The Two Oceans Marathon: South Africa’s “Other” Ultra

A look at South Africa’s popular ultramarathon, the Two Oceans Marathon.

By on April 9, 2012 | Comments

Two Oceans MarathonThe day before Easter Sunday always holds one of the world’s fastest ultras, and one that many readers won’t have heard about. The Two Oceans Marathon is in its 43rd year and is a 56km (34.8 miles) road race in blustery and beautiful Cape Town, South Africa. The race is named due to Cape Town being very close to where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.

Rather than a race report involving many names you’ve probably not heard of, this is more of an overview to the event and introduction to an ultra that continues to be increasingly major part of the global scene.

So why is this road race in the Southern Hemisphere of interest to our trail-centric sport in North America and Europe? Here are a few points to put it in perspective:

  • Over 8,000 runners, second only to the 87-89.3km (54-55.5 miles) Comrades Marathon, also in South Africa, in terms of ultra participants
  • Fast times that will make you start Googling because you may not believe them
  • Prize money well in excess of any other ultra except Comrades
  • They also do a trail race the day before, up to 22km (13.7 miles)
  • Top runners you’ve heard of are increasingly taking up the challenge, with Lizzy Hawker, Michael Wardian and Devon Crosby-Helms racing recently

But before I go into more detail, here are a couple of photos that give you an idea of why the organizers describe it as “the world’s most beautiful marathon.” These are from the trail race on Table Mountain and around the local area, but showcase the area the race is held in.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Half way up Table Mountain, looking down at the city.

Cape Town wine

Cape Town is also right by wine country, as this local bar shows.

Table Mounain Cape Town South Africa

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

The course is mainly flat along the coastline and so can be affected by the gusts of wind that the city is well-known for. It has two main climbs, 600 feet up the scenic road to Chapman’s Peak (“Chappies”, which is so pretty you would normally need to pay to drive it) and over 700 feet on the steeper Constantia Nek, so is noticeably harder than running a flat course or a track race of this distance.

What makes the race so special?
I ran the race in 2010 after friends of mine had waxed lyrical about it when I ran Comrades each year. In many ways it can be considered to be a mini version of Comrades, being shorter and with fewer ultrarunners. But it definitely has the electrifying spirit and feel that South Africans put into their sporting events.

The year I visited Cape Town was also the first year of the affiliated trail race so I wanted to fully enjoy the entire trip and entered that for a fun, easy jog up Table Mountain the day before running Two Oceans at Comrades pace (i.e., a 56km race at 89km pace). Much as I love competition, thanks to the fact I chose not to race it all out, it was one of the most enjoyable racing experiences I’ve ever had. Instead of keeping my head down and keeping to the racing line like most people, I ran along the outside of the roads with great views so that I could enjoy the sun and incredible coastal vistas.

One aspect of this race that adds to the fun is that they have different medals for various finishing times. The top 10s get a gold medal, then different medals are awarded for sub-4 hour, sub-5 hour, sub-6 hour and for the final cut-off time of 7 hours. All of these are based off gun times or it wouldn’t be feasible to give medals immediately at the finish or to have hard cut-offs.

Also, if you run it 10 times you join the blue number club, retiring the number you’ve run all your races in (it’ll be the same one) to be only yours for life and getting special perks pre- and post-race. The medal cut-offs really add to the challenge as runners aim for specific times, often for years before success, and keep coming back so they can earn their permanent blue number.

So on the start line I was raring to go in the pre-dawn light feeling a little sore from the trail run the day before and a triple marathon the previous weekend. In the starting pen and while running along, I chatted to plenty of locals who all loved the fact that they had the chance to proudly show off their city to me along the course. I couldn’t help but agree with them that they live in a beautiful part of the world and it ended well with an on-target 3 hour and 48 minute finish. Plus, it’s always good to have post-race activities to look forward to, like wine tasting around the near-by regions of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Wellington and Paarl.

Why is the event so popular?
South Africa has a proud history of ultrarunning, with the Comrades Marathon occurring every year from 1921, except during WWII. During isolation under apartheid, which lasted until Nelson Mandela became President in 1994, South African sportsmen and sportswomen were unable to compete internationally or host international events. This at least partly led to domestic events becoming even more important for the sport-crazy country and Comrades became increasingly popular.

Two Oceans was started in 1970 as a training run for Comrades, and the winner ran completely barefoot in a very respectable time of 3:55. It took a few years before the first female and black runners were allowed but it grew into a large event over the years. Many still use this as a hard training run, but there’s no doubt that a lot of fast runners are attracted by the history, money and competition, as well as the chance to visit Cape Town.

