Two Oceans Ultramarathon Saturday 4th April 2015, South Africa – by Kate Atkinson

Two Oceans Ultramarathon Saturday 4th April 2015

Distance: 56km

History

The first race was held in 1970 and saw 26 runners line up to face the unknown challenge. Since then, the race has become a favourite with local and international athletes. Participants choose from the scenic 56km ultra marathon or 21km half marathon. The event attracts over 26 000 participants and provides them with a mixture of breathtaking scenery, a gruelling test of fitness and an unrivalled race organisation and atmosphere.

Course

In 2015, the Ultra Marathon route will run over Ou Kaapse Weg for safety reasons.  This comes after the recent fires that raged along Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula caused significant damage to Chapman’s Peak’s fragile vegetation, holding a safety risk for runners and volunteers. The Ou Kaapse Weg detour route starts in Main Road, Newlands, and takes runners along the scenic South Peninsula route, through Fish Hoek and into Kommetjie.  But, instead of heading towards Chapman’s Peak, runners will turn towards and over Ou Kaapse Weg, from where they will run along the leafy Spaanschemat River Road. They will then join the Half Marathon route at the Ladies Mile / Parish Road intersection before heading onto Southern Cross Drive to make their way back to the finish at UCT along Rhodes Drive and the M3.

Pre-race –

I arrived in South Africa late Tuesday night (Tuesday before race day on Saturday). This allowed for time to recover from jetlag and satisfy some tourist curiosities like going on an African Safari on Thursday. On Friday (day before race day), there was an International Friendship Run.

International Friendship Run

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Good Friday 3rd April 2015

All International entrants are invited to meet for a scenic 6km run/walk through the City of Cape Town, past some of the city’s most famous landmarks, which include the Cape Town Stadium, Sea Point Promenade, Green Point Park and Mouille Point Lighthouse.

The friendship run was fun! I met with a couple of other runners from Australia who I’d met on the bus. Australia was the tenth top country with 94 participants (51 participated in the Ultra). The friendship run was not a race, but a group of like-minded runners from all over the world, meeting together (with Haile Gebrselassie), to cruise around Cape Town. I was proud to wear my Running Mums Australia singlet for this run! Running Mums Australia (RMA) to me is a community that have provided me with so much support and love. It is a safe forum for women and mums to talk about running and motherhood.

Maybe it was the collective inspiration above, or maybe it was a week of tapering, but my legs felt great! I felt alive and happy, and ran at a brisk pace (for me). Afterwards they gave us sachets of water and cups of coke. I don’t drink coke but noticed it is very popular in SA. The water sachets are a great idea, I struggle to drink from a cup while running, I usually choke (one of my hidden talents) but sachets are so easy. The environmental impact isn’t great but neither are plastic cups. We sat around the Waterfront and chatted with other runners while the brass band entertained us. I met a lady from Sydney who explained the cultural changes in South Africa since the late 80s/early 90s. Having grown up in SA, she reflected on times when whites and blacks had separate schools and restaurants. One of the aspects I enjoy most about visiting a foreign country is learning about their culture and traditions. I walked back to the motel feeling grateful for my life and this experience. After all, I’d left my very supportive husband back home in Melbourne to take care of our children, while I travelled half way across the world to indulge my ultramarathon dream!

Friday night I had dinner with my sister-in-law (Carmen) and friends who I’d met in Cape Town (they had completed the Ironman in Port Elizabeth a week earlier). I didn’t bother with too much carb loading in the days before but naturally had rice with my meals. This would be my first significant race as a vegetarian. I’d become vegetarian at the beginning of the year and although I found the transition relatively easy (fuelled by my ethical convictions) I did encounter some challenges. A significant issue was my iron levels plummeting to 3 and having an iron infusion about a month before I was due to leave for overseas. (To cut a long story short, I’ve always had deficiencies like iron, B12, vitamin D, zinc and magnesium. Blood test tested positive for a thyroid autoimmune antibody. Many of my health issues like digestive problems, deficiencies, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, always cold and depression were beginning to make sense).

