Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Two Oceans (Ultra) Marathon Easter Weekend

View from Chapman's Peak around 32km (I think)

Noordhoek beach, just before running up Chapman's Peak

The 18km trail run

Finishing the 18km trail run with Dave Pearse

Great views on Table Mt with Helen, Gwen and Dave in the trail run

More trail run shots

Trail running again

The finish line of the trail and ultra runs

La Med bar with sunset reddening Table Mt

Often windy in Cape Town

Expo fun with too many free hair products

There are many, many races on my ‘must-do’ list, but one which I’d been particularly looking forward to since I first heard about it is the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa. As is clear from previous postings about Comrades, I’m a big fan of the venerable and huge Saffer races and Two Oceans has a great history of 40 years (this year was number 41 and one guy was racking up his 40th finish). It isn’t quite as big as Comrades but still had over 8,000 ultra runners, plus around 10,000 running the relatively new half marathon course instead.

As with Comrades, the race has different medals for different times, giving a huge incentive for runners to speed up if they’re close to a medal cut-off. These cut-offs are at each hour from four hours to the final cut at seven hours – four hours is a silver medal, five is a Sainsbury medal (named after a previous winner), six is bronze and seven is blue. The top 10 men and women get gold medals, just as with Comrades. But since the race is a fair bit shorter, at 56km (35 miles) instead of 89km (55.5 miles), it’s not nearly so taxing on the body.

Another big similarity is the named, famous hills in the race. In this case it’s just two major hills, peaking at 34km (Chapman’s Peak) and 46km (Constantia Nek), but they are enough to slow you down considerably and to throw off your pacing for a particular medal. The generally acknowledged wisdom is that you need to be ahead of your desired pace at half way to allow for fatigue and the final hill.

There are only a few things I knew about the race in advance, but these were enough to excite me. Firstly, the Comrades-esque style of the race with medals, hills etc and that the silver medal is a lot harder to achieve than at Comrades. Secondly, that it’s a stunningly beautiful course. And thirdly, that it runs along the coastline of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, which give it the name. However, it seems the actual meeting point on the coast is really Cape Agulhas, which is further east, so the eastern side is technically still the Atlantic. But that’s like fussing over the magnetic or true poles and doesn’t alter how special the race is.

When I arrived in Cape Town I have to admit I didn’t know much about the city either, except that Table Mountain is in the middle of the city. I didn’t realise just how beautiful the entire city is, especially when viewed from the Mountain or from Lion’s Head peak to the north-west. I was staying with my friend, Dave Pearse, again after having enjoyed his hospitality in Durban for the previous two Comrades. It was helpful to have a local to show me around and to appreciate the great lifestyle that the locals live, thanks to their incredible location.

As well as enjoying the area’s restaurants, bars and general scenery, I’d agreed to do the 18km trail race on Good Friday, which uses Table Mountain to great effect. The month of March had been one of high mileage and a lot of tough races for me so I came to Two Oceans with the aim of just enjoying myself and not facing much racing pressure (although I wanted a silver medal still for sub four hours). The trail race the day before the main event fitted in with this philosophy and led to some jaw-dropping views in the early morning sun.

I took it easy with Durbanites Helen Lucre and Dave as well as one of their Capetonian friends, Gwen van Lingen. We took almost three hours to get round the course, partly due to starting far back and being in single file through the narrow trails, but this easier pace certainly suited me. It wasn’t quite as relaxing for Gwen (and maybe Helen too) given she’s a former Olympian and captain of the South African women’s Olympic team (Helen is a mere triple winner of Comrades...). Both ladies have also won Two Oceans, in impressive times of 3h41m (Gwen) and 3h49m (Helen...note that time for later on). One thing you certainly notice quickly is that Saffers don’t take any crap and always say what they think. I’m sure lots of people are offended but it’s fun to get away from the overly-PC western world sometimes. Mind you, the way I’ve just worded that was very inoffensive, while I could have put it more rudely. It was certainly a pleasure to run with the three of them and it’s always inspiring to talk to athletes who’ve got to a top level.

