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I’m A Competitor: Bob Africa

A Q&A with KidRobot president and avid ultra-endurance athlete Bob Africa.

Bob Africa formerly worked for Pearl Izumi and Salomon, but now he runs a cool toy company. Photo: Morgan Hagar
Bob Africa formerly worked for Pearl Izumi and Salomon, but now he runs a cool toy company. Photo: Morgan Hagar

Bob Africa
40, President, Kidrobot
Boulder, Colo.

A year ago, Bob Africa was sidelined from knee surgery and on the verge of turning 40. After getting fit with four months of CrossFit Endurance and modest amounts of running and mountain biking, Africa set PRs in several running races and then placed second in Colorado’s grueling high-altitude Leadman competition, a series of five endurance races over a span of seven weeks this past summer — the Leadville Trail Marathon (4:04), Leadville Silver Rush 50-mile mountain bike race (4:34), Leadville 10K trail run (43:31), Leadville Trail 100-mile mountain bike race (7:56) and Leadville Trail 100-mile run (19:38). (He briefly set a new Leadman overall record of 36 hours, 57 minutes, 8 seconds, but it was broken an hour later by Travis Macy.) When he’s not training and racing, Africa runs Kidrobot, a company that creates limited-edition toys and apparel in collaboration with renowned artists and designers.

How and why did you decide to do Leadman?

I was with some friends on Christmas and we talked about what a fun challenge it would be to do the Leadville 100-mile bike and 100-mile trail run on back-to-back weekends. I’d just turned 40 and thought, “Why not do Leadman?” Work and life were super busy, and I never figured I’d have time to do it, let alone train, but it was actually somewhat of an escape. It wasn’t a midlife crisis, but a midlife reawakening. Sometimes the hardest thing is just signing up, but for me, once it’s on the calendar, it’s on.

How did you train?

I’d trained at CrossFit Roots in Boulder for a few years, but last winter I did their CrossFit Endurance program. It was phenomenal, completely different from anything I’d done. It was a running-based program, two days a week in the gym and two days a week doing high-intensity running on the track. The longest workout I did was mile repeats, but I got really fit. I went to the Spring Desert Ultra 25-miler in April to see what it would feel like. I hadn’t run more than 10 miles since June or July the year before and was coming off knee surgery, but I went out and had a great day and placed pretty well overall [fifth place, 3:32] and won the masters division and also beat my PR by 10 minutes. I kept thinking I was going to pop, but I felt great to be out racing again. I felt super strong the past 6-8 miles. For the first time ever, I was doing more quality workouts than quantity. But whatever I was doing, it was working.

How did you run so well with so few miles on your legs?

I was much stronger this year than in years past, but also the intensity of my workouts was much higher than in years past. I used to be one of those ultrarunners who would go out and grind around in the same gear and put four or five or six hours on my feet, but you beat yourself up doing that. I wish I would’ve have known 10-15 years ago what I know now because it’s all about quality, not quantity. I ran the Pearl Street Mile in 5:19 this summer. I haven’t run that fast in a decade.

How did you feel after finishing?

When I finished, I knew I had set the overall Leadman record and put time on Travis Macy, but I knew for sure he wouldn’t be more than 1:12 behind me and the record would be his. But really, to be able to crack the top 10 at the Leadville 100 and PR by almost 2 hours, and just nine months after having knee surgery, was just an awesome feeling. But the best thing was having Sophia [his 4-year-old daughter] at the finish line.

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What was your fueling strategy for the Leadman events?

I really changed my nutrition this year. Instead of doing what I always did, which was gels and real food sometimes, I took the Feed Zone Portables approach and used Skratch Labs products. I was kind of scoffing at it initially, but the last 20 miles on the bike, mixing the portables and normal gels, my stomach was perfect. And on the 100-mile run, I kept getting stronger and stronger the whole way. It definitely worked for me.

How did you get into trail running?