We had an early night, knowing the transfer bus would arrive on our doorstep at 4:30am the following morning. I went to sleep feeling excited and positive that my injured and tired body would NOT fail me this time. It had only been ten weeks since Two Bays 56km – the run that was supposed to be my first ultra. My plantar fascia/extensor hallucis longus had flared a few days before race day to the point where I couldn’t put my foot to the floor. I’d had to pull out of the race, which was devastating because I’d been training so well (I’d run 5 hours on the trail 2 weeks before). But it was a breaking point that had been brewing for months. I’d developed calf/Achilles/PF issues about a year prior from biomechanical changes in my running gait, all due to an unconscious effort to protect the labral tear in my left hip. I was going into Two Oceans 56km with trepidation. I was really nervous I’d experience déjà vu and not even make it to the start line. My training had been cautious and I revised my time goal to “just make it before the 7 hour cut-off.” I wanted 6 hours but would have settled with finishing.

I talked to Carmen about the drink stations and she explained they were every 2.5km and they provided sachets instead of cups. She reassured me that I wouldn’t need to pack my own supplies. I decided to carry 3 gels (Endura Vanilla) and my iPod (just in case I needed that extra little bit of motivation). I also packed a Ventolin because I knew there had been fires in the area and I was mildly concerned I might have a reaction. The weather forecast had changed from hot and sunny to possible showers. Cape Town has similar weather to Melbourne – 4 seasons in one day. It was looking a little overcast and breezy, but I knew somewhere in the suspected 6 hours, the weather could change.

Race day –

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My alarm was set for 4am. I put on my compression shorts, shorts over the top, plain singlet top, compression calf sleeves, Australian temporary tattoos and Australian flag headband thingy – technical term (actually I think it is more like a buff). I grabbed a protein bar and bottle of water with a Nuun electrolyte tablet. I’d already packed a bag of clothes for after the race and handed that to the Travelling Fit organisers (the company I used to book my trip – they were great!) The bus took us to the start line, it was dark and chilly. We made the standard race-morning toilet stop and then walked around, soaking up the atmosphere. There was a buzz of excitement from the twenty-six-thousand-deep crowd of runners. With about 45 minutes until gun time, I made my way to section B. Carmen and her friend were a little further back in the pack (they had decided to make Two Oceans a scenic experience rather than a key race).

I met a fellow Australian, Carol, who originated from South Africa and had run Two Oceans before. I chatted to another South African lady and listened to her advice. She told me to watch out for the garbage bags that runners disposed of at the start line (Note to self: garbage bags/ponchos are a great way to stay warm before the race starts).

The organisers played the National anthem and blew the horn to signify the beginning of the 46th annual Two Ocean Ultramarathon! We were off!

The first kilometre was very congested and I settled into a comfortable pace. I dodged the garbage bags and people. A couple of minutes in, I noticed we ran over a timing mat. After a couple of kilometres I had to admit to myself that I needed to stop to go to the toilet (I was hoping it was a nervous wee but it wasn’t). I decided to stop at the 5km mark, where I had to line up and lost about 3 minutes altogether (unconsciously I paused my Garmin).  When I got back out on the course I deliberately picked up the pace a little, knowing that the first 21km were flat and I could survive. I felt good! My heart and lungs were working perfectly and I had no asthma. I did feel pain in my plantar fascia (PF)/extensor hallucis longus (EHL) just after the 10km mark but there was nothing I could do about it. Just suck it up!

I planned to take in fluids and gels early and keep having them for as long as I could handle it. In the past, I’d reacted to gels and had a tendancy to suffer from reflux. I believe the earlier I have anything on race day, the better I tolerate it. It also helps if I’m not pushing pace, which I wasn’t. I started with small amounts of water from 5km and gels from 12km onwards. I always had water after a gel, and despite recommendations, I take my gels slowly. The aid stations were every 2.5km, which is awesome! It meant I could take small amounts of fluids more regularly, and always follow up a gel with water.

From 10-20km, I tried to take in the surroundings and chatted to a few other runners (everyone thought I was from the UK because my head gear was only showing the Union Jack. Clearly they didn’t see the stars of the Southern Cross or the kangaroo tattoo on my arm!) I can’t describe the course very well, which might be disappointing for you as the reader (because it is considered the most beautiful run in the world and now you have no visual reference). I’m terrible at remembering anything when I run, I get lost very easily and I daydream. I can tell you that up until this point, the run was flat and the view was beautiful. There were mountains in front of me and the ocean on my left-hand-side. There were people literally lining the streets encouraging and supporting our every step. The women were energetic and animated, yelling, “Go lady! You run ladies!” Others would use my name in their enchanting African accent. It would always make me smile.

