Two Oceans (A Love Letter To My Favourite Ultra)

[MARATHON #183 / 16th Two OCeans / 31 MARCH 2018]

South Africa hosts the two biggest (and greatest) ultra marathons in the world: Two Oceans and Comrades. I’ve been asked many times about the difference between the two. My philosophical view is that if you are a teenager in love, Two Oceans is the sweet, charming, beautiful girl that you should marry. Comrades is the girl that’s way out of your league but is malevolent enough to string you along, thinking you have a chance – only to break your heart (and your body) after crushing your spirit and ripping out your soul.

It’s got to be a special race when you’re this happy at 38km (and still have 18km – and Constantia Nek – to go).

The Romance

Growing up in Cape Town, Two Oceans was my “girl next door” – and it was as a teenager that I fell in love with her. I had just started high school at Rondebosch Boys and they asked for volunteers to hold up kilometre boards over the first 15km and man (or in my case “boy”) the last support table on the route. This seemed like a really good idea since I could support my Dad (The Old Running Mann) and we were told we could drink as much Coca-Cola as we liked on the day. In future years Rustenburg Girls School were invited to partner us at the table (which made the proposition even more attractive!).

Rondebosch Boys High School organises the last support table. 25 years ago I was handing out Cokes to runners. Rustenburg also assist at the table (they beat out Herschel & Bishops as the girls’ school to help the Bosch Boys out). Apparently SACS were also keen to host a table but lost interest when they realised “Coke distribution skills” referred to the drink.

Aside – On Chet Sainsbury, Placards & Small Touches: The late Chet Sainsbury earned the nickname Mr. Two Oceans. He was the race director for 30 years and transformed Two Oceans into the world-class event it is today. Chet was a master of attending to the small (but important) details that would make a difference to the running experience. One of these was holding up kilometre placard boards over the first 15km when it’s dark and congested – and most runners would not spot normal kilometre boards. And in case runners missed our placards, we were told to intermittently shout out the distance to make sure everyone knew how far they’d gone. This is one of the small “focus on the running experience” touches has sadly fallen away since Chet left the building.

The First Date

In 2002 I finally plucked up the courage to go on my first date with Two Oceans. I was 26 but, like a bashful and nervous teenager, had my Dad alongside to chaperone me around the course (and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid!). I thought he would be the one holding me back but it was the other way around as he guided me to a 5:53 bronze medal finish. I ran another two Two Oceans with my Dad before he hung up his running shoes (running with my Dad is not just a race but a lifetime highlight – memories that I will treasure forever).

In 2002 a nervous novice is chaperoned around his maiden Two Oceans by this Dad.

The Family Tree

The very first Two Oceans was held in 1970 – primarily as a long training run for Comrades – it cost 50c and attracted just 26 entrants. Over the years a half marathon, two trail runs and a number of other fun runs have been added to the event. This year there were 32,500 entrants for the various events, bringing an astounding R675 million into the local economy – not bad for a Comrades training run!

Two Oceans has a rich history – and you can read all about it at the expo.

Ultra entries are capped at 11,000 – with the limit being reached every year since 2013. Last year it took just six weeks for the 11,000 places to be filled and this year, much to the amazement of the running community, all 11,000 entries sold out in an unprecedented 48 hours.

Aside for foreign runners: Less than 10% (about 1,000) of the field are foreign runners. About a third of these are from neighbouring African countries and a significant portion of the rest are South African expats using the race as an excuse for a trip back home. If you want a unique running experience (in my opinion far superior to any of the world marathon majors or big city marathons that I’ve run), Two Oceans is a great and stylish way to tick an African marathon off the bucket list.

The Registry

Two Oceans hosts a world class 3-day expo at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) which also doubles as race registration. I flew down on the Friday and Ubered through to the expo. Reports had been coming through on my running club’s WhatsApp Group as well as on social media about the long and steadily growing queues.

Stage One: Queuing Chaos Outside the Building.

Sometimes big races get things wrong. Two weeks beforehand, the country’s 3rd largest ultra, Om Die Dam, severely tested their runners’ patience and loyalty with diabolical race day traffic issues. It was like Two Oceans saw this and said, “Hold my beer, wait until you see what we’ve got in store for our runners at registration.”

By lunchtime on Friday the queues were truly horrendous – with some runners having to wait almost 4 hours before registering (definitely not the ideal way to prepare for an ultra) and half marathoners were commenting that their race time the next day would be significantly shorter than the wait time to collect their number.

Stage Two: The Queuing Chaos Continues Inside.

