The Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town has been on our ‘to do’ list since the very start of our running career. We first heard about the event when a runner turned up at parkrun wearing a t-shirt declaring it “The most beautiful marathon in the world”. Quite a statement and one that called out to be investigated. Having already fallen in love with South Africa and its people on our repeated trips to the Comrades marathon (and to Cape Town in particular on our visit at Christmas), we were really looking forward to testing out this claim. As always when we travel abroad to run there is so much more to the trip than the race itself. Here are the 10 things that we loved about Cape Town and the Two Oceans Marathon.
The first thing we did once we had checked into our hotel in Cape Town was to change into our running kit and set out for a run on the nearby ocean front. We have written before about running along this part of the coast. One of our all time favourite runs is from Camps Bay to the V&A Waterfront which we managed to fit in a couple of times on the trip. The full route is 10k and mainly car free on pavement, coastal path and boardwalk. There is a bit of a climb on the road winding out of Camps Bay, where incidentally you can see some pretty impressive houses, but other than that the going is flat. We love the ever-changing views with the ocean on one side and Table Mountain on the other. Add to this a sunrise or sunset, and as a city run it’s hard to beat.
We were determined to fit as much into our trip to Cape Town as possible so, on that first day, after a post-run shower we headed off to the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the nearby V&A Waterfront. We were there to board a boat taking us to Robben Island – a trip we had missed out on at Christmas because we hadn’t booked in advance.
Robben Island is the location of the infamous prison in which black opponents to the Apartheid regime were held from the early 1960’s until apartheid was ended in 1991. Three of the former prisoners have since become presidents of South Africa including, of course, Nelson Mandela – the first president to be voted in after democratic, multi-racial elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela spent 17 years on Robben Island followed by another 9 years in Pollsmoor prison on the mainland. He was finally released in 1990 having proudly and bravely refused conditional release in 1985. In 1996 the decision was taken to turn the island and its prison into a National Museum and in 1999 Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site.
The tours of the prison and island are in two parts. First is a tour of the prison itself led by a former prisoner who describes what daily life was like, and which includes a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell. This is followed by a bus tour of the island and the quarry in which prisoners spent each day doing hard labour. The island is starkly beautiful and atmospheric. The trip is very informative and quite sobering in terms of man’s inhumanity to man but the guides delivered their information with dignity and some humour. All in all an inspiring and thought-provoking afternoon.
The changing moods of Table Mountain
Table Mountain is the backdrop to everything in Cape Town – impressive enough in photos but truly magnificent in real life. With Devil’s Peak on the left hand side and Lion’s Head on the right, the plateau itself is approximately 3k in length and 1,084m high. We didn’t go to the top on this trip – though we did contemplate hiking up. A few words of warning from the guide books persuaded us that this might not be a good idea a few days ahead of an important race. Apparently more people die on Table Mountain in a year than on Everest (damned statistics!). It is obviously a slightly tricky, uphill climb but what makes it more risky as a venture is the weather. Table Mountain has a climate all of its own. Clouds are created when wind blows moisture-laden warm air up the mountain where it hits the colder air and condenses. It is the unpredictable and often rapidly changing meteorological conditions that make Table Mountain so dramatic and entertaining. We loved seeing what we referred to as its changing moods. Every time you looked up there was something new to see. Next time we will do the hike!
Cape Town has excellent bars, hotels and restaurants and is incredibly good value too. As in most cities there is a wide range of facilities. It’s likely that the hotel prices were a bit steeper because of the combination of the Easter holiday weekend and the race itself, but we never felt like we were being ripped off. We actually got a very good British Airways flight/hotel package and stayed in two excellent hotels for not much more than the price of the flight itself. The Commodore Hotel was very central to the Waterfront, comfortable and with a very good breakfast. The Radisson Blu was a bit further out but was extremely luxurious with a seafront setting and exceptionally helpful staff. A late (2:30) check out was given with no quibble.
We found the food in Cape Town restaurants in general to be of a high standard. They are mainly located in the city around Kloof street and in the more touristy V&A Waterfront district. The fish is very good, and for meat eaters the Ostrich is a healthy option, tasting like the best quality steak. Vegetarians and vegans were well catered for too. The Food Market on the V&A Waterfront sold a variety of take-away cuisines. Lively bars were to be found in both the restaurant districts, and local craft beers and, of course, good South African wines were cheap and plentiful. Difficult to beat.
During our first visit to Cape Town we wrongly assumed that V&A stood for Victoria and Albert but actually it is Victoria and Alfred. Prince Alfred was Victoria’s second son who as a sixteen-year-old was the first member of the Royal family to visit the Cape Colony as it then was. The V&A is situated on South Africa’s oldest working harbour and consists of 300 acres of commercial and residential properties. It is unashamedly touristy with the usual collection of bars, restaurants, shops (both big chains and others selling local crafts), street performers and a wheel. It also houses the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Zeitz Museum of contemporary art. There is an open air amphitheatre with live music and a big screen, and a handy children’s play park. Add to this the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Table Mountain on the other, sunshine and blue skies in the day and a profusion of twinkling lights at night and it is a pretty OK place to be.
