The Two Rivers Marathon: A rainbow nation themed race in the heart of Europe’s lowlands

What do you picture when you read the words: Ultra marathon?

Do you think of winding trail paths or long days in the alps?

I think of wide asphalt roads with unforgiving climbs. I see unending tarmac with runners of all shapes and colours in singlets, straining under the blazing sun.

My first memories of ultra-running were formed in a place where running a 42.2 km on the road is an intermediary goal – simply a means to an end.  This is a nation of runners who race road marathons simply to qualify for road ultras. I hail from the homeland of the road ultra marathon: South Africa.

On Saturday the 10th of February I did my own means-to-an-end, ‘training marathon’.

I ran the Two Rivers marathon to qualify for South Africa’s Two Ocean’s 56 km Ultra Marathon, which will take place in April.

I used quotes around ‘training marathon’ to make it clear that the whole idea of this sounds ludicrous to me as I write it. In 2013 I saw half marathons as the ultimate endurance challenge. I am baffled to think that I ran a full to train for something longer. I must also point out that by no means did I go into this marathon matter-of-factly; I trained hard but cautiously, tapered, carbo-loaded, ate beet-root in the lead-up and mentally dreaded the last 10 km. The marathon didn’t seem like a stepping stone for something greater.

If you think running the Two Rivers to qualify for the Two Oceans seems like too much of a coincidence, you would be correct.

The Two Rivers marathon was conceived as a race to qualify for the similarly named ultra. After discovering the unique atmosphere associated with ultra marathons in South Africa, two Dutchmen decided to hold their own South African marathon event but to base in in their home town of Zaltbommel.  In the spirit of preparing runners physically (but also emotionally) for the run in Cape Town, the organizers created a South African themed race in the heart of the Netherlands.

The start; this was the entire field of runners.

The event had obvious South African touches like playing Shosholoza, an iconic African start-of-the-race song and a braai at the finish.

Shosholoza: South Africa’s running national anthem (Original lyrics with the translation)

Kulezo ntaba
Stimela siphume South Africa
Kulezo ntaba
Stimela siphume South Africa
Wen’ uyabaleka
Kulezo ntaba
Stimela siphume South Africa
Go forward, Go forward
from those mountains
on this train from South Africa
Go forward,
Go forward
You are running away
You are running away
from those mountains
on this train from South Africa


Other subtle touches included race numbers on the front and back and Afrikaans text engraved on the medal. They served cola at some of the aid stations and the end of the race was just short of a gun-to-gun finish. A real Capetonian fired the starting pistol!

‘Opgee is nie ‘n opsie nie’, Afrikaans for ‘Giving up is not an option’.


I didn’t like the idea of a marathon that would only have a few hundred runners (simply because fewer runners improves your statistical chance of finishing last), but I had to run a qualifier and this race did have its pro’s:

  • It was 35 minutes from home.
  • It was advertised as pancake flat; which cannot be dismissed if your main aim is to finish and qualify for a specific seeding group (as opposed to having fun, doing something challenging or seeing a new city).
  • I had to submit my qualifying time before the end of March, so a race on the 10th of February would allow me 5 weeks for a re-exam (or re-run), should this one end in disaster.

After my last 42.2km, I wasn’t tempted to go anywhere it could turn out nice and sunny or slightly warm; the Netherlands in February would be perfect.

I thought I would find the South African-ness of the race either tacky or endearing, but decided to go with it either way. In fact, after picking up my race numbers on Saturday, we DIYed South African flags on both my bibs.


While the race had a Saffer vibe, the weather was typically Dutch, with grey skies, wind and pouring rain. We were lucky that it did not rain the whole day as predicted and only got wet for about 35% of the race. The wind was a much bigger problem, and we had it full in the face in the first 15 and last 10 km.

