Cape Town Calling - A Race Report by Emmett Delaney
Cape Town Calling
Cape Town, South Africa, is at the southern tip of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. It was the perfect refueling point for ships making the long voyage from Western Europe to India and the Far East, leading Europeans to establish a permanent settlement there in 1652. Over the centuries It changed hands several times between Dutch, British and French powers, leading Cape Town to become a melting pot of African, Asian and European culture and history.
I spent much of my youth in Cape Town and this year a family reunion coincided with the 52nd running of The Two Oceans Ultra marathon (TOM), making it a “must-run” event and a chance to tick one off the bucket list. It gave me a chance to catch up with old friends, view some epic scenery and enjoy a taste of Cape Town’s hospitality.
The Two Oceans Ultra marathon and half marathon are run around the Cape Peninsula with the course along both the east (Indian Ocean) and west (Atlantic Ocean) shorelines. Established in 1970, TOM is 56km/35m long and with its mix of mountain and ocean is deservedly called the world’s most beautiful marathon. It is also the second largest Ultra marathon in the world with approx. 13,000 starters (the largest is Comrades, also in South Africa).
Packet pickup was two days before the race. Although we spent a long-time queueing, it was very interesting due to the mix of languages. I recognized a few words of Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and others. In a country with eleven official languages, this is not unusual. We each received two bibs – front and back, with our first names on. I saw the value of this during the race when so many people called my name out. It was fun to shop the Expo due to different brands and styles than we see in the USA.
In South Africa a runner requires a license to run a marathon and these are issued by running clubs, making membership in a club mandatory. International runners bypass this requirement by paying a premium. The clubs have a very strong presence with members paying annual dues. Runners are encouraged to race in their club colors. The clubs are tightly connected to the race organizers and there is a national body coordinating both. The running clubs had support tents along the race course, and hospitality tents at the finish.
On race day we got up at 2.15am. My girlfriend Alia stretched, fed and prepared me for the big day. My lifelong buddy Craig picked us up at 3.30 and showed us the ropes. We were in the start area around 4am and my wave was at 5.13am. It was thrilling to be here, a day long imagined. There was crackle in the air and the excitement was palpable. We were seeded into waves of about a thousand each, separated by two minutes. South Africa is a musical nation, and I was reminded of this while waiting for the start. There were several groups of runners dancing and singing traditional songs while warming up. I recalled when I lived here the frequent signing could occur anywhere, anytime. During the race itself I saw and heard pace groups singing too. It helps keeps the packs together.
The early start was to minimize the impact on local traffic as the roads were closed for the race. Starting in the dark had its downsides. Due to “load shedding” (scheduled power outages), street lamps were not working in some areas and we ran in complete darkness. Packed so close together and with a rough road surface in places, footing was tricky. I saw several runners stumble. The race is a huge local event and most of the course was lined with appreciative spectators.
We were near mile 10 before the sun rose over Muizenberg Beach. This lies on False Bay, on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula. This is the more protected and warmer side of the Cape. We ran past a golden harvest of beaches in the early light – Muizenberg, St. James, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek. The ocean spray was close, and I could hear waves breaking on the rocks. A few seagulls monitored our progress. I stopped several times along this section to take photos. A musical surprise here was all the employees from the local gas station dressed in uniform, dancing and singing for us. After Fish Hoek (M13) we turned west and ran about 4 miles across the peninsula to Noordehoek Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. This was about the halfway point of the course – all easy running behind us and nothing but big hills ahead of us. I ingested some aged endurolytes early in the race that did not sit well in my stomach, and I fought nausea most of the way. At this point I dropped from the 5.15 pace group, and slowed down, knowing that I would be pausing for photo stops. I missed their rhythmic singing and chanting.
Chapman’s Peak Drive (“Chappies”) is the photogenic capstone of the Two Oceans Marathon, a glorious panorama of ocean and rugged cliff scenes. It is a precipitous, narrow cliff road winding above the Atlantic Ocean. It has frequent rockslides and road closures with a long history of car, bike and pedestrian accidents. The road snakes around S curves with low safety walls on the ocean side and overhanging rocks on the cliff side adding to the drama. It was dreamlike to be here – despite driving this serpentine route many times, I had never run it. All so surreal. Due to the narrowness of the road and its general inaccessibility, there were no spectators here.
Once over Chapman’s Peak we had a long descent into Hout Bay and the roaring crowds restored our spirits. Hout Bay occurs around the 42km/26m marathon mark and is an intermediate zone before the big climb up Constantia Nek. It is about a 3mile climb and reminiscent of the Tour de France Alpine ascents. It got steeper as we climbed and was undoubtedly the toughest part of the course. Much of this was in the sun and we could feel the heat of the day upon us. No scenery to distract us. Crowds lined the road with low fences near the top to keep us apart. Most people strode this section and my power walking was put to work. Many people cheered me by name along here. I didn’t recognize them and initially thought my age is showing, but then I realized having my name writ large on my bibs was the cue for them. At the top (M29) we passed through an arch and swooped down the far side.
I had intermittent cramps and nausea during the descent and could not make full use of the easy running. We ran about 6 miles to the finish – mostly downhill but with a few short climbs thrown in for fun. We finished on the University of Cape Town grounds with the slopes of the iconic Table Mountain forming the backdrop. Standing in that finish area was very special for me. We got lovely finisher’s medals. Craig joined me at the finish line. He was awarded the coveted blue bib for 10 finishes. He now owns that number for life and receives VIP treatment at any future TOM. As a special reward we treated ourselves to fries and chocolate milkshakes. A dramatic finish line event is the strict 7-hr limit. At the time the announcer and crowd count down the last moments together and at zero the finish line is blocked. It’s an awful moment for those who just missed it, but also adds value to those who made it.
My goals for Two Oceans were to soak it in, enjoy the views, feel the vibe and not get hurt. I got all those things and more. I wanted a nostalgic tour of the city I spent much of my youth in and that I got. I took about 80 photos along the way, pausing frequently and nobody can say I rushed the day. I finished in 5hr 44min 10 sec and 372/1123 AG finishers. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire day and recommend it to anyone. Despite the early start and long day sweating, it all sped by so fast.
The goals of visiting a place from our past is to see what has changed, what has remained the same and how we have changed. Cape Town is as majestic and spectacular as ever, the beauty unavoidable. It has become an international destination with many foreign tourists and big-ticket items priced in dollars. In the years since my last visit, I have become an ultra-runner and can now participate in events I previously thought impossible. Years ago when I saw the TOM runners going by, I thought they were nuts. Now I am nuts too.
My thanks to Alia for preparing and encouraging me, Craig for the race lore and insider tips, Sarah for making this document readable.