Kenyans Jesse Gichuhi, Justin Chesire and Melly Kennedy move to the fore 18km into Saturday’s Two Oceans Marathon. Photo: Nic Bothma/EPA

CAPE TOWN - As the 49th Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon winds down after another world-class event over the week end, ultra-marathoning thoughts turn to next year’s event - the 50th Anniversary of the “most beautiful ultra-marathon race in the world”.

The evolution of “The Oceans” has been startling. The international contingent alone from this year’s event was more than one hundred times the entire field in 1970, a motley crew of 26 white males, using the event as simply a training run for the Comrades Marathon.

There were no seconding stations, little media coverage, no finish gantry, no expo, you could enter on the day, no road closures, no “extra events” such as the half marathon or trail races, no professional organisers and paltry prize money, if any. But there were similarities - tired but euphoric finishers high on endorphins and, apart from the finishing few kilometres, a course very much the same as the one enjoyed by so many this past weekend.

The escalation was rapid and in just six years “multi-national” status had been granted to the event, which in 1976 was open to all races and genders. An entry fee of R5 bought a race T-Shirt, a medal, a supper and a surprise package!

Next year will be the 50th Anniversary of the “most beautiful ultra-marathon race in the world”. Photo: Nic Bothma/EPA

But what of the future? How can the Two Oceans retain what has made it great in the past but build the event into a world-beater, attracting the finest marathoners to enjoy the special package that Cape Town has to offer?

While the action up front is only part of that package, it is the elite athletes who ultimately define the event and generate most of the media profile. But here social club runners compete on equal footing with elites and professionals. Split screen imagery in the significantly improved live television coverage on Saturday showed the colourful masses running slowly through Hout Bay as we watched Kenyan Joseph Chesire racing to victory. All in the same race.

It would come as little surprise if athletes from Africa’s Great Rift Valley countries start to dominate South Africa’s great ultras, as they have standard marathons around the world for decades. When Kenyan John Wachira won Oceans in 2009, future Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance of the podium was anticipated.

That did not happen immediately, with athletes from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho continuing to dominate over the past decade. But a moment on Saturday gave a portent of what could be, as a trio of athletes appeared at the front of the field, running with utmost ease down Bergvliet Main Road after 10km. Kenyans Chesire, Melly Kennedy and Jesse Gichuhi were soon absorbed back into the large lead pack, but for a short while the Two Oceans took on the appearance which has characterised big city marathons all over the world.

Chesire powered through to a memorable victory, after recording his fastest ever standard marathon time en route, with Kennedy finishing one up on last year in fourth and Gichuhi just missing out on gold in 11th, in the strongest showing yet from Kenya.

When the race first started, there were no seconding stations, little media coverage, no finish gantry, no expo. Photo: Mic Bothma/EPA
When the race first started, there were no seconding stations, little media coverage, no finish gantry. Photo: Mic Bothma/EPA

Anniversaries are opportunities to celebrate in style and many are speculating what next year’s half-ton will deliver. “We are excited about the possibilities and looking to pull together stakeholders, sponsors, other supporters and the City in a bid to do something very special,” outgoing Two Oceans general manager, Carol Vosloo explained.

R1 million has been up for grabs for the record for several years, but has not attracted the 2 hr 09 min men and 2 hr 25 min women marathoners required to improve these remarkable times. R50 million for a world 50km record on the 50th anniversary (with the additional R1 million bonus for the 56km best time) would undoubtedly have a dramatic impact on the field and establish the Two Oceans Marathon as the world’s premier ultra for the next 50 years! Wishful thinking perhaps, but could that happen?

Stephen Granger

Cape Times