Date: 4 April 2015
On a recent trip to South Africa to catch up with family and friends, we grabbed the opportunity to take part in the Two Oceans (ultra) marathon, aside from the world famous Comrades Marathon probably the premier ultra marathon in the country. Twelve years ago (2003) was our previous running of “the world’s most beautiful marathon”, when due to some or other natural mishap (and road works to prevent rock falls) the course could not follow the usual route over Chapman’s Peak. It had to be diverted over Ou Kaapseweg (loosely translated as Old Cape Road). We call it Ou Kakseweg (Old Shits Road), because it is terribly hilly, crossing over the Muizenberg Mountains from south-west to north-east. All these years we’ve always felt like we had unfinished business and thought this would be a good opportunity to finally experience the official course over Chapman’s Peak. Described on Wikipedia the course looks like this: “The Ultra Marathon follows a more or less circular route through Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, over Chapman’s Peak, through Hout Bay and Constantia Nek, and eventually finishes at the University of Cape Town campus. On occasions when Chapman’s Peak Drive has been closed due to construction or rock falls, the Ultra Marathon has followed an alternate route over Ou Kaapse Weg“.
After 37 hours in airports and on planes, we arrived at Johannesburg International without luggage. Not off on a very good start, but luckily our stuff was delivered from Sydney two days later. By this time, jet lagged, in the opposite timezone and exhausted, we had given up on any thoughts of going for a run or two in the week leading up to the event. Actually we might have felt better for doing it, but we just couldn’t find the energy to step out the door. We were just happy that our running gear arrived. Imagine having to go last minute shoe shopping for an ultra marathon!
And then more bad news was broken: Two Oceans would have to be diverted yet again this year due to the recent veld fires, making Chapman’s Peak too dangerous with rock falls. Gutted, we started our 2000 km drive from the northern parts of the country in my mother-in-law’s car towards Cape Town far south, with stops and visits to family en route, stretching out the trip over four days.
We managed by fluke to find a lovely en suite room in a backpackers only 1km from the start of the race. This is completely unheard of as most accommodation is usually booked out months in advance. Luckily for us, we’ve realised long ago that South Africans aren’t a “backpackers” culture and the hostels you do get are usually from the odd traveller or foreigner who made South Africa their home. We’ve stayed in really awesome (sometimes off the beaten track) backpacker hostels in SA over the years. It’s usually not so overcrowded and you for the most part only find foreigners there, always making for some interesting conversations.
We met up with friends at Fish Hoek for a pre-race meal at one of the eateries that are on the course, at about the 17km mark. We contemplated how we might feel the next day when passing through there again on foot, and celebrated the prospect with a local brew.
Admittedly we were rather exhausted from all the travelling, catching up with lots of people, sleeping in a different place each night, the odd over-indulgence, too much food and no running in the week leading up to the race. I slept like a baby for a few hours. Gerry not so much and by 4 in the morning, our fellow backpackers were rearing to go, warming up, chatting and having breakfast. These were mostly black Africans who, more often than not, have the ability to run at a four minute pace when doing an easy run. These are the runners that can run a silver Two Oceans, one of the most difficult silver medals over an ultra distance.
We strolled to the start which was surprisingly warm. Maybe I have started to acclimatise after all. With only a T-shirt and shorts we made our way to our starting block E. With 16 000 participants in the half marathon and also a full house of 11 000 on the ultra, we were quickly reminded of a running past that we had almost forgotten. The number of runners are unfathomable if you’re not used to it. We found our block and with 30 minutes to the gun, we could soak up the hustle and bustle, music blaring over the PA system, TV crews, spot lights in the still dark early morning, chatter and laughter, just be absorbed in the moment, while all along I was still in a haze about what was happening and what lay ahead. Quite a nice headspace to be in when the distance ahead don’t scare you too much, you’ve made peace with just making the cut-off and can go out with no other intention than to enjoy yourself.
The half marathon runners were set off first in three batches, 10 minutes apart and the last batch 20 minutes ahead of us. As the starting time drew closer, the dividers between the starting blocks were removed and we could bunch/huddle up even more. Some stats were given in terms if the amount of foreigners (about 1000), the anthem was played, and next thing the horn sounded for the start of the run.
Needless to say, it took quite a few minutes of slowly moving forward before we finally reached the start line. Obviously the faster runners with better qualifying times, were better seeded in the front. To be in block A, you had to run a marathon in under 3:00. Block B hosted the 3:30 or faster marathon runners, Block C is reserved for the permanent numbers runners (those who have done 10 or more Two Oceans) as well as runners with a sub-4 hour qualifier, Block D had the 4:00 to 4:15 qualifiers and all the others ended up in Block E.