At 22km I hit an elevation and knew the course was about to change. The original course was supposed to run to the top of Chappies Peak. The race organisers made the decision to use an alternate route, which took participants over Ou Kaapse Weg for safety reason. There had been recent fires in the mountains and was a chance of rock fall. Many Facebook fans publicly complained about the change and advised others to automatically add 15-20 minutes to their goal time. Ou Kaapse Weg had a steeper elevation with the peak being 350 metres. I’m not great at judging elevation but it seemed similar to Two Bays (the event I was supposed to run 10 weeks earlier). I knew Arthurs Seat climb (Two Bays) was fairly tough so when I heard about the change it made me nervous. I went into Two Oceans ready for a long, steady climb. I believe I have mental strength, I knew I’d have to drop back to a Cliffy shuffle (a plod) but I believed I could keep going. I had to pace myself, put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. It’s that simple!

Between 22-27km the course flattened out (it was a tease) so I sat back. I was still taking in water and even branched out to Powerade. (I usually have a significant reaction to Powerade or anything like that. I get asthma but I realised I had no electrolytes so decided it was better to try it than fail from dehydration). It wasn’t a hot day, in fact I think it had rained a little around the 21km point (and the wind didn’t affect me), but I decided to eat and drink whatever was on offer. I was about to have my second gel when I came across potatoes with salt! Yummo! I’d always wanted to try potatoes while running. So for the second time on race day, I tried something new (against all rules).

At 27km the hill appeared and thanks to the fires, I could see how far and high it spread. As I’ve said many times before, my default is to run conservatively, so that’s what I did. From 27-34km I cruised. Surprisingly I still passed people, but my breathing wasn’t laboured. I knew I still had a long way to go. I decreased my pace. I ran slowly but continuously for the first 5km of the hill and then I gave myself permission to walk a little. I walked the first 400m of the next 2km and ran the rest. I vaguely remember having my second gel. As I made my way up the hill, I took the time to look over my shoulder and take in the view. Cape Town is surrounded by endless, rocky mountains and contrasted by the vast ocean below. Whenever I run in a beautiful place in nature, I feel closer to God (higher power, the divine, whatever you like to say… ) It’s peaceful and energising for me. It’s rewarding to feel connected and be granted some meditative time.

I hit the halfway point at roughly 2hrs 30min. During that last 8km stretch, my body began to feel the pain, especially my hips. Both hips hated the camber! If truth be told, I started to get a little pissed off because the camber was quite significant. I looked like a crazy person crossing from one side of the road to the other searching for even ground (I wasn’t the only one). Anyone who suffered ITB injuries would have been hurting! And it wasn’t helping my foot either because I was constantly striking laterally to counteract the lean. During the later part of the race, I saw a few individual people in severe pain. One runner was literally stuck, bent over in the middle of the road, clearly cramped and unable to move a muscle. Another time I heard an ambulance near by. And right near the end I saw a man hurled over battling nausea. It’s a strange feeling to keep running when you know someone needs helps. I’ve run a few trails and I always stop when a fellow runner needs help. However, Two Oceans had thousands of volunteers lining the street and I knew they would help the injured. There was no point stopping.

At roughly 34km the decent began and I cautiously increased my pace, remembering to protect my quads. Anyone who has run steep downhills knows your quads elongate and contract to control the fall and this can result in very sore legs in the days following. The downhill continued until 40km. The rolling hill climbed again after the 40km mark and I walked a little around 43km. A lot of people walked after the marathon marker. At 47-48km I walked an estimated 800m. The uphill seemed unrelenting at this point. We ran majority uphill from 42-48km (according to Garmin). Combined with the camber and my old lady hips, I was feeling it. However my state of mind and general energy was really good! I was honestly loving it! I was still fuelling with water, powerade, and I took my third gel at the 46-47km point. At one of the aid station they were handing out small Mars bars. And there were spectators everywhere and some of them had sandwiches for runners.

I can’t explain the atmosphere and community that surrounded us. I’ve run big events before with hundreds of spectators however this felt different. They weren’t lining up for a high five, instead they spoke words of encouragement and handed out water/fuel, and I sensed they genuinely wanted me to do my best.

