“The cold can be dealt with my friend, but the wind…the wind is personal.”

I can’t remember where I first read that line, but I think of it often.  Any cyclist will tell you that a steep hill is preferable to a stiff wind and the same I feel is true of running.  The night before the Two Oceans Marathon it sounded like the wind was ripping the roof off the apartment where we were staying.  I laid awake in bed–my pre-race jitters getting ever jittery.

This year was the 44th running of this Cape Town classic and 11,000 runners from 74 countries took part in the 35 mile ultra marathon, while an additional 16,000 did the half marathon.  The race is always held on Easter weekend and serves as the traditional warm up for the 56 mile Comrades Marathon in June.  Only in sports-crazy South Africa would a 35 mile race be considered a warm up.

Comrades is the oldest and largest ultra marathon in the world and is on many South African’s bucket list.  It has a similar history and prestige as our Boston Marathon.  I would love to run Comrades someday, but the timing did not work out for this trip.  Oh well, I guess the 35 mile “warm up” it would have to be.

One of my biggest worries for the race (other than the gale force winds) was trying to figure out how to get to the starting line.  There was a 6:30 am suburban start with no public transportation available at that hour.  I left our place at 4:30 hoping to track down a taxi and not get ripped off in the process.  Luckily just as I was leaving the apartment building a car full of local runners pulled up and asked me if I wanted a ride.  It was a nice way to start the day.

Most South African runners belong to a running club and wear their club uniforms at races.  At the starting line it was fun checking out all the different club names:  the impalas, the lions, the elephants, the cheetahs.  I made a point not to try and keep up with the cheetahs.

At 6 am the national anthem was sung.  South Africa is called the rainbow nation and looking around I could see why:  black, white, Indian, Arab, Chinese and every possible combination thereof.  It felt like a meeting of the United Nations and was pretty cool to see.  The half marathoners then took off first, followed by us ultra runners.  As usual it was a relief to finally be going, movement itself bringing an end to the anticipation.

The first half of the race was flat, going south from the city along the coast.  The sun had just started to rise as I passed through Muizenburg, a little surf town where we had spent the previous week.  My goal was to not go out too fast, just keep it at a manageable 8 minute per mile pace and save some energy for the difficult second half.

I hit the halfway point at 2:16, felt great and started to attack the hills.  This section was the most scenic, going up and over Chapman’s Peak.  The wind had not been much of a factor up until this point, just a bit of head wind that could mostly be avoided if you stayed in a pack.  But now that we were on the Atlantic side (the second ocean) the wind picked up and was at our backs.  I felt like it was pushing me up the hill.  The views down to Hout Bay were incredible.  I could now see why they call this the world’s most beautiful marathon.

The winds shifted as we topped out on Chapman’s Peak and the gusts were strong enough to nearly knock you off your feet.  I put my head down and my hat in hand, but still had a big smile on my face.

Instead of cups the aid stations handed out little bags of water and sports drink.  I grabbed a bag at every station and carried it with me until I needed some nourishment.  It was fun to sink your teeth into it and suck it dry like a vampire.

I got the feeling that for many runners the Two Oceans was their first attempt at an ultra distance race.  After 25 miles many people looked absolutely spent and started to walk.  This is where a second steeper set of hills kicked in.  My goal was to just keep running, no matter how slow.  I passed dozens of the walkers and this provided motivation to push even harder.  I heard a few of shouts of, “Looking good, Shawn!”‘ and wondered how they knew my name.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that everyone had their name printed in their race number.

The last four miles were all downhill and were a fun, cruisy way to finish the race.  I tried to pass as many runners I could, hoping to break into the top 1000.  The final quarter mile was on grass with rows of stands filled with spectators cheering us on.

I finished in 4:36 and placed 651st overall.  The weather turned out to be perfect, the wind hardly a factor, and the support exceptional.  I grabbed a burger and a beer and sat down to cheer on the remaining runners.  My race was barely finished and already I was dreaming of returning to South Africa to run Comrades.