An apology was quickly forthcoming but it won’t get back the hours that were wasted in the queue and, for many, this soured their event experience as well as the Two Oceans brand. The “word on the tweet” was that the same system was used for this year’s Argus Cycle Tour and the system failed abysmally there too. I thought blogger Julie Havercroft summed it up best on her “Highs and Lows of My Two Oceans Run” post: “Stick to what works and don’t try anything new on the day. This advice works for runners, and should work for management too.”

About a week after Two Oceans the General Manager position opened up. Looks like a good opportunity for someone with good time management skills to step-in and ensure registration is a lot slicker next year.

In 2019, it would be worthwhile considering allowing runners to get their race pack couriered to them (Om Die Dam has this option and it works really well) and/or have a second “low key” registration venue for people who just want to get their pack and don’t feel the need to expoliate (like the low-key registration venue at Comrades House, Pietermaritzburg vs. the big expo, long queue option in Durban). This might mean a few less people at the expo but would be putting the interests of the runners first (which I believe should always be the primary objective).

The Responsibilities

Two Oceans has had a long association with the colour Green. The title sponsor for the last 19 years has been Old Mutual – the green company – I would be surprised if there is any other major race in the world that’s retained their title sponsor for two decades. Last year the race became the first to introduce “yellow” and “red” cards for littering (with a red card resulting in disqualification).

This year the race faced the Cape Town water crisis head-on – no municipal water was used on race day and left-over water was donated to the SPCA. Runners were also given the opportunity to be self-sustaining over the route and special water refill stations were provided (although I did not see many people using the facility it may be something that grows in popularity in future years). In addition, a formal #GOGREEN waste management campaign has been in place for the last two years which converts all non-organic waste from the race into school desks.

One of the water refill stations for self-sustaining runners.

Friends With Benefits

Two Oceans rewards her devoted admirers with a permanent Blue Number after their 10th finish. A special touch from the organisers was that they allowed me to inherit my Dad’s Blue Number (704) in 2011 after my 10th consecutive run.

A proud moment as permanent number 704 is handed over from father to son. The lucky lady standing between us is Frith van der Merwe, probably the greatest female ultra runner South Africa has produced. In 1989 she set the record at Two Oceans and Comrades (down run) – both of which still stand.

There are plenty of Blue Number benefits but this year the best was that they function like blue lights on the highway – you get to flash your Blue Number and skip the gridlock to go straight to the front of the queue. There is also a special “business class” registration section waiting for you inside and, after you’re all expoed out, you can relax with a complimentary cup of coffee and confectionery at the Blue Number Club.

A couple of good reasons to run Two Oceans ten times: Business class registration and complimentary confectionery for Blue Number Club members.

The Retirement Village

My mom still lives in Cape Town and has recently moved into a retirement village. After being dropped off at the gate I headed to her unit. As I walked briskly past some doddery old codger, he gave me an envious onceover and remarked, “We don’t often see such speed around here!” To which I replied, “Don’t worry, by this time tomorrow I’ll fit right in, hobbling around just like everyone else!”

The Arrival Of The Popular Step-Sister

Race morning of the 49th Two Oceans arrived and I strolled towards the start line in Newlands Main Road (a stone’s throw from the famous rugby and cricket grounds) looking forward to my 16th date with my favourite ultra.

Race day logistics are easy – this is the bag drop to get your stuff up the hill to the finish at UCT.

Several years ago, the move was made switch the half marathon to start first (at 6am) and the ultra 30 minutes later. This was to allow a longer cut-off for the half marathoners whilst ensuring that the half marathon back markers did not interfere with the leading ultra runners. It was quite a controversial change at the time because “the half was getting preference over the ultra”. In hindsight it was a good move, making the event more inclusive for the average runner.

The introduction of the half marathon in 1998 was controversial in itself – runners tend to be very change averse! The half marathon grew exponentially whilst ultra numbers kept shrinking – before long there were more runners in the half and still the ultra numbers kept dropping. The low point was 10 years ago in 2008, with just over 6,500 ultra runners – the lowest number of entrants since 1987. The old guard feared that their race was dwindling into obscurity whilst the sexy new cousin got all the attention and seemed to be favoured in decision-making.

At 16,000 entrants, the Two Oceans half marathon is the biggest in the county and, as far as I know, is the first and only road race in South Africa that has had to introduce ballot entries. I believe that there is a direct correlation between the growth of the half and subsequent upswing in ultra numbers – as each year a proportion of the half marathon field gets chronically infected with the running bug and graduates to ultra running in future years.

