3 Cape Town half marathons you just have to run

From September to April you’re likely to find a race in or around Cape Town every weekend. But every runner — even casual weekend warriors — should try these three Cape half marathons at least once.

1. The Two Oceans Half Marathon: Undoubtedly the biggest and most anticipated half marathon in Cape Town, the Two Oceans Half Marathon attracts 16 000 runners each year – and those are just the ones who manage to secure an entry. The half marathon, which has been run since 1998 and always takes place over the Easter weekend, doesn’t actually take runners alongside either ocean;, although you might catch a glimpse of False Bay from the top of Edinburgh Drive.

Southern Cross Drive, which you’ll hit about halfway through the 21.1 kilometre race, is quite tough, but the sheer number of runners means that there’s a limit to how quickly you can plod up the hill anyway. Given the congestion, you’re not likely to run a personal best, but the festive atmosphere and phenomenal support along the way more than makes up for it.

2. The Gun Run: With a field about half the size of that of the Two Oceans, the Gun Run is still festive, but – barring the first couple of kilometres – not as annoyingly congested. The race, which is organised by the Atlantic Athletic Club and was first run in 1992, originally started at 09H30 so that the Noon Gun fired from Signal Hill marked the cut-off. These days, the Cape Field Artillery signals the start and end of the race with the firing of a battlefield gun.

For the most part the Gun Run, which takes place in October, is relatively flat, making it a fun and easy first half marathon. The hill on Kloof Road is fairly taxing, but you are rewarded with stunning views of the ocean and a fairly easy descent into Camps Bay. The last few kilometres, along the Atlantic coastline, are mostly flat and picturesque. Water stations compete for a “best table” prize, so the vibe is always great.

3. The Cape Peninsula Half Marathon: The Cape Peninsula Marathon, which is organised by Celtic Harriers, was first run in 1964 with 19 runners. The full marathon starts in Cape Town and finishes at the Naval Sports Field in Simon’s Town. The half marathon starts in Bergvliet – adjacent to the halfway mark in the marathon – and the two routes quickly merge.

Except for a few hills as you make your way into Simon’s Town, this is a pretty flat route and the fact that you run much of it along the coastal road makes it an enjoyable one. The full marathon usually attracts a big crowd running qualifying races for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, so the mood at the finish is festive. Once you’re done, you can simply catch a train back to the start with the other runners.

3 half marathons worth heading out of the city for

While Cape Town has its fair share of magnificent half marathons, there are at least three in the surrounding areas that are worth travelling to for a day trip or a weekend getaway.

1. The Safari Half Marathon: This half marathon, first run in 1988, takes you through the little town of Wellington, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, and the surrounding farmlands. You spend a fair amount of the race on gravel roads and many of the local farmworkers and their children come out to support you. There is something really special about running through this beautiful part of the Cape when the morning is still fresh and full of promise.

The half marathon is always run on the first of May – a public holiday – and it is late enough in the year that it doesn’t start too early. As the name suggests, the race is sponsored by Safari dried fruit, so the goodie bags come filled with tasty treats.

2. The Vital Winelands Half Marathon: By November the days can get scorching hot in Stellenbosch (a 40-minute drive from the city centre), so this half marathon starts very early, which means that if you are making the trek from Cape Town you should leave home at around 03h30! Thankfully, the beautiful scenery — you spend some time running through farmland – compensates for that early start.

This half marathon was introduced after the Winelands Marathon had been run for 19 years. The two races converge at the 32 kilometre mark in the marathon, and both finish at the Eikestad Primary School. With over 4 000 runners crossing the finish line, there is a festive atmosphere at the end. That said, the support along the way is not spectacular, and there is a fairly long (and hilly!) stretch of the race where you have to run on the shoulder of a busy highway.

3. Knysna Half Marathon: One of the most popular half marathons in South Africa, the Knysna Half Marathon in Knysna, a solid six hour-plus drive up the Garden Route, is the perfect excuse for a weekend away! This hilly half marathon starts in the heart of the Knysna forest. Because it is run in the middle of winter, it can be pretty darn cold, so there is a tradition of runners wearing warm clothes and blankets at the start. These items, which are discarded at the start and along the route, are donated to less fortunate members of the community.