At 50km, the elevation increased and I might have walked 200m or so. Although most of the last 8km was downhill. Thank God! This allowed me to maintain my pace. The last 6km were fun. I knew I was on the home stretch and would finish relatively unscathed. I may never be able to hip flex again, but considering the lead up I had, I was grateful it was only my hips giving me grief. I was expecting my left foot to hurt like hell. And I was prepared to systemically struggle, either digestion or fatigue. It was only a month earlier, I had an iron infusion and as little as two weeks prior I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Whether it was my thyroid or something else, I had lost the ability to function in the morning. I stopped all morning runs and revised my goal to “wake up and drive kids to school.” And now here I was about to complete my first ultramarathon. I was so happy. I had a moment around the 52-55km point where I began to tear up while running. Even writing this now, I feel emotional. I love running and 2014 was a huge year for me. But towards the end of the year I struggled with health, injuries and life in general. 2015 began with my first DNS and everything became too difficult. I had committed to Two Oceans, my husband was sacrificing his work and time to allow me to chase my dream and now I was finally achieving my dream. The emotion was gratitude. I’m so lucky to have my life, my husband and boys, live in Australia and travel with running. It’s truly awesome! Or as the South Africans might say… LEKKER!

The last kilometre I kicked up a notch and I had enough left in the tank to sprint down the finishing shoot. I felt ALIVE! Crossing the finishing line the clock read 5:16:04. (My revised time was 5:13:49). I was stoked! I came in about an hour quicker than I was expecting! Oh so happy!

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Post-race –

Straight after I ran through the finishing shoot, I received my medal and water. I knew my hip flexors were on the verge of complete spasm and if I sat down my body would set like cement. I found a patch of grass and lay down on my front for about 15 minutes and gently stretched my hip flexors. I watched (and laughed) at the guy next to me as he tried to stand up. Everyone looked sore and stiff, but wore a smile from ear to ear. Overall, I felt great! The high of becoming an ultramarathon runner surpassed any other feeling. I made my way through the crowd to the Travelling Fit tent. They provided food and refreshments, and I met like-minded runners from all over the world.

About an hour after I finished, Carmen and her friend crossed the line… a fanastic effort after racing Ironman a week earlier. We met up with a local friend and made our way to the car. I used my arm to lift my left leg up each step. (My hip flexors had checked out for the day!) We watched the last of the runners come through the straight. The crowd grew louder as the cut-off drew closer. Everyone counted down from ten until the buzzer sounded and the battlers who didn’t quite make it slumped over and slowed to a walk. Personally, I would have been devastated to miss the cut-off by a few precious minutes. But I have great respect for anyone who can run for seven hours.

That afternoon and evening, we managed to show up at the after party. I had a blast! I loved the locals, people in general, atmosphere, drinks, music and all that followed… I returned to our apartment by 9:30pm after one of the most satisfying and rewarding days of my life. I ran an ultramarathon and I finished in tact, feeling strong, healthy and happy. I was so grateful!

Lessons –

  1. Have fun!
  2. Run faster (don’t underestimate yourself!)
  3. Take a garbage bag or poncho to the start line!

Race feedback and will there be a next time

Two Oceans leaves me feeling similar to after I completed my first marathon, a year ago, in Canberra. I loved the race! The scenery was beautiful and different, so it captivated my attention and I daydreamed more than usual. It’s part of what I love about running, exploring new places and zoning out. The weather was great. A little bit of rain and wind but not enough to hinder performance. The support from the locals and atmosphere at Two Oceans surpassed any other run. People hugged the streets the entire way and offered genuine encouragement and support. The aid stations were every 2.5km which was luxurious. I felt spoilt! I loved the satchets, potatoes and chocolate bars! (However I’m well aware that on any other day, I could have reacted very differently to trying something new! I was LUCKY!) There was congestion mostly at the beginning but that is bound to happen with 11,000 people in the 56km distance alone. The medal is my favourite and reflects the beautiful scenic course. The only negative (and it was a significant issue for me) was the camber! I hated it! Someone told me that the original Two Ocans course didn’t have the same degree of camber. Overall I rank this run a 9.5/10 and I would run it again (and this time break 5 hours)! I’m so grateful to my family for allowing me to complete my first ultramarathon in such style!

* A note about RMA – About a week after I completed the run I posted a couple of photos and very quickly received over 100 likes from the RMA community. Then Nicole asked if I would like to write something for the blog. The support and genuine care from RMA members is much like the South Africans on the side of the road. It is heartfelt. And it makes the accomplishment mean more to me. Thank you to all the lovely ladies who make RMA what it is and most of all, to Nicole for having the insight and faith to create a home away from home for all of us ☺

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