I ran track in high school, but I really came from a soccer and hockey background. I went to a boarding school that was pretty intense about athletics, so I ran the 400 and 800 during the track season just to stay fit for my other sports. When I moved to Boulder to go to college in 1991, I was built like a hockey player and weighed about 195 pounds. But I came to Boulder and got absorbed into this lifestyle and totally changed my point of view about everything, including my diet. And then I got really into climbing for about 10 years. I only started trail running to stay lean and have something to do on my rest days.

How did you evolve into doing ultra-distance runs?

My first running race of any kind was the Imogene Pass trail run in the mid-1990s. It’s down in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. It’s a 17-mile race that sends up up and over 13,000 feet. I went down there with a buddy, Brendan Kelleher, and we had no idea what we were doing. It was pouring rain when we arrived the night before, so we camped in the car at the local park. Police woke us up and told us we couldn’t camp there. Total rookies. Anyway, in the race, it sleeted and rained and I think I ran a decent time, but I got absolutely punished out there. I remember seeing Matt Carpenter for the first time go off the front – he was gone! That was amazing. It was a great experience, great, great time and I immediately wanted to go back. That’s when I caught the bug. We went back the next year and posted some solid times. Then after that, Leadville was always the thing I wanted to do. But then I did the Collegiate Peaks 50-miler and thought there was no way I could run 100 miles. But that’s how it starts, right?

Have you ever run a road marathon?

I have done one … in Annecy, France. I flew in to live there when I was working for Salomon and didn’t know it was happening the next day. It was a small, but full-on race. I think I ran 2:56, but I was crushed. I do want to run races like New York and Boston for the experience, but I honestly have no desire to try to train hard to run for a 2:45 or something like that.

What motivates you?

One of my greatest loves is singletrack trails and thin air in the high country. It’s all about getting out and enjoying the adventure, and that was my main focus for quite a few years. Running for hours out on the trails, that’s my couch.

You used to work for Pearl Izumi and before that Salomon. Do you miss the running shoe industry?

When I made the switch over to KidRobot I was worried about that. I think one of the reasons I did well in my previous jobs is because I was the consumer of those products. But I don’t miss talking about dual-density foam midsoles or moisture transfer or any of that. I’m still a fan of that stuff, but I’m also pretty simple. I still enjoy the products and enjoy talking to people about it, but I don’t miss being involved day-in and day-out.

What do you think about all of the growth in trail running?

The hype and how big it is and how much money and sponsorship is in the sport now is interesting. On one hand, it used to be that you’d be able to sign up for just about any race when you wanted to, but those days are over. You’ve got to really plan ahead, which is not really my forte with running events. Overall, I think the growth is good. It’s great to see the attention and the next generation come in and get involved. The challenge is that, as a sport, you want to resist the change, stay cool and go big at the same time, but you can’t. You’ve got to evolve. It’s a bigger community, but it’s still a pretty small community, too. The community will always there in trail running.

What did Leadman teach you?

At some point, it’s about the basics — your aerobic engine and your athletic ability — but it’s really what’s between your ears and your attitude that matters. I didn’t have high expectations of winning any event, but I did have high expectations of myself. I’m extremely competitive and can turn myself inside out and suffer for a long time. I always want to do the best I can without stressing about all of the other stuff. But, ultimately, it’s just the pureness of getting out there and enjoying it with good people.

What’s your favorite pig-out food?

Illegal Pete’s burrito shop in Boulder is my go-to staple for comfort food. My favorite is a chicken burrito, all-in with extra hot sauce and guacamole. They take good care of us there. Let’s just say they have a lot of Kid Robot product on their walls and we all have full bellies at lunchtime.

What advice can you pass on?

Have fun. It’s so easy to take it all so seriously and get too wrapped up in the training and racing. I don’t want to say I don’t get serious. When I pin on my number, it’s “game on,” no doubt about it.  Ultimately, it’s about the journey and it takes a lot of people—it takes a village—so enjoy every moment of it.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Competitor.