History of the beautiful race

A specially produced coffee table book commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon.

If you think peak hour traffic in Cape Town is bad, think again. Imagine at least 29 000 people on the road – 16 000 of them getting ready to run 21.1km and
13 000 aiming to complete the milestone 50th running of the 56km Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon (OMTOM).

That number excludes race officials, volunteers and supporters who will also be out on the road on race day, April 20, and many other participants who will take part in the preceding fun runs and the International Friendship Run which are also associated with the marathon.

The participant tally for last year’s events was 33 000 – a far cry from the 26 runners who participated in the first Celtic 35 Mile Road Race, which went on to become the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon.

Run on May 2 1970, it was the Cape’s first ultra marathon, initiated by former Durban-based runner Dave Venter who worked for BP Southern Africa. Having run his first Comrades Marathon in 1967, shortly before he was transferred to Cape Town, he was disappointed that there were only a few marathons and no ultra marathons run in the city.

So disappointed, in fact, that, after much persuasion, he went on to convince his club, Celtic Harriers, and the then Western Province Amateur Athletics Association to allow him to organise the race. He marketed it as a training run for Cape Town athletes preparing for Comrades, the gruelling 90km road run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, which was launched in 1921.

By the time you read this, the members of our running group will have completed our last long run before the race and will be tapering our training.

Not quite a Comrades or an ultra, at 18.5km, last weekend’s run was the longest distance many of our group had run continuously. For at least four of us, OMTOM will be our first half marathon, and since the last week of February, we’ve been part of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa’s OptiFit programme. Running three times a week and doing strength training once a week, the focus has been on following a scientifically designed programme with gradual progression in terms of distance and route difficulty.

An interesting fact about OMTOM is that in its 50-year history, there are three recorded routes, the first finishing at Brookside (1971-1997) before the finish was moved to UCT in 1998. Between 2000 and 2003 the route had to be changed as Chapman’s Peak Drive underwent repair work. This route, which saw runners having to take a detour over Ou Kaapseweg, was used again in 2015.

Having grown up in an area that was established specifically for coloured families under Apartheid law, and despite the fact that the laws which once restricted our movement were abolished many years ago, it occured to me that my recent involvement in running has taken me to beautiful routes through suburbs I’ve never set foot in before. For this reason, among others, the history of the Two Oceans as it relates to runners of colour and integrated sport, was of particular interest to me.

In a coffee table book being produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this race, there is a chapter that details the registration of OMTOM as a race with “multi-national” status, which allowed runners of colour to participate for the first time in 1975. There were strict regulations however, among them, that limited racial mixing was allowed, and runners of colour had to use separate amenties – and run a qualifying marathon within three hours and 45 minutes!

That same year, the organising committee agreed to allow women to enter, which means that between 1970 and 1974, participation had been restricted to white men only.

Now you’ll find a diverse field of runners taking part in the event, with many coming from other parts of the country – and even the world.

It was in the 1990s, when South Africa was readmitted into international sport, that the number of international runners participating in the race spiked, with last year’s event having attracted foreign runners from 84 different countries.

This year, says OMTOM board member and running historian Harold Berman, they expect about
35 000 people to participate in OMTOM events.

At a glance

1970 – first instalment of what is now the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra Marathon was run.

Race entry in 1970 was 50c

First race attracted 26 runners

In 1975 the marathon was opened to runners of all races.

In 1975 George “Goodenough” Qokweni became the first person of colour to finish the race.

In 1975 Ulla Paul became the first woman to officially enter. The year before, Theresa Stadler had run unofficially.

In 1998 the OMTOM half marathon was introduced.

This year Lucille Damon aims to become the first woman to complete 30 Two Oceans ultras

Chantel Erfort is the editor of CCN, which publishes this paper and its 14 sister titles. Follow @editedeating or #editedeatingOMTOM on social media.