We took off on a slow trot with thousands of other runners, shoulder to shoulder, following in each other’s footsteps. A snake of runners making their way through the shopping districts of Newlands and Claremont. The dark sky started to give way to a cloudy early morning, with cheers from supporters and chatter from fellow runners. Like one organism we were moving through the streets – a river of bobbing heads, almost enough to cause motion sickness.
At about 7km it started to drizzle. It was a warm drizzle and I wasn’t sorry for leaving my warm/dry layer at home. We still thought of taking a pic as the river of runners was sure to fizzle out at some point. But don’t be fooled – up until the end, we were running in this stream of runners. Quite unimaginable. The rain stopped after a few kilometres, and started again later on in the race.
Around the 12km point, we reached the start of a roadworks area. This seems to be a constant throughout South Africa. Wherever we travelled the roads were terribly potholed, especially in the small towns, and roadworks (which in some places has been going on for at least 10 years along the same 700km stretch…) are the order of the day. The two lanes became only one and we were once more huddled up to a tighter bunch. By 13kms we reached the first of the two oceans, the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately due to the route change we never got to the second (Atlantic) ocean making this in actual fact the One Ocean run.
Turning inland at about the 21km point, we made our way though the suburb of Fish Hoek until we reached the bottom end of Ou Kaapseweg where we were treated to salty, boiled young potatoes. My absolute favourite on long runs. This is also where the 7km uphill challenge starts. Luckily after about 3km you get a wee break in the dreadful uphill section for a couple of 100 metres before tackling the next 4km uphill stretch.
It was on this uphill stretch that we were reminded again of the wonderful thing that I can only associate with African running – “the bus”. It usually starts with a “bus driver” who would start singing and chanting songs of encouragement when the going gets tough to help everybody along. Everybody they pass would “hop on the bus” and try to tag along. We encountered one of these on this uphill section. A bus of Xhosas and Zulus drove us over Ou Kaapseweg with the rhythmic clicking of tongues, chanting words like “easy” and “yebo”, whistling and making all sorts of sounds. Every now and again when passing someone who looks like they are struggling, someone from the bus would encourage him/her to take a place on the bus and join in the concerted effort. We followed steadily in the rhythm and the sound of the footfall of a bunch of runners, while slowly snaking up the mountain.
Although the mountain was black and burned down and probably not as pretty as could be, this was by far the highlight of the run for me. The thing that makes running in Africa so special, the masses, being part of the “buses”. Beautiful views over Cape Town city added to the experience.
We reached the top at about 32.5km, whereafter we fell off the bus. The 5km downhill was just too steep and jarring for my knees and I had to walk long stretches to get to the bottom. Fire lilies were in bloom – beautiful fire engine red flowers that are usually in bloom about two weeks after a veld fire, when only the bare black soil is left over. Such a pretty sight.
We linked up with another bus and thought we could stick with them, hoping to leave all the thinking of pacing to someone else, when we realised they might be going too slow to make the cut-off. At some point another black guy caught up from behind, trying to pass the huge bundle of runners, when he jokingly commented “Are you all on Africa time here!?”.
After leaving them we realised we had to pick up the pace a little as this bus was taking too many walk breaks. It was mainly overcast with the odd drizzle, but for the rest it was warmish. Until about 10km to go when it became increasingly more windy and cold. By the time we reached the stadium it was freezing. It could have been exhaustion, but I was almost hypothermic and shivering like a stick in a very cold wind. We made the finish with 7 minutes to spare, cold and exhausted.
Drink stations were ample (25 in total) and well stocked with water and Powerade in plastic sachets and Coke in cups. Bananas at a couple of spots, the boiled potatoes at Ou Kaapseweg and Bar-one chocolates at about 50km were handed out on the course. We took with our trusty Tasti Snak Logs to share at 20 and 40km. A couple of bands, including the Kaapse Klopse performed at various spots on the course, especially in the second half. Quite a jolly affair.
To be honest, all things considered I was a little disappointed with the whole outing. The route change (again), the roadworks wasn’t a pretty sight and running through the suburbs of mostly rich folk, honestly doesn’t qualify as “the world’s most beautiful marathon”, for me. When a burned down mountain becomes the prettiest and nicest part of the run, you know you’ve been duped by the marketing hype.
I strongly doubt we’ll do this again. We’ve lived the “African experience” for many years, so nothing new there. But if you’ve never been to Africa, it might be worth your while to do this event? Having said that, so would walking Mt Kilimanjaro, watching the wildlife migration in the Serengeti, or tramping the Fish River Canyon. The Two Oceans, for me, is neither here not there. Just another ordinary run, albeit amidst thousands of others, on the African continent, which could be a new experience if you’ve never done it before. The organisation is superb, no visible glitches, and the expo was fantastic, although parking was an issue here and at the event. But don’t take my word for any of this. I was probably not in a good place to start off with. So why not experience it for yourself. 🙂