One universally popular change was the introduction of the Sainsbury Medal in 2006 for runners finishing between 4 and 5 hours. Here Don Rukanda proudly shows off his first Sainsbury medal. Don runs in a pink tutu (but the cameraman has tactfully cut this out of the photo).

A Bit More Quality Time Together

Whilst on the topic of controversies, the final one I’ll mention is the extension of cut-off times. Traditionally, the Two Oceans cut-off was 6 hours. Even if you’re fairly fast and fit, the 6-hour cut-off can be challenging – especially if you have an off day (my first Oceans was 5:53 off a 3:36 marathon qualifier). In 1998, the cut-off time was extended by 30 minutes and a special “blue medal” was introduced for runners who needed the additional time (although the old guard did not consider this an official finish). In 2000 the cut-off was further extended to 7 hours.

For overseas readers who’ve never witnessed an Oceans (or Comrades) cut-off, they are brutal: The official timekeeper stands on the finish line with his back to the runners (so he can’t be influenced by the drama going on behind him) and fires the cut-off gun exactly at the turn of the hour. You can be centimetres from the line but, if you haven’t crossed it when the gun fires, you get nothing – no medal, no official finish, no bragging rights. Your only consolation is that you can come back next year and try again.

As a runner, there is nothing more heart-breaking than knowing how much effort these runners have put in and the pain they’ve gone through over 7 hours (and in the case of Comrades 12 hours) only to come so close but still have nothing to show for it. A good test of ones humanity is to watch the video below of the 2014 cut-off – if you don’t tear up a little you’re a robot!

However, extending the cut-off time caused an uproar – once again from the vocal old guard who bemoaned that the organisers “were just chasing entry numbers”, “7 hours was far too easy” and that “you could basically walk it in that time” (I would be really impressed if anyone, other than a professional race walker, could walk the course in under 7 hours). The controversy quickly died down because a large proportion of the old guard would subsequently have got a few DNFs if it wasn’t for the extra hour and, once again, it made the event much more inclusive for the average runner. Usually over half the field comes in during the last hour (this year it was 51%) so once again you have to say it was a great move.

Feeling Blue

I never intended to be a beneficiary of the extra hour until I was “much older and slower” but in 2013 I broke my big toe (at my brother’s bachelor party – a long story for another time). After a one month taper I decided to start Two Oceans and would “see how it goes”. Two Oceans is a forgiving mistress – although she punished me severely for my disrespect over the course of a very long day, I managed to hobble around to add the first (and currently only) blue medal to my collection.

Medal Varietals & How To Earn Them: The top 10 finishers receive a gold medal. Everyone else receives a medal based on their finish time: Under 4 hours for silver, 5 hours for a Sainsbury (half silver, half bronze), 6 hours for a bronze and 7 hours for blue. The silver medal is arguably the hardest in the country to get – this year only 156 (just over 1% of the field) received this coveted medal. A female runner earning a silver medal is even rarer – because in most years all the ladies finishing under 4 hours are guaranteed a gold medal as a Top 10 finisher.

Mots Rantho displays one of only 156 silver medals awarded at Two Oceans 2018 after a 3h31m finish. Not bad for someone who works long hours supporting the production systems of a major bank. He was part of the victorious Rockies team that won the team prize – the first time in many years that a non-professional club has taken this trophy.

Waking Up Together

Two Oceans has seeding batches based on your best marathon time over the last year. This works really well to get a large field off with minimal congestion (except when lower seeded runners sneak their way into faster pens). Another privilege of being a blue number holder is that you get a “C” seeding regardless of your qualifying time.

Once jammed into the pens, the singing of Shosholoza and Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika gets one’s emotions going until the distinctive cry of the Cape fish horn rings out. The fish horn was traditionally used to signal the return of the fishing boats to harbour – and once a year it’s used to release another fleet of feet on a voyage around the Cape Peninsula.

The first start of the #OMTOM2018 Half Marathon.

Posted by Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon on Friday, 30 March 2018

The Curves

The first half of Two Oceans is really easy – which paradoxically makes the race really hard. Many a runner catches startline fever, gets pulled along by the other runners and thinks “this is my lucky day”. If you play it fast and loose over the first half of your date with Two Oceans, you’ll get to see her nasty side during the second. Every year there are stories of spectacular blow outs – and if you have the time, it’s fun to go through the detailed timing results to see which of your mates did the worst positive split.

If you play it fast and loose over the first half of your date with Two Oceans, you’ll get to see her nasty side during the second.