The trail run was a massive photo shoot for me and I couldn’t stop taking photos given the views. It really got me in the mood for the main race, although the 6:25am start wasn’t quite as appealing. At least it’s almost an hour later than Comrades starts and is also 25 minutes after the gun goes for the half marathoners.

The start feels very much like Comrades as it’s pre-dawn and there are so many people around, with seeding pens too. A sub three-hour marathon gets into the first pen, ‘A’, and it felt relaxed as there was more space in it than I’m used to. Even though only gun times exist in order to make the cut-offs for medals exact, Championchips are used to give accurate and efficient timing. So in the few minutes before the race started, the ‘B’ pen athletes are allowed to move forward and quickly push right up. The start was delayed five minutes to allow the half marathoners to clear the part of the ultra course they use. Mining songs and the national anthem are played, but it doesn’t feel quite as magical as Comrades. Very close, but the best way to describe it all is like a ‘Mini-Me’ version of Comrades – less people, shorter and less intimidating. That’s partly due to the race being used as training for Comrades for many runners and also that it’s newer and has fewer runners. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still got a great atmosphere and blows away any normal city marathon except Boston. It also has better scenery than Comrades, although the first 16km is fairly average as you run to the first coastline.

When the gun finally went off, it had started drizzling but this soon stopped and it was refreshing in the surprising morning warmth. The start was even more like a stampede than Comrades. Runners with ‘B’ and ‘C’ seedings zoomed off into the distance as if it was a 10k race. I managed to resist the temptation to go too fast and stuck around my target pace of just over four-minute kms. The huge crowd of runners made the first kms fly by and this was the first time I used my heart rate monitor to stop me from exerting myself too hard. I wanted to stay well under my normal marathon heart rate so that it would all feel comfortable, even at the end. One day I’d like to race it all out, but 2010 was not the year I wanted to try it as other races are taking precedence.

The sun was up by the 10k marker and the course turned left after about 14ks and into a headwind. Cape Town hadn’t shown me much of its famous windiness up to this point and race day was really quite still, but the days afterwards showed just how blustery it can be and that could really upset your race strategy.

We soon hit the coast and had a pleasant run with great Ocean views. I’d run past a couple of groups of runners around the further back female gold medallists (called ‘buses’ in South Africa) and kept wanting to just sit on a bus but felt fine going faster so didn’t hang around with any of them long. For the first half marathon it’s almost completely flat and many people go much too fast as a result, trying to ‘bag’ a few minutes for the hills. I went through in 1h25m which seemed reasonable as it was only slightly above silver medal pace of 1h30m.

Things start to get more interesting from halfway at 28km as the first proper hill starts there. It climbs for about 2ks to Little Chappies, and then dips before ascending more steeply to 34km along the Chapman’s Peak scenic drive route. And it certainly is beautiful. Too many runners stuck to the inside to get a racing line but I made sure I was on the outside of the road so I could get a better view over the short wall by the cliff edge. Music dotted the route, either live or through speakers, and this helped boost the runners well. Many had started slowing much earlier and some were even walking this hill. The fact I was going strong gave me some confidence and also allowed me to fully take in the surroundings, which is something I often can’t fully appreciate when racing hard.

From 34km to the marathon mark was mainly downhill and fast. I’d been warned that going too hard is dangerous here as it tires the legs too much for later, but I just cruised down and was still able to gain a few minutes. There are more supporters around the 42.2km timing mat and the road is surrounded by trees and Cape Town’s specific brand of mountains. It would be a shame for anyone to not take these in, but by this point a lot of people were flagging. Supposedly there are a lot of marathon PBs as splits in the Two Oceans race, which sounds ridiculous, but the hill isn’t too high and having a downhill for the last 8ks of a marathon helps to negate the fatigue which can slow people down at that point.

