Two Oceans Marathon

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The Two Oceans Marathon is one of the unique and popular marathons in the world. To begin with, it is more than a marathon – 56 Km in distance; and the attraction of the event is not on the difficulty of accomplishing the distance but on the beautiful scenic route. As is the norm in South Africa with most running events, they are stringent about the cut-off time for finishers – 7 hours from the gun shot and not a second more, which makes the event a challenging one too. Started in 1970 as a training run for the Comrades Marathon, it soon entered the marathon calendar of South Africa and became one of the most popular events in the world, with over 11,000 participants registering within the first two days of opening the registrations for this year’s edition. Organised every year during the Easter Weekend, the event was later expanded to include a half-marathon race, an international friendship run, trail runs, kids run and so on – there’s an event for everyone in the family – attracting over 35,000 runners from all over the world. In 2018, the event was held on March 31st and I happened to be one of the participants.

I arrived at Cape Town on March 28th in the backdrop of the acute water shortage that the city was then facing. Few minutes after my arrival, dark clouds gathered from nowhere and I was welcomed with thunderstorms and heavy rains that the city most wanted. My host was stunned at the instant impact that I had on the city. Needless to say that the runners can claim some credit for that and the rains during the next two days. Considering the situation, the organisers had taken steps to ensure that the event does utilise any water from the city’s water resources and sought the assistance of runners to be mindful about the wastage of water. Runners were even asked to carry their own hydration packs that can be refilled in specified points.

My running weekend started with a visit to the Marathon Expo on March 29th. The routine affair of collecting the running bibs for both the marathon and the international friendship run, followed by window surfing of some of the irresistible products designed for runners that different brands have showcased in the expo – from alternatives to safety pins to clothing to shoes and what not! It was also an opportunity to meet runners from different parts of the world. The expo also featured talks by eminent runners including those with ‘Blue numbers’ – an honour for those completing 10 Two Oceans marathon. There were legendary runners who have done it even forty times! The only sore point of the expo were the super long queues leading the bib collection. The bibs were printed at the expo and it had some techinical glitches. 

The other important activitiy of the day was the scheduled visit to Robben Island. I had the romantic dream of re-creating this scene from the movie Invictus, where Matt Damon, playing the role of Francois Piennar, would visit the Robben Island ahead of the final game. He would stand inside the prison and visualise Morgan Freedman, playing the role of Madiba, reading the poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley.  You wouldn’t need to get inspired anymore than watching it again.

The best laid plans often go cropper and this was no different. The rains, that looked good the previous day, was translated into bad weather on this day and the boat trips to Robben Island stood cancelled. I checked with them if I can change the dates to the day after the marathon but there were no bookings available. I was quite devastated about the miss and walked around the museam for a while. There was this beautiful quote from Madiba that cought my eyes.

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After being robbed twenty seven years of his life, Madiba, just wanted that no one else suffers the same fate as him. This wasn’t just an act of forgiveness but the firm belief he had in freedom and rights of an individual. At a time, when my fellow citizens calls every individual who disagrees with the government of the day as anti-national, this was refreshing to read.

The International Friendship run on March 30th was certainly an unique feature for this event. Attended by people from different countries all over the world, with Germany, United Kingdom and Brazil having the highest number of participants. The organisers had thoughtfully arranged flags of all the countries. On finding that no has yet picked up the Indian flag, I grabbed the chance to carry the Tricolour. It was a 6 Km run through the beautiful promenade of Cape Town. Every country was cheered and welcomed by the spectators, including Aussies, whose cricketers had an uneventful time a week earlier at Cape Town. I did my best to sledge an Aussie who had his hands in his pockets when I enquired if his name was Cameron, David, or Stevie! At times, it looked like the best way to test one’s knowledge about flags of different countries. 

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I certainly had my moments of entertainment. Everytime someone gives me a shout for coming from India, I responded by saying, ‘My second name is not Gupta’ leading to some hiliarity. Running with a German family of runners was really special and it must be noted that they really had a good sense of humour! Somewhere, I felt that events like these bring people of different countries together more easily than the high powered summits attended by heads of state which invariably causes discomfort to the public of hosting cities.