The Knysna half marathon is not easy. It kicks off with a gradual 2.5 kilometre hill, followed by a long stretch of undulating jeep track. Later, as you descend into Knysna, you are faced with a gruelling, quad-killing downhill, but the views are amazing. Because everyone is staying for the weekend, and the half marathon forms part of the Knysna Oyster Festival, everything post-race is one big party.

A dummies guide to betting smart at the races

If your betting know-how comes down to scanning the race card for a horse’s name that tickles your fancy, these simple tips will significantly increase your chances of actually winning at a Cape Town horserace. Clyde Basel, who has almost 30 years of experience in the horseracing industry, shares some practical advice.

Study the race card

Before you can place any bets, study the race card. The first things you need to look out for in the race card are the number and times of the races. Each race has a certain number of horses, and they are listed in numerical order. Once you’ve found the race you are looking for, you look out for the horse’s name, the jockey who is riding the horse, and the horse’s trainer.

Most people who are new to horseracing will pick a horse entirely because they like the way its name sounds. But if you want to take it a step further, the race card will often show you what sort of form the horse has got. So, you look at its last run, where it finished, how it has run in the past, how close it got… that sort of thing. This will give you an idea of whether or not the horse is competitive.

Go see the horses

It’s not essential to view the horses in the paddock before the race, but if you do, there are a few things you can look out for. Often the best sign of the wellbeing of a horse is its coat — a nice shiny coat usually indicates wellbeing. You can try and gauge its fitness by looking at its ribcage. Usually if there is a little bit of ribcage showing, it indicates fitness, but bear in mind that you get different types of horses and some are just naturally more robust. If the horse looks relaxed and walks quite slowly and is not too concerned about its surrounding, this is often a good sign. What’s normally not a good sign is perspiration. If the horse is sweating down his neck or buttocks, it might mean that he is too full of himself or that he has taken quite a lot out and that is often not a good sign before a race.

Newbies: try an ‘Each Way’

If you have never placed a wager before, I think your best option is what we call an “Each Way” — it’s a “win” and a “place”. For example, if you like horse Number One, you will have R10 each way — R10 to win and R10 to place. That’s the easiest and simplest way to bet. So, the horse can either run first, second or third, depending on how many runners there are. If there are 15 runners, it pays out for first, second and third; if there are 16 runners or more, it pays out for first, second, third and fourth.

Box your bet

You’ll sometimes hear people talking about “boxing their bet”. When you move out of an Each Way, you get what you could call, for example, a Trifecta, which is the first three. So, you could choose a Trifecta straight line — so that they run one, two and three in a set order. A box is any order. So if you say ‘”I want a Trifecta box, one, two and three”, it doesn’t matter what order they run, as long as it is those three horses. It would cost you more to box your bet, of course.

Go for a Pick Six

I think one of the most popular bets is the Pick Six. All tote betting is pool betting, so everybody puts money into one pool and then that pool is distributed amongst all of the winners. So, a Pick Six normally runs from the first leg, which is race four, all the way to race nine. There are six races, and the idea of the Pick Six is to pick six winners — one in each leg.

You could do one choice in each leg, but if you wanted more because you weren’t sure who was going to win, you can bet on more horses. The more horses you put in each leg, the more the permutation will cost. What’s fortunate about that is what we call fractional betting. So, if you only want to bet ten bucks, no matter how many horses you put, you’ll get a percentage of the total cost — you’ll get 1% or 5% or 10%, depending on what you spend. Whichever numbers you’ve chosen, one of those has to win each of those legs, and if you get your numbers winning in each of those legs, you catch the Pick Six, which can often pay out one or even two million… or, if you have multiple winners, can pay out R20 000 or R30 000. Not a lot of people catch it, but the Pick Six is quite fun!

J&B Met: Behind the scenes with a pro horse trainer

The horses that race in Cape Town’s J&B Met are magnificent creatures built for power, speed and victory. But they don’t get like that all on their own. Candice Robinson of Mike Bass Racing, the only female horse trainer for the 2016 J&B Met, shares what it takes to train a horse for an event like this.

Training a horse is a process. You are never just training a horse for one race; although, obviously, a race such as the J&B Met — where the best 16 horses in the country over that distance compete — is one of the big ones… We’ve won the J&B Met five times. It’s not an easy race to win; it’s a very difficult race to win.