I ambitiously started with the 4:15 bus, but realized after 12 min that they would go too fast and I would struggle to keep up. Unfortunately, by then the 4:30 bus was too far behind, and I didn’t dare slack off and battle the wind on my own. Instead, I clung on to 4:15 to escape the wind while worrying constantly about the pace. (To be clear, the 4:15 bus is the group aiming to finish after 4 hours and 15 minutes, not the pace I was running at 😀 )

A few minutes into the race and already just hanging on to the 4:15 bus.


Drafting behind the group turned out to be the perfect race strategy. The tallness of the Dutch, the direction of the pacer’s balloons and my experience in the back of the peloton made it relatively easy to find shelter from the gusts.

This first half was extremely boring. The course is pretty but monotonous. I was surrounded by runners but hardly anyone spoke. There was not even the occasional lame, obvious joke you normally get from Dutch runners and spectators alike.

First half: Hiding from the wind and photographers


When we reached the 21 km aid station, I planned to do what I did at all the other stations: Grab a drink as fast as possible and regroup with the pacers before the wind make it too hard to catch them. But at halfway, something strange happened: I grabbed fluid, two bananas and ran off again only to find myself in front of the 4:15 pacers. I looked back and saw one had stopped to answer nature’s call and the other I assume took more time to admire the catering than me. I decided to stay calm and wait for them to catch up with me eventually, but since the wind was now pushing from behind, I didn’t really mind going solo.

Loneliness didn’t last long, and I soon joined two men. They were exactly what I needed after more than 2 hours of running in silence. One talked endlessly and distracted me from the fact that I was now in front of my overly ambitious A goal (4:15 finish time), never a good sign with 10 miles to go. The other fellow was an experienced marathoner who constantly urged us to resist going faster than 5:50 min/km (6.40 mph). Together they paced and distracted me.

The race’s ‘elevation’. The slightly higher peaks are when we ran on the Dijk.


At 32km I had my first and only proper stop. My husband was kind enough to be my support crew and wait 10 km from the finish with all my back-up paraphernalia. I especially wanted to grab my phone and listen to my running playlist. Since I really struggled with the last 10km of the Rotterdam marathon, I thought music would be an infinitely more fun distraction than counting.

I hung around for about 30 seconds to exchange used gel wrappers and snotty buffs for fresh gels and tunes. Since I had stopped, I had lost my experienced pacer and set out quickly to catch him.

But reaching him soon turned out to be impossible. As soon as I exited the 32 km aid station and ran up the Dijk, I was exposed to the wind again, and I just didn’t dare to push hard so far from the finish. A few minutes later, a half marathon runner crept past me and threatened to disappear down the path. It was still too early to start a finish sprint, but I decided I would rather risk a faster pace than battle the gusts on my own. I latched on to her and she seemed happy to shield the rain and set the pace for 8km.

The half marathoner was friendly and chatted with me, but I had my power tunes blasting in my ears and hardly any energy to speak. When she told me that she was running too slow to make her goal for the half, I panted in an accusing tone: “but you are running faster and faster!”, as if it was her fault I was digging deep to keep up.

Finishing with the gentleman who kept my pace cautious from 25 km and then sprinted the last 2 km with me.


I could not have run this race without the 4:15 bus and it’s 15 runners who shielded me from the wind for 21 km. I would have detonated without the gentleman cautioning me between 25 and 32 km to not exceed 5:50 min/km (6.40 mph). I would have been demotivated and defeated had I not had the friendly lady ignoring my grumpiness and blocking the rain and wind in the final kilometres. I could not have done it without my husband taking me to pick up my bib, driving the course with me, and spending a whole day hanging around in the rainy countryside.

I finished triumphantly with a bit of a sprint at the end. I could not be more pleased with qualifying for the Two Oceans and getting a group D start. I am also elated with this unexpected 16-minute improvement. But mostly I am just extremely grateful for the support and encouragement I received along the way.

I can’t wait to head out to South Africa and experience the same running camaraderie that Cape Town is known for each Easter weekend.

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