April 1, 2013

The South African Speed Session

‘Two Oceans, One Spirit’ – the tag line of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon held in Cape Town, South Africa, every Easter weekend for the past 40 plus years.  Well, maybe ‘Two Hills, One Ridiculous Wind Storm’ would be a more accurate description; there is definitely a reason why the local rugby team is called ‘The Stormers’, it pretty much reflects the city’s trademark weather.  I guess that it’s also worth noting that South Africans don’t just refer to 42.2 km races as marathons; the super scenic Two Oceans route along the Atlantic coastline, through Fish Hoek and up and around Chapman’s Peak and Constantia Nek is in fact 56.2 km, but hey – what’s an extra 14 kms when you have stellar views and the South African spirit to keep you rolling?

View from Chapman's Drive pre-race day

As the wind began to howl the afternoon prior to race day I knew it might slow our race times but to be honest I thought it might be to my advantage; with many of the top ladies in the field boasting marathon PBs in the 2:20s or 2:30s, my 2:42 is sluggishly slow in comparison, so I figured that the gnarlier the course was made by the weather, the more my trail experience of battling the elements would give me an edge.  Even so, the wind was roaring, buffeting the furniture around on the patio of our hotel.  This speed session was not going to be easy.

I call Two Oceans a speed session as I was realistic that this is what it was for me given it is a road race and only 1/3 longer than a marathon.  From my experience at Comrades I knew that Africans tend to go out hard and as I stood I good 10 rows back at the start in the dark streets near the University of Cape Town it was impossible to know how many women charged out ahead of me as the bugle of a fish horn heralded the 6.30am start.  I had decided to go out at 4:00 min/ km pace; the first kms were rolling but relatively flat and as ever I’m always surprised by my ability to click right into pace – 4:01 for the first km, 3:59 for the 2nd – good I thought, a smart start.  However, I was already getting blown around by the wind, I would try to tuck in with a pack of men, but just like at Comrades the men love to use women to pace off and in my Nedbank kit they obviously thought I knew how to pace, so as I turned I saw the shadow of about 10 men in my slip stream but few of them seemed prepared to take the lead from me.  And to be honest, even when I did work my way behind them, invariably the wind was swirling and changing direction so shelter was limited, not to mention that I was taller than many of the lithe African men so it they didn’t really provide much shelter from the elements.  It had been worth a try …

Pre race with Nedbank team mates Tim Stones & Camille Herron

I had no clue what position I was in until a supporter at the sidelines held up six fingers, I held up six fingers back in reply and she nodded her head.  Ok, I knew the Russian Nurgaleiva twins were ahead as well as USA marathoner Camille Herron, and I guessed another two Russians.    I soon moved into what I thought was 4th but then passed another woman who I didn’t recognize, ok no way I could be in 3rd and soon I began to pass yet more women who I didn’t recognize.  Clearly I’d not been in anything like 6th so I was back to having no idea where in the pack I was, oh well, best to run my own race anyway and hopefully I’d get more reliable positioning information later on.

We turned away from the oceanfront at about the 20km mark and as we moved inland to begin the approach of the climb up Chapman’s Drive I hoped we would be moving away from the wind.  No such luck; the wind continued to come in fits and starts making even the supposed ‘easy’ flattish sections seem much more of a battle than I’d anticipated.  I had hoped to feel somewhat relaxed and cruising before attacking the first climb but this was hard when often it was a matter of pushing into the wind to progress forward.  The effort was much more draining than it should have been.  Up Chapman’s Drive we began to climb, the road slowly snaking along the cliffside with jaw dropping views of the turquoise Atlantic Ocean crashing below, white-capped waves showing the power of the wind.  I worked my way up steadily; in our preview drive around the course two days earlier I had been told to take both the climb and descent of ‘Chappies’ with caution – to save something in the tank for Constantia Nek, the second of the two famed hills.

I was delighted to crest the top of ‘Chappies’ but at the summit we were hit by a crazy strong headwind - I actually felt like I might not make it round the corner such was the strength of the wind.  However, I powered through and began the descent only to then have to fight alternating headwinds and tailwinds on the decent to Hout Bay.  A tailwind sounds good until it’s so strong that you are fighting to stay upright.  It was fun, it was wild, it was a little crazy, and it was certainly harder than I had envisaged this section would be.