How fast and competitive is this race?
The easiest way to judge the competitiveness is to show the finish times. Each year the men’s race is usually won in under 3:10 and the other leaders are very close behind. Michael Wardian ran 3:16 in 2011 for 19th (5:38/mile for almost exactly 1 1/3 marathons!). The women’s race is usually won between 3:30 and 3:45 – note that 3:29 is 6:00/mile. And the course records are 3:03 for the men (Thompson Magawana, 1988) and 3:30 for women (Frith Van der Merwe, 1989).

The world bests for 50k were set as splits within Two Oceans for these two course records, at 2:43 and 3:08, respectively. And bear in mind that the 50k mark is just after both climbs so the real race for positions often occurs after that.

Prize money
There’s been increasing chatter regarding prize money in ultras recently, but in South Africa they’ve offered large prize purses for many years. At Two Oceans there’s the equivalent of $32,000 for the winner, $16,000 for second and $8,300 for third and these are before sponsor or course record bonuses, which add a significant amount extra. Prize money goes 10 deep plus age category prizes.

The 2012 race
The three-peat Comrades winner, Stephen Muzinghi, won this year in 3:08 (2:21 marathon pace) with the Russian Nurgalieva twins still dominating (one of them has won six of the last eight Two Oceans and eight of the last nine Comrades). Elena Nurgalieva won in 3:41 and her sister, Olesya, didn’t start due to an injury. Full results are available.

Americans Devon Crosby-Helms and Michael Wardian ran near the front of the pack and here’s commentary from them.

Devon Crosby-Helms

I’ve never run an ultra that was such a big competitive field. When the gun went off hundreds of people streamed out ahead of me took off at a killer pace. From the start I knew that I needed to just run “my race” and be very conservative and patient to get to and through the tough parts. The weather was crazy – torrential rain for long spells and huge wind gusts, but I didn’t really mind it since it kept it nice and cool. I was in the top 10 for most of the morning and slowly started passing ladies through the marathon mark. I was in 6th until I was passed at 44k by another lady. I had done my course recon and read Ian Sharman’s blog, so I knew my strategy was to run smooth and comfortable up the hill and hammer down from 48k. This strategy paid off as I arrived at the top feeling very fresh and with strong legs. I hammered downhill caught the lady who’d passed me before and then proceeded to run my way into 3rd place and on to the podium! I really pushed hard when it counted and am super pleased with how the race went. Cape Town is amazingly beautiful and it was nice to come back to run the race after living here 9 years ago! It bills itself as the world’s most beautiful marathon and, even in the rain, I am inclined to agree!

Michael Wardian

The Two Oceans Marathon (56K-34.8 miles) is probably one of the toughest ultramarathon races on the planet to be competitive at. I say that because, there are over 9,000 runners in the ultramarathon (think only Comrades is bigger in shear number of runners) and there are probably 200 elites with 50-100 guys that actually have a chance to win the race on the right day. I am talking about former 2:06 marathon runners, lots of guys that have run between 2:10-2:15 for marathons and tons of guys have have run under 2:50 for 50K and then you throw into the mix guys that have earned Gold Medals at longer distances such as the Comraders Marathon (84K/approx 54 miles to 89K/approx 56 miles) and you get some super studs all highly motivated and ready to run.

Two Oceans is one of the places around the world, in my opinion, to test yourself against the best of the best for a shorter ultramarathon, the guys go out hard sub 2:20 marathon pace (i.e., between 5:12-5:20 per mile) over undulating ground, yes it is road/tarmac, but it is not flat and always has a grade (1%-3%) and then you have some seriously long climbs of upwards of 2K-4K long, steep suckers that bend you over, but you can running smashing fast on the backside. However, after the first hill you have a long flatish section that drains you if you blasted the downhill too fast.

After crossing the 42K (marathon) mark, you get a huge climb and then it is just bumpy to the finish, always enough to keep you heart rate up and if you went out too fast, cursing yourself for it.

I actually, was too conservative and continued to pass people the entire race, always gaining position and never being passed, but running that way I was exposed too much to the wind and rain and didn’t get the protection of a pack that the guys in the front groups did and I just ran out of race before catching up to everyone.

You learn something from every event and I learned that I still need to work on my climbing and descending and also to try and get in a pack to avoid getting caught our in the open and working harder than is needed.

That is why I love going to these events, I think you must throw yourself in against the best in the world to learn what you need to do and I definitely was not satisfied with my result (Top 20, I think, from looking at the times. They are updating my results now as they had my last name wrong for the chip I ran in, so the website should be updated in a few days.), but I am already looking at ways to improve going forward.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you ever run the Two Oceans Marathon? If so, what did you think?
  • Anyone outside South Africa now thinking about running Two Oceans in the future?
Ian Sharman
Ian Sharman is the Director of the Altra US Skyrunner Series, a professional running coach, and a sponsored ultrarunner who has competed in top-level races all over the globe.