From First Kiss To Climax

The start is directly opposite a brewery – which always serves as a great motivator to me knowing what I have look forward to in around 6 hours time! One heads down Main Road through the southern suburbs of Claremont, Kenilworth, Wynberg, Plumstead, Bergvliet, Retreat and Lakeside*.

* When I was holding up kilometre boards as a schoolboy, the worst place to stand was Lakeside because you would get eaten alive by mosquitos and your arms would fall off holding up your placard while you waited for the back markers to pass.

Palm trees line the street as runners head through Bergvliet.

Just after 15km you reach Muizenburg and shortly thereafter gain sight of your first ocean. You hug the Indian Ocean all the way through St. James, Kalk Bay and Clovelly.

Who says you never see w(h)ales on the Indian Ocean side of Cape Town?

At Fish Hoek you say goodbye to Ocean #1, turning right towards Sun Valley and up your first real hill. I always find the short section through Sun Valley mentally challenging as you’re not quite a half-way but have to prepare your tiring legs for Chapman’s Peak (and your second ocean).

Can you still call it a garage band if there’s only one of you? This guy plays for us every year in Kalk Bay. Not sure what happened to the other half of the duo this year – perhaps an acrimonious split over where to store the lawnmower?

Chapman’s Peak is a tough climb of 180m over 5km of sheer beauty. Unless you are not fit enough (or running with a broken big toe) the climb is early enough in the courtship to enjoy what is without doubt one of the most scenic drives – and spectacular views – in the world. My personal favourite is looking down at the distant horse riders on Noordhoek beach. My camera phone does not come close to doing the views justice so, if you think you’ve seen better, run Two Oceans and then we can chat!

Priceless views on Chappies.

At the summit, a Cape Minstrel band celebrates your achievement with some jovial tunes and you can look forward to the long gentle downhill into Hout Bay. However, the most dangerous aspect of Chappies is still to come (one that has quite literally tripped-up many an unsuspecting runner): Killer cat’s-eyes! They are just the right height to cause spectacular wipe-outs as one is admiring the view (I personally witnessed three this year). One needs to tread very carefully to avoid getting a “one from the road” souvenir roastie!

At the top of Chappies a Cape Minstrel band celebrates your achievement.

At the bottom of Chappies you enter the Republic of Hout Bay – and if you’ve overextended yourself coming down, this is where the going gets tough (and the tough get going). I don’t know what 80s music icon Billy Ocean is doing these days but there would be a fantastic opportunity to relaunch his career with a live concert between Hout Bay and Constantia Nek next year – it would definitely be a once in a lifetime opportunity to run the Three Oceans: Indian, Atlantic and Billy.

The honeymoon period is now over and Two Oceans starts getting cranky – her bad mood starts simmering in Hout Bay and slowly escalates towards the marathon mark (a slow poison climb as the temperature rises and one heads away from the comfort of the cool sea breeze).

Every great love story needs a vindictive villain to try and drive a wedge between Romeo and his Juliet – and every great ultra needs a vicious hill after the marathon mark to make sure Romeo is worthy of his medal (and Juliet is worthy of hers!). Constantia Nek is as nasty as they get – a wild mood swing of 215m over 4km.

Once at the top the Nek, the crowd support is always a highlight – as is the annual ice-lolly from Ola.

Constantia Nek is a brutal 215m “wild mood swing” climb from 42-46km – but at the top you get a lolly to make you jolly!

You’ll hear the spectators scream, “It’s all downhill from here!” and you’ll wish it was true. Whilst there are some beautiful downhills to enjoy over the last 10km, there are still a couple of short but nasty climbs to contend with before you’ve conquered Oceans.

The lovely downhill towards Kirstenbosch.

A final peril awaits in the form of the cruel camber of Rhodes Drive – on tired legs this is a tough and painful challenge and many runners prefer to go off-road (and dodge pine cones) rather than contend with the camber. Rhodes might have fallen on the finish line (at the University of Cape Town) but he still enacts his revenge on Two Oceans ultra runners every year!

I met Ntsako at this year’s Potties Marathon (he’s one of the organisers). He took a few photos of me there – and I was able to return the favour on Rhodes Drive!

Once inside the University of Cape Town (UCT)  you get to enjoy a spectacular 300m finish straight over the rugby fields whilst wild, enthusiastic crowds of supporters cheer you on. Personally, I find this to be the best finish of any race in South Africa (I think the Comrades supporters are all clapped out by the time I come in!).

The finest finish straight in the country – just 300m to go.

After collecting a 16th medal and congratulating my fellow finishers (this year I was asked “Are you the crazy bastard who runs marathons all over the country?” – probably the sincerest compliment one can receive from a fellow ultra enthusiast!), I headed for the Blue Number Club where one can enjoy a great view of the finish area whilst enjoying some complimentary snacks and – most importantly – a free beer.