Before you can enter a horse in the J&B Met, you have to get to that stage in its career… The horse also needs to be fit and well at the time to run the best race it possibly can on the day. It’s not just about being good enough; there are a lot of factors that go into preparing a horse for a Met.

It’s important to remember that horses, like people, have different abilities. We have horses that run over shorter distances (1 000 metres to 1 200 metres), we have horses that run middle distance (1 400 metres to 1 600 metres) and we’ve got horses that run over more ground (2 000 metres to 3 000 metres). They are all pretty much trained differently; I would train a fast horse differently to a horse that goes 2 500 metres. Same as you would a human being — a sprinter would train differently to a long-distance runner.

Along the way, things do tend to go wrong: horses get injured or sick. It’s never plain sailing! Plus, the horses actually need to be good enough. Although there are certain qualities that you look out for when you are buying a yearling (young horses between one and two years old), you can’t say for certain what they will become. Some can run and others just can’t. Some are athletes and others aren’t. Some horses only ever win a race; some of then never win a race; others will win 10. It all depends on the horse.

There are definitely some trainers who are better than others. I don’t think that you could just take somebody off the street and put them in a training position and say: this is what you need to do. I don’t think that would work; you need to have a feel for a horse.

Not even every person who rides a horse may be able to train a horse either — some people just have a feeling for being able to train a horse well… You need to understand horses, and you need to be able to feel when things are right and when they aren’t. Then, you need to be able to make small tweaks to make them right. It’s very much about feeling!

Training horses is a lot of hard work. It’s not a nine-to-five kind of job. You have to work weekends and you don’t get to go away on holiday for three weeks when you feel burnt out. We work right throughout the year, and it is hard work. You really need a good team behind you, and you need clients who trust you. Without clients, you have no buying power, and without buying power, you don’t have winning horses. You need to build up a reputation so that people with money — and a love of racehorses — are willing to invest in you.

J&B Met: More than just a day at the races

The J&B Met is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of Cape Town’s summer social calendar. The beautiful people, flamboyant fashion and the prospect of winning big are almost as intoxicating as that rare blend of J&B whisky. Oh, and horses. There are also horses. This is how it all started…

For thousands of people — those who know little about betting and even less about horses — the J&B Met is not really about the horses. It’s about seeing and been seen. It’s about getting dressed up and socialising and posting it all on Instagram. It’s about the glitz and the glamour and that awesome after-party.

Don’t get me wrong; it is also about the horses. It’s about the thrill of placing a bet and cheering like a maniac when the horse you picked gallops down the home straight… but if your horse loses, you’ll shrug it off, grab another drink, and stalk your celeb crush.

For most, the J&B Met is just one of Cape Town’s top fun, social events… and this is a good thing. It is what draws tens of thousands of people to Kenilworth Racecourse year after year. It is what makes this event so successful and guarantees its longevity. But there was a time when the Met’s status as one of South Africa’s big three in horseracing wasn’t certain.

The first recorded winner of the Metropolitan Mile (as the Met was once known) was Sir Hercules, in 1883. The race was originally run on the Green Point Common: the competitors were English soldiers attached to the Cape Garrison; the spectators, ladies of the Cape. In the late 19th century the race was moved to the Kenilworth Racecourse and it became the South African Turf Club’s feature event each summer.

Over the decades, the event lost some of its sparkle and although it had been firmly established as one of the country’s top three races by the 1960s (alongside the Durban July and the Summer Cup in Gauteng), the general public — and even those in the industry — began to lose interest.

Then, in 1978, which was (not-so coincidentally) a mere year after Justerini & Brooks began sponsoring the event, a magnificent chestnut called Politician entered the race. The stake was R50 000 and Politician had an outstanding reputation. The crowds flocked to the racecourse and Politician, with “Big Race” Bertie Hayden in the irons, did not disappoint.

