The Two Oceans Marathon started out as a punishment. Not in the usual ‘course versus runner’ kind of way, but rather as a penalty I imposed upon myself for failing to achieve what I trained for in the 2016 Edinburgh Marathon.
My time in Edinburgh meant that I missed out on qualifying for a place in the 2017 London Marathon by 14 seconds. Those 14 seconds that cost me a place in London (which I was understandably disappointed about at the time) are now something I am grateful for and are an example of how our perceived ‘failures’ can sometimes lead us to success in areas that we may never have ventured into otherwise.
On this occasion, the alternative to running London in April 2017 was to enter my first ultra, which would also be my first hilly race. It seems strange that almost a year later, I am grateful for those 14 seconds – such a short period of time that lead me to bigger (as in distance and elevation) things; the 56km Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa.
Dubbed ‘the world’s most beautiful marathon’, Two Oceans initially began as a training run for those preparing for the gruelling Comrades Marathon. The first race, held in 1970, attracted a handful of participants, whereas today 11,000 runners line up for the ultra alone, with thousands more participating in the half marathon, trail run and fun runs that are held over the Easter weekend. The scenery en route is one of the event’s biggest draws, passing through the stunning Cape Peninsula with the hills of Chapman’s Peak and Constantia Nek being the two main challenges.
Conveniently, the start in Newlands and the finish at the University of Cape Town are relatively close together, making logistics much easier for runners and supporters alike. The 56km (35 miles) ultra run has a 7-hour cut-off, with different medals awarded according to finishing times.
Preparations had gone well in the months prior to the race, including a training run of 50km (my first tentative steps over the marathon distance) and numerous trips to the Hatta mountains, some ninety minutes from Dubai. I arrived at the start line with 960km in my legs since the start of the year, confident that I had done enough to finish but unsure as to what my potential was. The distance alone was not the issue, but the fact that there were two major climbs, one starting at the marathon mark, which made me unsure as to how fast I could start without running into problems later on and sacrificing what could be an acceptable time.
The advice for marathons is to try to run negative splits, when the first half of the race is run slower than the second half, but for Two Oceans, all expert opinion seemed to point to the opposite – run the first half slightly faster, as the second half will be slower due to the most challenging sections being in the back end of the race. Although this was unnatural to me, I accepted it. The question was, where was the line between heading out ‘fast enough’ and ‘too fast’?
As the rousing Shosholoza began and my shaking hands battled to untie a huge knot that I had somehow created in my shoe laces, I was soon to discover that, in the first 5km at least, there would be no risk of running too fast. Shoe laces sorted and the gun fired, it seemed to take an eternity to get to the start line (this race is gun to mat timing, so the time taken to cross the start line is included in your overall time), and even longer to complete the first kilometre. In fact, due to the narrow streets and hoards of runners, the first kilometre unfolded in a staggering 7:43 – my slowest kilometre of the entire race! As I struggled to pass other runners, my pace gradually improved as the sun rose and the crowds grew thinner. Now it was time to settle into a rhythm.
Getting To Half Way
The first 90 minutes passed effortlessly, and I barely noticed that the time had gone by. I tried to avoid the cats’ eyes in the road after witnessing one unfortunate gentleman trip and fall right in front of me and concentrated on taking advantage of the downhill and flat sections whilst remaining steady on the slight uphills.
The route here was undulating and passed through the charming suburbs of Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek. Support was phenomenal all the way around and because participant names were printed on bibs, spectators could actually cheer for you personally, which was a huge boost! I passed through 28km in 2:28 and was relieved to still feel fresh. With Chapman’s Peak now imminent, the hard work was about to begin.
In preparing for a race, I always try to research the course and find something that I can at least try to enjoy about the more difficult sections. With Chapman’s Peak, it was the scenery.
Perhaps it was my heightened senses, but the ocean seemed to be the kind of blue that only appears in photoshopped images, the waves crashing onto the wild expanse of Noordhoek Beach simply mind blowing. If Mother Nature was ever to create a visual kind of pain relief, this would be it.
The incline itself, although long, was not as steep as I had anticipated, and I found that I could run up it with ease, constantly looking to the left and taking in this incredible experience, this wonderful feeling of being at one with everything around me and appreciating the simple beauty of land and sea.
Before too long, I was greeted by a brass band at the top, and it was time to make the knee shattering, quad quivering descent that I had previously been warned about.