By now I was alongside a guy and we were working together in sharing the pace.  It was good to have Tokyo France (yep, that really was his name!) alongside me and to feel we were pushing each other, although I passed a few women there were still not many in sight so I needed someone to help me ‘race’ rather than accidentally lull into just ‘running’. 

Somewhere around the 40km mark, on the approach to Constantia Nek, I was joined by a cycle marshal, meaning I was in 10th position - hmm, further back than I had hoped but at least I knew for sure that I was in top 10 (top ten receive ‘gold’ medals) and I just had to make it up the climb to the 47km mark and then I would hit the hammer for the final 9km, which was pretty much all downhill to the finish.  On the climb I was tiring and I’ll admit that I was tempted to walk but I knew I couldn’t – I’d not come all the way to South Africa to wear my Nedbank kit to walk.  I owed it to my team and to myself to carry on running hard and despite struggling on the climb I passed several more women which spurred me on to push as hard as I could.  In 2012 Devon Yanko had secured her 3rd place finish by catching several women in the final kms so I held onto this thought and knew I could also catch women; though I doubted quite how many I would pass, I knew I had to try.

As soon as I crested Constantia Nek at 47km I switched gears and began to pound the descent hard, now there was not a hint of holding back, it was ‘trash the quads’ and ‘pinwheel’ the arms time!  Whee hee!  By now the men were spread thin but I passed one after another and knew that there were about 7 women ahead of me and still hoped I could catch a few.  The slight uphills were now a struggle but they were short and soon done, and before I knew it I was into the final 2km and passed another women and could see my Nedbank teammate Nina Podnebesnova in front of me with less than half a km to go to the finish line.  I doubted that I would catch her as I was running out of real estate but that wasn’t going to stop me giving it a shot.  We entered the finishing area – about 200 metres on grass until we would pass under the finish banner; I hate running on grass, it saps all the energy out of my legs at the best of times, let alone when trying to push to an ultra finish line.  But with about 20 metres to go I passed Nina, I was going hard as I could but she switched gear back at me and with 10 metres to go she cruised past me, knocking me back to 7th again.  For anyone that doesn’t think that seconds matter in ultras, well they do in a competitive field – in fact one lonely little second lay between mine and Nina’s finishing times.  To top it off I missed the Scottish 50km record (taken as a split) by 15 seconds.  Ack!

Here's a link to a funny video showing my total inability to sprint :)


Coming into Two Oceans I had hoped that I could finish close to 3h40 but in reality was unsure of how I would fare having never run such a short road ultra before.  I targeted a 4:00 min/ km pace and hit an average of 4:01 min/ km – heck, it would be silly to dwell on that especially given the windy conditions … but 3:59 min/ km sure would have been nice!  Of course everyone out there this past Saturday tackled the same weather so I can’t use that as an excuse but sometimes you simply have to accept that there are runners out there on race day who are just plain faster than you.  My finishing time was close to what I had hoped for; I’d just hoped it would earn me a higher finishing position.  And next time maybe I’ll push harder a little earlier, but I can also go away with the knowledge that I had the fastest female splits from 42km to 50km as well as from 50km to the finish … maybe I just need a longer race course to work my way up the pack J.

Easy run along the waterfront day after race day.


  1. Thanks for this Ellie. Wow, what a tough race! You did well, I thought, what with the winds and the fast field! - Gord Flett

  2. An awesome race and excellent write-up, Ellie! So, I take it the guy who was prophesying you'd finish the 6th did not foresee Nina's giving you the fight at the finish line :o)

  3. Great race report...I hate running in the wind and I can't even imagine the wind in this race.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ellie. You pushed through some tough conditions and should be proud. I know this experience will help you with Comrades. Good luck, and get after it!

  5. You're looking in great form, you'll be back doing your thing soon enough. Sounds like torture.. road for 53 (ish)k however what a stunning race! Good effort.

  6. Awesome race recap Ellie! I love to read reports from greats in the sport. I look forward to following your progress throughout the rest of the year. Good luck, and way to gut out the last 8 km of your race!

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