Trainer Syd Laird returned with Politician the following year, drawing an even bigger crowd, and Politician achieved something unprecedented by winning the Met two years in a row. Politician’s impressive feat was only matched — and then beaten — by the legendary Pocket Power, the horse that won the J&B Met in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Since J&B began sponsoring the event 39 years ago, it has grown tremendously and evolved into something quite spectacular. With a stake of R2.5 million, the J&B Met is now the largest outdoor annual horeracing event in Cape Town. In 2002, for example, more than 50 000 spectators pitched up at the Kenilworth Racecourse on the day, forcing event organisers to close the gates and put up “house full” signs half way through the afternoon!

The horses may once have drawn modest crowds to the Kenilworth Racecourse, but it is the grand spectacle, the opportunity to rub shoulders with the country’s rich and famous, and the promise of a day packed full of entertainment that bring tens of thousands of South Africans back to the J&B Met each year.

My top tips on preparing for an endurance race

Cape Town hosts various thrilling long-distance trail races, Rosie Carey, female record holder of the 108 kilometre Outeniqua Quest, shares her tips on getting set.

I think that the biggest challenge of an endurance race is the mental challenge. You can go into an ultra trail run a little physically underprepared — and that’s sometimes better than being over-trained — but if your mind isn’t properly prepared, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. I really believe that anything over 50 kilometres is a battle of willpower; a mind game far more than just a running race.

It becomes a case of your mind willing your body to keep going, to push beyond the ache in your legs and the burning in your lungs. You need to train your mind to ignore the negative thoughts. Replace them with positives. It helps to have memorised a few simple, punchy motivational phrases to throw at any negative thoughts.

I use a strategy of breaking the race down into smaller, doable pieces. It’s far less daunting to think of doing 10 sets of 10-kilometre stretches than one set of 100 kilometres. At the beginning, I divide the race up into 10 kilometre segments. Towards the end of the race, when I’m becoming more tired, I count down smaller distances: five kilometres and then eventually one-kilometre intervals.

One of the best pieces of advice I got for pacing myself in long races was to divide the race into three segments. For the first half of the race, run well within yourself. If you are feeling good at the half-way point, increase your pace a bit for the third quarter of the race. If you hit three quarters of the way through and you’re still feeling good, give everything you’ve got to the last quarter. That works for me.

People tend to think that training for an ultra is just about doing endless miles of running. It’s so much more than that. It’s about getting your race nutrition and hydration strategy right long before race day; it’s about testing and retesting all your gear in different conditions, and finding the gear that works for you; and it’s about learning to love spending hours in your own company. It’s about never — not even for a moment — entertaining the thought that it’s not possible.

The life of a racehorse

Every year some of the best horses in the country compete in Cape Town’s J&B Met. Some of them, such as Pocket Power (J&B Met winner 2007, 2008, 2009), become legends that capture the public’s collective imagination. But what happens to horses such as Pocket Power when they retire? Trainer Candice Robinson tells you more about the life of a racehorse.

We buy horses — called yearlings — at the sale when they are a year old. Cape Town is by far the best breeding area in the country. As a trainer, there are certainly qualities that you look out for when you are at the sale. There are about 500 horses in the catalogue and you have to choose 10 and hope that they will be able to win you a race such as the J&B Met one day. For example, we would look at the general confirmation of the horse, which is made up of many factors, and then the legs — whether they are straight and correct — and then how a horse walks and uses himself, which is an indication as to how they will move on the track. Those are the basic factors, but you only really know about these things if you are in the industry.

After the sale, the horses return to the farm and then they come to our training centre at about two years of age. They all turn two in August, and around about September or October they come into the yard to start training.

Not all horses race at two years of age, but they probably start racing in April, May or June of the following year. Some of them can take up to a year before they start their careers — it all just depends on the horse. Some horses are fast and early, so you can race them early on in their careers. Others, usually those that go over longer distances, may take more time. Or a horse might be immature and then it will need time to mature before it is ready to race. So, they are all different. Some horses, those that take much longer to come to hand, will only be ready to race when they are three.

As a trainer, you will take a horse through its career. On average, a horse will probably have a career until they are about four or five years of age. You do get some, though, that will race until they are six or seven years of age.

Most of your fillies finish racing at five years of age and then the better bred fillies will go to stud and they will be used for breeding. The geldings — like Pocket Power who won the J&B Met three years in a row — generally end up in show jumping, dressage or eventing once they have finished racing. And then, obviously, you get the odd ones that are good enough that haven’t been gelded that will perhaps make a stallion, but they are few and far between.