One of the most common mistakes made by runners during Two Oceans, both elite and non-elite, is hammering the downhill of Chapman’s Peak in the hope of making up for time lost on the ascent. This would be fine if the race finished at the marathon mark, but it doesn’t. As soon as you’re at the bottom, the major climb up Constantia Nek begins, and legs that have been thrashed on the downhill will not take to this kindly.It was, therefore, my aim to take the Chapman’s Peak descent gently. Things were going so well that I didn’t want to ruin my race (or my mood) by being careless. Despite this, I could still feel my quads screaming at me as I made my way down the peak, and it became something that I really began to worry about. I distracted myself once again by taking in the views and concentrating on getting to the marathon point. Fortunately, a strong headwind also helped me to control the pace.
Reaching the marathon mark in 3:47 was an incredible psychological boost. Although I had 14km to go, including the steepest part of the course, I was given mental strength by the knowledge that just one year ago my marathon PB on a flat course was 3:48. Here I was, on hills, running a marathon slightly faster whilst still having enough energy to finish strong. My fuelling was going as planned, taking gels every 10km, eating the odd handful of jelly beans, remaining hydrated and sipping on Coca-Cola occasionally from 28km. I felt confident about the climb up Constantia and from there, I told myself, it was just 10km of mostly downhill to the finish.
Again, support was strong up Constantia Nek, and I looked forward to my ‘treat’ of a couple of walk breaks. As soon as I felt that I was wasting energy by running (i.e. when walkers were close to overtaking me), I walked for 50-100 metres and then ran for two minutes. I did this three or four times, and the walk breaks gave me a chance to drink properly whilst offering respite to my muscles. Approaching the climb in this way also broke it up into manageable sections, although I did ask on two occasions how far was left to the top. Each time, the reply came back, “1 kilometre”!
I passed a dog rescue centre and thought of my own rescue dogs, Buster and Polly. The final stretch of the climb was dedicated to them.
Finally, with the summit in sight and crowds particularly large and noisy, I couldn’t help but let out a few tears of happiness and relief. The hard part was over, and I just had to hold on for the final 10km. Any emotion I felt had to be reined in, however, as my breathing became quite erratic, which is not what you want at any stage of a run, let alone on the final climb of a hill.
10km To Go
The road then lead us through beautiful forest land, with the trees offering fantastic shade from the late morning sun. It was on this downhill section that I sped up, completing one kilometre in 4:30 and another in 4:40. Although I had increased my speed and felt strong, when I passed the 50km mark in 4:33 it became clear that a sub-five hour time (and Sainsbury medal) was pretty much impossible. I had not set out with this goal in mind but had thought about it at various stages during the run. At this point 5:15 was my goal, which I was more than happy with.
The camber of the road was brutal on tired legs, as were the numerous twists and turns. I found myself drifting towards the cats’ eyes, and made a point of running as far away from them as possible. This meant I was drifting all over the place, undoubtedly adding seconds on to my time, but there was no way I wanted to trip now.
To The Finish
Out of the forest, there was more climbing to be done in the form of Chet’s Hill and the turn into the finish. Although I had read about these, I hadn’t expected them to be so energy sapping, long or steep. Upon reflection, I don’t think they were actually that bad but just seemed so at the end of a long, challenging run. I stopped at a water station for a good swig of water in the last kilometre – clearly, by this point I wasn’t thinking straight! I knew that I was on for a time under 5 hours 10 minutes, and I just didn’t want to charge my way to the finish line, especially with Comrades coming up only seven weeks later.
When I saw the finish area from the road, I spoke out loud, “it’s there!” and before I knew it I was running on the grass of the UCT field, feeling empowered by the crowd and the fact that I had achieved a time that was beyond my expectations. Finishing in 5:06, I was surprised to find that I felt no worse than at the end of a marathon, meaning that I had paced myself correctly. I stayed afterwards to watch the cut-off, feeling heartbroken for the people who had been out running for seven hours, but who just missed out on a medal by seconds or minutes.
Two Oceans is an incredibly well-organised event that I would highly recommend, particularly if you’re aiming for your first ultra, like me. The beautiful vistas offered by the route combined with the vibrant support and plentiful aid stations make it easy to see why the race has evolved from a Comrades training run to an event in its own right.
What started out as a punishment for me became an absolute joy. To think it all started with those 14 seconds…