If you can’t wait until the finish for a beer just find a friend at the side of the road. I was thirsty and Shawn popped up at the right time (about 5km to go)!

Like any long-term relationship, there are going to be some small things that irritate and annoy. Sometimes this takes the form of complacency when special attention touches disappear over time. When I got my Blue Number an unexpected highlight was the ringing of a bell as you enter the Blue Number Club for the first time – and your fellow club members give a loud round of applause and welcome you into the club. This disappeared last year but hopefully it will be back to welcome next year’s Blue Number Club induction.

The After Action Satisfaction

Another thing that bugged many runners before this year’s race was that the club gazebo area was moved about a kilometre from the finish to the UCT cricket fields. Whilst writing this article, I did start to wonder how many Two Oceans you need to run before you become a change resistant member of “the old guard”. I still see myself as (and frequently behave like) a teenager (albeit in a veteran’s body) and am pleased to report that I kept an open mind until after the event!

On reflection, I think that this is another good change. The new club area (which includes a big screen with a live feed of the race) provides much more space than the cramped general finish area. In the past, only a few clubs’ gazebos had a direct view of the finish line – and those that did had their space constantly invaded by random spectators trying to glimpse their runners coming home. The new dedicated club area is a much more civilised option to enjoy a post-race beer and reminisce on the day’s proceedings with your club mates.

Relaxing in the club area and reminiscing on the race with the Fourways Division of the Blue Number Club (Kyle just joined so he didn’t know you only change out of your Fourways vest once the team photo is done!).

Renewing The Vows

For me Two Oceans is not a just a race, it’s a love affair. Some people marry their high school sweethearts – I would love to grow old with mine. Every long-term relationship has its ups and downs. Over 16 years we’ve both changed – I would like to think largely for the better.

Two Oceans is the race I’ve run more than any other – and I plan on keeping my annual date with her for as long as I can. Until the stage that I can no longer get it up (and over) Chappies and Constantia Nek, you can expect to find me at dawn outside a brewery in Newlands on Easter Saturday with ten thousand other infatuated runners.

About to enjoy some after action satisfaction – You’ll never go thirsty (or drink alone) at the Fourways gazebo. I’m already looking forward to next year’s date with Two Oceans.

#RunSouthAfrica #SupportSmallMarathons


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15 Replies to “Two Oceans (A Love Letter To My Favourite Ultra)”

  1. Thanks Stuart, enjoyed reading that. Looking forward to my first Comrades this year, the malaevolent girl who’s going to crush me. And yes, I know you’re not kidding!

    1. All the best for your first Comrades David – Comrades is the greatest ultra (although Two Oceans is my favourite). Comrades crushes everyone – but if it’s any consolation the first crushing is the easiest. From personal experience, a bit like having a cortisone injection into your eye. The first time is really terrible but at least there is a bit of a novelty factor, after that you know exactly what you’re in for!

  2. A brilliantly written account of a most beautiful race. Sadly this race has been badly named, I hate to disappoint you and tell you that you do not, at any point, see the Indian Ocean. You need to drive about 3 hours further south to see that. I guess the “One Ocean Twice Marathon” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

    1. A bit of poetic license I guess! I know most agree that the Oceans meet at Cape Agulhas (a good excuse to run Voet of Afrika Marathon – although you don’t see the Ocean on the race you can pop down the road and for a viewing). Might be able to argue that as water is fluid some Indian Ocean can be found in Muizenburg! Otherwise they’ll need to book Billy next year to avoid claims of false advertising!

  3. A great read!…as for knowing your oceans..we all know the real Two Oceans, as in Indian and Atlantic don’t split or meet anywhere near die Kaap…but who cares,right!lovely read

    1. A bit of poetic license I guess! I know most agree that the Oceans meet at Cape Agulhas (a good excuse to run Voet of Afrika Marathon – although you don’t see the Ocean on the race you can pop down the road and for a viewing). Might be able to argue that as water is fluid some Indian Ocean can be found in Muizenburg! Otherwise they’ll need to book Billy next year to avoid claims of false advertising!

  4. LOVE this very humorous article Stuart. Great to see you on the road always. Feeling privileged to feature in one of your photos too. 😉
    See you there again next year.

  5. Wow Stuart. I only found this article today and this truly is a love letter to the race. I ran my first TOM this year and fell in love. Going back next year! Maybe I will see you there.

    Greetings from Windhoek, Namibia

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