Sunset from Signal Hill
A must-do in Cape Town is a trip up Signal Hill to see the sun setting into the Atlantic Ocean. We were lucky to have a perfect warm, clear evening for this and were rewarded with the most spectacular views of the sunset with Cape Town spread out in the foreground. We joined the other sun-watchers celebrating the spectacle with our bottle of a South African Champagne equivalent. The mood had been set for the evening by a memorable ride up to the viewing point in an Uber driven by a budding singer/songwriter who played us some of his haunting African Soul music. The song lyrics were in the Xhosa language and we were all very moved when he translated them for us – really beautiful sentiments about the mother of his child.
Our (not so) big five
South Africa is obviously a place to go on Safari in search of the so called ‘Big Five’ – Lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. Unfortunately there was no time for a safari for us this trip, but we did have our own mini city safari spotting wildlife around and about the local area. Our five favourite spots were: Dolphins playing in the water as we sat on our hotel terrace, Cape fur seals on and in the dock at the V&A, Guinea Fowl running amongst the crowds watching the sun-set on Signal Hill, Rock Hyrax (or Dassies) on the Lion’s Head climb and finally African Penguins on the shore of Robben Island.
International Friendship Run
On the Friday morning before the Saturday race we took part in the Two Oceans International Friendship run. We were told over 80 countries were represented at this non-competitive event which was open to runners and their families. There did certainly seem to be a huge number of different flags being waved and national costumes worn, all creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The Namibian runners were our favourites. They jogged/danced/sang their way round the course stopping just short of the finish line to perform a traditional dance.
We also took it easy around the course which started at the V&A then went a few kilometres along the ocean front before turning into the very pleasant Green Point park – the home of a local parkrun which unfortunately we didn’t get chance to attend. Along the way we chatted to other runners from many different countries – all sharing the same anxieties and seeking the same reassurances about the race the following day.
Two Oceans Marathon
Hard to know where to begin with this one. One of the reasons the race gets to call itself “The most beautiful marathon in the world” is because the route takes you over Chapman’s Peak – a winding, ocean road with amazing views. The day before we were due to run we woke up to an email announcing a route change. The message informed us that for safety reasons the race would not be going over Chapman’s Peak but taking an inland route instead. This was the 50th anniversary of the Two Oceans marathon – a celebration of its history and here we were unable to run the course for which it was renowned.
This was all happening at 5 a.m. in the morning and slightly hard to take in. Were we disappointed? We had lots of questions. What were the safety issues? Where did the new route take us? Could the race organisers really pull off such a dramatic change at this late stage? There was drama and intrigue, as opposed to disappointment, along with a fairly immediate and happy realisation that it meant another trip to Cape Town sometime in the future to run the original route.
Throughout the day the story unfolded. A protest march, connected to the up-coming elections, had been planned to coincide with the race and there were fears that this could turn violent. The new route, which had been used before when Chapman’s Peak was closed for a couple of years for repairs and more recently because of wild fires, would take us over Ou Kaapse Weg – a brutal 7k climb. Thirty minutes had been added to the final cut-off time. It’s probably fair to say that on hearing this we were slightly more apprehensive.
On race day, in true South African style, we set off in the dark to the race start with our friends Tiago and Mark. On arrival apprehension turned to excitement and everyone was in good spirits as we wished each other luck and separated to go to our pens. There was the singing of the National Anthem, Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire – then the start gun and we were off. The first part of the race was flat and straightforward although the course was quite congested at times and the going slow. The dawn brought us views of the Indian Ocean, a bit more space and a welcome fine rain. The route here was reassuringly familiar from our previous trip. It took us along the coast through Muizenberg and Zandflei, where we passed runners finishing a parkrun that we had taken part in at Christmas. We continued beyond Kalk Bay before turning inland at Fish Hoek. Then we started the climb. We could see Ou Kaapse Weg road ahead, winding its way up into the distance. The rain stopped, the sun came out, there was no shade. There was a moment of realisation – this was going to be tough.
We both used run/walk strategies to get to the top – Jacquie walking rather more than Cam. The only real disappointment on the route was that the aid station at the top of the hill had run out of water! The long, steep down hill was followed by another steep uphill. In places the road had the most extreme camber we can remember seeing. There also were the dreaded cat’s eyes everywhere but especially under our feet. But there were also magnificent views, amazing supporters and other runners to share the experience with. It’s fair to say that we were both happy and relieved to get to the finish line and very grateful for the support of friends waiting for us in the International Tent. It’s amazing how little time it takes to recover from the trauma of the run. One beer later and already we were talking about how excited we were to come back and run Two Oceans rather than One.
Recovery Hike up Lion’s Head
We would be flying home overnight the day after the race. It was a beautiful sunny day with a bit of wind. We decided that, to avoid stiffening up before the flight, the best thing to do was to go on a short hike. We had climbed to the top of Lion’s head at Christmas using the ladders and chains. That was maybe a bit ambitious for today but a trip just part of the way up would give us stunning views of Camps Bay and the city so that we could say our farewells. There were plenty of other runners on the path proudly sporting their race t-shirts. We were all smiling going up but not so much coming down! But it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Cape Town – again only bearable in the knowledge that we will be coming back.
Another amazing trip. We returned to London with no disappointment at all. Our times were not what we had hoped for – Cam ran 5:25 and Jacquie 6:19 but they were almost certainly affected by the route change. There was still a huge sense of achievement. Cape Town has become one of our favourite places to be and we know we will be returning. In the meantime it is London Marathon week…..