran the second-fastest time of any American woman, running 2:20:32 in the marathon. Rabbit founders, Monica and Jill, brought tears of fulfillment to my eyes as they celebrated the performance “THIS is why we started the brand.”
For those who wonder, this is how rabbit got its name. A rabbit is the pacesetter in a race. Rabbits make racing faster and more interesting by keeping the pace honest up front. Rabbits have contributed to countless records at every level of the sport, providing the spark that has ignited many of the most memorable performances in running history, today included. Rabbits don’t get much of the glory, but they do it because they love running.
I had set aside over three months of training, dedicated to being able to run, comfortably, under the 2:19:36 American Record by Deena Kastor with Sara in tow. Over a minute faster than my own personal best time of 2:20:44 set only a year earlier at the Canadian Olympic Trials. The confidence to know I could do something I had never done came in training. Workouts and long runs allowed my legs to do the talking and with some luck, Sara and her team took a chance on me. At the end of the day, Sara had never run that fast for that long either. We were in it together and with my focus entirely external it allowed me to get out of my own way and execute one of the most comfortable marathons I have ever run, seven seconds faster than my best.
Bittersweet to run my best but know I had not ‘gone to the well’, maybe that was the secret all along. The limit was not yet realized and I knew I had to roll over my fitness to a long-standing dream, the Canadian 50k Record. I used a week of recovery riding my bike, usually with kids in tow, and a highly accurate device installed on the front tire to measure and submit certification for my own official racecourse, as well as assemble all the requirements for an official micro-event record attempt amidst a pandemic. It was a blur of four weeks scrambling to be race director, coach to half of 18 invited athletes, daily work (I have a full-time job), be a functioning member of my family, and on the wayside continue to train.
Skip ahead to 200m into the race, all the weights of my world were lifted and I was suddenly an athlete again - dropped right behind three of my very own pacers. I had not even warmed up and barely thought about my very own race until that point. Again, my external focus appeared to be the formula for success. I had even given the starting line to the women, ushering them from the habitual back “ladies first”, it was as much their day too. Unlike my boisterous presence at The Marathon Project, coaching and cheering Hall’s every step, this time I was silent. We eased into the first of eleven loops with calming reassurances from my one and only training partner during the pandemic.
My rabbits for the day, Drew, J.P, and Jarrett, were also official participants in the 50k (a rule requirement) and would go as long as possible before dropping out (or finishing) at which point they can not re-join me even if I lap them. After 10 miles Drew had finished his run but not his cheering duties for the day and appropriately ramped the energy over the course of my run, from low to level 11 on the final loop. J.P. pulled us through half marathon in 1h11m, Jarrett (a sub-4-minute miler and 2:12 marathoner) hung in one more mile after splitting 2h22m through the marathon, officially becoming an ultra runner.
The final miles were down to me, a few minutes ahead of the record pace, I didn’t have to do anything more than what I was doing. This is an important step to remaining in the moment - if your last mile split, or even as micro-focused as your last step was a good one, just do that, over and over. When you look at an event as a whole, especially an ultra marathon, it’s an arduous task ahead of you, but breaking it into its parts makes it manageable. Fortunately, by design, this course was easy to break down with ten loops of roughly three miles, constant access to hydration, and a final victory lap of a 1200m short loop. I knew I would be alone in those final sections but would have all the support of the few (due to pandemic protocols) volunteers, seeing other athletes on their final loops, and most importantly family.
I was first met by my three-year-old, Maya, side-blinded by a running hug as I tried to remain on my feet. Closely followed by my niece Lyla, two more daughters, Aley and Holland, and my wife Julie. 2h 51m 27s was on the clock, a new Canadian 50k Record by two minutes. Over the next half hour, I watched my athletes pouring in with personal best after personal best, first-time sub-three-hour marathoners, new ultra runners, and the 50k women - Sarah Cummings (3:19), Elizabeth Northern (3:19), Chelseas Barr (3:24), and Sarah Rabourn (3:25) with the fastest four times on the 2021 Team USA 50k qualifying list ahead of big names Camille Herron and Devon Yanko. An incredible day.
Ultra Running History
I later came to find out that the record set by Andy Jones in 1991 was completed less than a half-mile from my own record at the “Houston Ultramarathon”. He had actually split that en route to a blow-up in the 50-mile distance where the great Ann Trason broke the 50mi World Record that day in 5h40m. The historic article, resurfaced by my chief athlete services volunteer extraordinaire, Ed Fry, was written by famed Barkley Marathon race director, Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake. Titled “A Hot Day in the Sun for Ann Trason” it tells the story of Jones leading the race through 40 miles in 3h45m and then “going, going, gone” before being carried off the infield of a two-mile loop. Breaking this record increased my respect for the sport and lit a fire for me as an athlete. Learning the stories of the true legends sets my sights bigger for the future of someone I want to be.
Tips and Takeaways:
External Focus: Running for someone or something else gives greater purpose and allows you to get out of your own way. When the going gets tough it can be easy to negotiate with yourself out of the discomfort, but not when someone else is involved.
Personal Philosophy: Develop your own foundation. Start by thinking of the greatest influencers in your life. What are the characteristics you admire, what are some of your own, and reduce it down to three before forming it into a defining statement-- something real, something can you feel.
Stay in the Moment: Don’t get ahead of yourself, thinking how discomfort will exponentially increase (it almost never does), and stay present. Focus on what you are doing well and keep doing that.
Perspective: It’s easy to fall trap to lower standards and stale motivation when you don’t look outside of your own bubble. What are runners doing in other parts of the world, what did they do in decades past? Incredible things can happen when you broaden your scope of what is possible.
I want to hear your own defining stories, even just a picture of the stickers on your car. Feel free to reach out to me on social media @CalNeff