The marathon mark also signals the start of the hardest part of the race, the steepest and biggest hill up Constantia Nek. It rises from sea level to around 220m (700ft) mainly over the 2.5ks to 46.5km. Most people were walking or jogging very slowly here, as would be expected. But because I had kept my effort level (and heart rate) down I had a good run up and got a lot of crowd support as a result. The hill never seems to end, but by this point in the race there are water tables every km, which means you barely go past one before you see the next. Most have water, Powerade and Coke, but a few have food. I’d done my homework and knew there was chocolate at the 46km table so looked forward to a reward for climbing the hill. I’d used up the two gels I’d decided to bring at 30km and 40km so the chocolate was my plan to get me in to the finish, which I expected to be 10ks of almost all downhill.

However, just a few minutes after peaking, the course heads up yet again in a hill I didn’t expect. That takes the runners to 50km before a few kms of steeper downhill, with a nasty camber. I went through the 50k split in 3h25m, which was a PB, but I’ve only ever done one 50k and it was a training run to pace for three-hour marathon pace, so if I didn’t beat it I’d have little chance of getting that silver.

Up to this point I’d felt much better than usual for a road race and it was good to feel like I could easily keep the pace up for longer than the required 56km. I’m almost tempted to do this more often, but I do already – most of my marathons are off pace, they just aren’t as pretty as around Cape Town. I’d highly recommend taking this course a little easy, since you need more energy for the later hills and it just makes the experience much more enjoyable. Once in a while, anyway.

I didn’t like the camber between 50km and about 53km, so tried running in the gutter so that my knees wouldn’t be strained. Then I saw the fourth placed woman ahead so sped up to catch her. Next was the third place lady, who was going a little faster. I checked my watch and saw that if I could go faster for the last 3km then I’d probably sneak in under Helen’s PB of 3h49m and that was more than enough incentive. As banter goes, saying that I sped up to beat her time was the ideal thing to do for the pub later (it’s a South African thing). I went for a big kick to the end and flew past the third lady and her bike camera crew (the whole race is on national television and she was the next gold medallist due to finish).

I’d sped up to around marathon pace and was overtaking a lot of people, even though they were very spaced out. It felt amazing to have so much energy left at the end, but the slight undulations did make it hard to sustain. The last 400m is on bumpy grass and that also made it energy-sapping to keep up, but when you can see the finish and the crowd’s cheering, the adrenaline comes to the fore. I finished in 3h48m14s with a negative split for the race. I’d expected to lose some time on the uphills, but the downhills had more than made up for it.

As I crossed the line I realised how much the silver medal meant to me. I’d been blasé about it in advance, but if I’d missed out I would have been dismayed and would have questioned my fitness. I didn’t need the sprint finish and it went against my plan to be conservative so that the previous month’s work wouldn’t be spoiled by a stupid muscle pull or overuse injury, but luckily I got away with it and the training benefit should help with Comrades.

I went to the tent by the finish for international runners and watched my local friends finish over the rest of the morning, as well as two other Londoners I knew, Angus Searcy and Cleo Oliver. All had a lot of fun and we foreigners enjoyed our first Two Oceans marathon. I’ll be back for this one, but it’s so far from the US that it may not be very often. A trip to Cape Town is an excellent holiday and I can’t think of a better race to add in while there (although they do have a few good ones in and around the city). There was only one thing left to do post-race, and that was to enjoy a few beers in the sun.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ian

    I wanted to send you an email you but couldn't find an "contact me" button on your blog, so I will use the comment function instead.

    Your blog is great - thanks for the detail you put into all your posts, I have really enjoyed reading it.

    I have a question relating to the Two Oceans in particular. I am travelling from the UK this year to run the Two Oceans. I am unsure as to the effect the long journey will have on me. I land in Cape Town late on Tuesday night, with 3 full days to race day (Wed, Thur, Fri). Is there anything you would recommend I could do to help me acclimatise etc as quickly as possible? And anything that can help me on race day? I am hoping for a silver medal (sub-4) but realistically will be happy with anything under 4:20.

    Any advice is much appreciated!