On March 31st, the two major events of the weekend were flagged off. The first of them was the Half-marathon participated by 16,000 runners at 5:50 AM followed by the main event, the Ultra Marathon at 6:30 AM. It looked like the organisers wanted the runners enjoy the route in the best possible way during broad daylight. To run in the main event, every runner must have run at least one marathon within 5 hours to be eligible for participation. This ensured that runners are aware of running etiquettes and respect each other, which is critical for smooth start of the run as well as running through narrow roads at many sections. There was not a minute during the seven hours when I could feel lonely in the course and yet not feel my way blocked by another runner.

The initial 30 Kms were fairly flat terrain where the only challenge was to conserve the energy for the second half of the run. The route takes us all the way towards East where one gets a chance to run alongside the Indian Ocean glistened by the morning sun. The routes goes through the suburbs of Cape Town, where the residents come out in big numbers to cheer the participants. It was from the 29th Km that the gradual ascend begins towards the Chapman’s Peak, where the English explorer John Chapman landed in South Africa. Situated at the coast of Atlantic Ocean, the road leading to the peak provides us with breathtaking views of the Ocean. Ideally, one would wish that the run ended here. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and one can even say that the real run began there!

After reaching the top of the peak, a downhill run followed by a relatively flat terrain takes us close to the marathon distance. Things were going as planned until then – First 27k in 3 hours and the marathon in 5 hours. Now, all that I need to do is do the rest 14K in 2 hours, which looked plausible. It was difficult to observe the contours as the focus was on the time and the distance to be covered. There were few inclines and downward slopes. At about 46 Km, the next challenge was in store – a steep climb for couple of Kms followed by a steep downhill. This is the place where the race is won or lost for the lead pack and for the rest, it was a matter of hit or miss.

At this stage, I feared that I might miss out the cut-off mark as I had started facing muscle cramps in my legs. My legs refused to move any further and it looked like it was all but over for me. While I knew that I will recover from cramps and complete the course somehow, the time limit was hanging straight over my head. It took me about 28 minutes to cover 3K at this stage, and finish was looking a distant dream. My confidence was also further shattered with very little hopes for the distance ahead. I spotted a runner with blue bib and asked him if I still have a chance to finish under the time limit. He suggested that if I can keep running, I am sure to finish – That was encouraging. I started counting the loss in case I miss the cut-off. I consoled myself by saying that I can offset this loss with my miraculous finish at Comrades. Then, I had paid a significant money for getting the medal embossed, and I am not sure of the medal. This seems to hurt me more.

The next 3K was all down hill and I focused on getting back my rythm. The route took us through some of the green cover of Cape Town offering the much wanted cool shade when the Sun was rising over our heads. The theme for the event was “Run as One” and it was certainly implanted in the spirit of each runner. Seeing me struggle with cramps, one of the runners stopped to offer salt tablets. I had my gels and wasn’t sure how salt tablets would react with it in my stomach. I was joined by an Aussie runner in what I would call as the mission impossible, and we kept encouraging each other with undying hopes. The uncertainty persisted all the way until I saw the last Km board. I looked was finally convinced that I can really make it to the finish line. I entered the University grounds and the crowd made sure that they celebrate in each one of our finishes. With 64 seconds to spare, I finished the race filled with thanks to my fellow runners and the wonderful Capetonians for what I am convinced as the “World’s Most Beautiful Race.”

On my way back, I watched the movie 89, produced by Amy Lawrence. It was a movie about the famous English Football League match between Liverpool and Arsenal that happened on May 26, 1989. The winner of the match and the league were decided in the final minutes. The match also inspired Nick Hornby to write the memoirs in the best seller, ‘The Fever Pitch.’

When asked to recollect the memories of that match, George Graham, the gaffer, said,

“Isn’t lovely to have moments in your life where you think …Nothing to beat that”

Not once, but twice; I was lucky to have such moments.

(And edited version of the Article appeared in The Hindu, Metro Plus, April 11, 2018 – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/running-in-the-two-oceans-marathon/article23492438.ece)

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