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Two Oceans Ultra 2016

Way back when my race bucket list was more of a quick scrawl on the back of a fag packet, I'd only heard of two races in South Africa - Comrades and Two Oceans and down they duly went. There are plenty more classics than that I've since discovered and I will be having a crack at the Otter Trail and the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100km in due course. Not so sure about the Washie 100 but who knows? Maybe!

But you have to run Comrades and you have to run Two Oceans and that's that.

Two Oceans is hosted by Cape Town and it's now a race weekend of a long and short trail race on Good Friday and a road half marathon plus the main event - the 56km ultra - on Saturday. The road races are large - 16,000 in the half and 11,000 in the Ultra which makes it the World's second largest Ultra after Comrades AFAIK.

Helen and Maarten yet again generously put me up in their swanky ex-pat pad in Dainfern, Joburg and I flew to Cape Town with them but without one or two race essentials. No vaseline, no gels and about half the toiletries I thought I had.

This is turning into a habit. A fruitless trawl for isotonic gels round the expo ensued and I ended up with some pretty gross Hammer stuff instead. I thought I'd struck lucky w.r.t. the vaseline as there was a tin of what looked exactly like it in the goody bag. Unfortunately, come race morning at 4:30am I discover it is in fact Nivea Men (it starts with you) Even Tone Creme. What the hell is that?

Race day is a 6:30 start so out the door at 5:45, jogging to the pens in the lightly drizzling pre-dawn.

My knee has been rubbish lately. No idea what's wrong with it. The most specific I can get is that it's 'something round the back'. It's generally been doing its worst after rather than during a run so I'm nervously hoping it doesn't chuck in the towel in the first mile.

2 Oceans seems to have borrowed a few Comrades ideas as the start also features mass singing of Shosholoza and instead of Comrades' cock crow, they have the blowing of the traditional fish horn instead. A cannon goes off loud enough to loosen your fillings and you're off into the promised spectacular scenery.

This is the key selling point of the 'worlds most beautiful marathon' and to be honest it takes a while to warm up in that department. Until you hit the first ocean about 10 miles in it's pretty uninspiring. Maybe that's why they call it the most beautiful marathon and not ultra as it's only the last 26 miles that are any good?

Everyone, including me, has gone off too fast - it's pretty flat at first but all the climbs are back-ended - and it feels like a fraction too much effort. The knee and gaping blank space where training should have been aren't going to allow a sub 4hour finish so I decide to go for the Sainsbury medal for a sub5 hours and nurse the knee round.

Hit the coast and the memory of what could have been Letchworth is erased with increasingly spectacular views. I've driven over Chapman's during a previous visit which kind of blunted the edge of it but nevertheless this is a view you can't tire of. We were lucky and the sun came out lighting up Noordhoek Beach and then, even better, Hout Bay as the race climbed to Chapman's Peak.

My photos don't do it justice, taken on a crappy phone covered in sweat and stuffed ill-fittingly into a Y-fumble arm sleeve.

It's hard-going. I'd forgotten just how hard roads are having been so into trails of late and there's a severe camber to these which my knee isn't appreciating. Many-times vets (you can tell by the stats on, and colour of, their race bibs) urge on anybody flagging.

The Peak turns into a long and runnable descent into Hout Bay which is close on marathon distance and the first time the local crowds are out in force. There's a still bigger and relentless climb to come to Constantia over the following 4 miles or so. Certainly runnable (just - made harder by a strong headwind) but it grinds away at you and I did walk a few short stretches near the top.

But summit and it's largely downhill to the finish.. I was very tired by then but managing to go at a reasonable pace next to a bloke who made a point of thanking every single marshall and other helper along the route (good on him)!

The last few kilometers were shared with traffic coming the other way and that headwind in full effect and it made for a bit of a slog of a finish until the stadium finally came into view and the welcome grass surface halfway around to the finish line.

I stopped the clock in 4hrs 45 which I'm very happy with under the circumstances.

So that's it ticked off. I'm now wondering whether I'd like another go at it properly prepared and fit. I've been asked several times whether it or Comrades is best and I have to say Comrades lived up to my expectations more than Two Oceans. This was a great event, there were some sublime stretches in this race and the city and its suburbs are to a large part spectacularly beautiful. But I think ultimately if it's scenery you're after, the roads offer no competition at all to the trails and the mountains.

Comrades is also a road race of course but to me it had a greater sense of occasion and it was just that much more of a challenge. It is 20 miles longer so perhaps that's not surprising.

This has been a fantastic trip and it's not over yet as I write this. Whether you run Comrades or Two Oceans or just want to sit on a beach for a few days I really recommend South Africa. There is something about this place and at the moment the Pound buys you a huge amount out here so take advantage!

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