Two Oceans is a lie…and 3 other marathon myths busted!

It’s not really the Two Oceans…and other myths to remember while running South Africa’s favourite ultra-marathon, the Two Oceans Marathon, in Cape Town.

The Two Oceans Marathon has been described as “the world’s most beautiful ultra-marathon”, and that much is certainly true. The 56-kilometre endurance race winds its way around the dramatic Cape Peninsula, taking in the waters of False Bay before crossing over to Noordhoek on the Atlantic coast. Then it’s a breathtaking jaunt along Chapman’s Peak before the gruelling climb up Constantia Nek and the sweet relief of the downhill towards the finish at University of Cape Town.

But the name of the race itself is a white lie. The marathon derives its name from the popular myth that the Cape Peninsula is where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet. Some Capetonians will even go so far as to cheekily tell you that you can see a line where these two oceans butt up against one another at Cape Point. In fact these two bodies of water only meet 200 kilometres east at Cape Agulhas (sans the line in the sea), but it still makes for a good story. Here are three more ultra-marathon myths you should be aware of before race day.

1. You need to run all the way

Many would-be marathon runners (yes, you) get put off by the idea that you have to run all the way. That’s not true. In fact, unless you’re amongst the top groups it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to run the entire distance. Old hands will tell you that stretches of brisk walking actually help break up the more daunting sections of the run and you can use these walking breaks to make the distance more manageable. Just be sure to make the cut-off times at the demarcated points – 28km halfway on Noordhoek Main Road by 10h00 and 42,2km at Hout Bay Main Road by 11h50.

2. Drink as much as you can

The long-held belief that you need to drink as much as you can, even if you don’t feel thirsty, has been heavily challenged in recent years. Instead, there’s a growing trend in ultra-marathon circles to “drink when you are thirsty”. Over-hydration may in fact decrease performance and even be dangerous, according to Professor Tim Noakes in his book Waterlogged. Instead try a balanced approach, taking into account the heat and humidity of course.

3. You can’t have enough electrolytes

In fact, you can. Electrolytes are essential for balancing fluids in the cells and keeping you hydrated and your muscle function in check. But research has shown that your body can only store and process so much of these vital minerals. After that, your body will either just push them out (think pee and sweat). Or even worse, too many electrolytes can cause cramping, diarrhoea and vomiting. So remember to go easy on the sports drinks.

Why I’ll always return to the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon

Few races show off Cape Town in all its glory better than the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. Not only do you get to see some pretty spectacular views, you also get to experience just how welcoming and supportive locals can be.

At 30 kilometres, around about the time I reached the top of what my mind had construed to be The Longest Hill in the World, my left calf scrunched itself up into an angry little bundle of protest. Every few steps, it would remind me that it was not happy. At 46 kilometres, with another 10 kilometres to go, the nausea hit me. Wave after wave reduced me to a cautious hobble, raising the spectre of Not Finishing.

But I did. Somehow, thanks in part to the amazing support all the way along the route, I managed to cross the finish line of the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. The experience was simultaneously glorious and awful. But you soon forget about the awful. You forget about wanting to swear and cry and quit. You forget about the cramps and the vomiting. But that warm glow that comes with achieving something you once thought impossible persists. Before you know it, you’re training for your next race.

Arguably one of the most beautiful races in the world, the Two Oceans Marathon is the biggest race on the Cape Town running calendar, with the half-marathon attracting 16 000 runners and the ultra marathon another 11 000.  In addition to the 21-kilometre half marathon and the 56-kilometre ultra marathon, runners can also enter trail runs that take place over the same weekend.

While the congestion caused by so many runners can be a little difficult to navigate, the spirit and camaraderie that come with so many participants more than makes up for it. Every year — even in the pouring rain — Cape Town locals do the city proud by coming out to enthusiastically support the runners all the way along the route. When your spirits are flagging, little kids with trays of oranges or energetic brass bands are there to pick them up.

Whether or not you regard yourself as a runner this race, which always takes place over the Easter weekend, should be on your Cape Town to-do list. Entries get snapped up really quickly, so make sure that you keep an eye on entry dates. And be warned: once you’ve done it, you’re going to want to do it again!