When I first read about the Otter Trail as the most famous hiking trail in South Africa I decided that I would need to find the time to hike it. Then I found out that the trail was 40 km long and only permitted 12 people to commence hiking each day, stopping at prescribed huts each night without any possibility for variation, and thereby completing the length of the trail over 5 days. The trail follows a picturesque section of coastline with numerous river and beach crossings, and plenty of climbing in between, but the thought of averaging only 8 km per day seemed way too slow.
Then I heard about the Otter Run, a once in a year opportunity to run the length of the trail in just one day, and I was sold. There are actually two separate events held over a four-day period: the Otter Run allows an 8-hour cutoff and provides various medals for completing the run within 4.5, 5, 6, 7 or 8 hours while the Otter Challenge extends the cutoff to 11 hours but only provides medals for completing the run in 8 or 11 hours. After some careful consideration and time predictions I decided that the Otter Run was the event for me. I added my name to a priority list and signed up the very day that entries opened.
The Otter Trail is a point-to-point trail starting in Storms River and finishing in Nature’s Valley. The Otter Run had been held on three occasions prior to this year following that exact route but this year the organisers were given permission to run the route in reverse. Starting in Nature’s Valley and finishing in Storms River this year’s race was named the Retto.
The race allows 220 competitors onto the trail, and the competitors start in seeding batches. In order to determine seeding batches a prologue is held on the day prior to the race. The prologue is a 4.5 km run with a similar profile to the race (i.e. big climbing and big descents), and can be completed at any time during the day. The male competitors with the 24 fastest times in the prologue would form the first group named the Abangeni (the challengers) and would set off first, with only competitors in this batch being eligible for podium positions. After a four minute delay batches of 4 competitors would set off in 30-second intervals. The female competitors with the 8 fastest times in the prologue would form their own Abangeni and would set off together, with their batch slotting in based on the prologue time of the fastest female.
On the morning prior to the race I flew into the city of George and caught a shuttle to Storms River, where the race village was set up and the prologue was taking place. I arrived and registered, proved that I had brought all of the mandatory gear and had my trail shoes cleaned to ensure they weren’t carrying any spores or seeds. By that time it was late morning, so with the temperature starting to heat up I decided that I would have lunch and then complete my prologue around 3PM once the hottest part of the day was past. I sat down for lunch with a couple of other runners that had caught the shuttle with me, and we were able to keep up to speed on prologue results as they were posted on social networks. I had decided that I wanted to attempt to qualify for the Abangeni, and not wanting to run too hard the day before the race predicted that a time around 24 minutes would hopefully be sufficient. After lunch I went to my accommodation, changed into my running gear, and at 3PM headed out for a warmup jog to the start of the prologue.
I climbed a long set of stairs to the start of the prologue, was explained the rules by one of the marshalls and set off. I was feeling good on the run and was comfortable that I was on target for my 24-minute target. The prologue course was entirely forested, running between the trees on soft dirt tracks while avoiding rocks, roots and branches. It is my favourite type of trail and I was having a great time of it. Then at the bottom of a descent I took a turn in the path, continued a short way and saw a tree in my way. Looking further on the path seemed to almost disappear and I started to doubt whether I was on the right path. I ran back 10-20 metres and the path looked clear at that point so I returned to the fallen tree and climbed over it only to realise that there was no way this could be the correct path. I retraced my steps even further back and found that I had indeed taken a wrong turn. I was back on track but had lost possibly 90 seconds to 2 minutes. I continued to push the pace down the final descent and eventually crossed the line with a time of 25:40.
I had missed my target but as it turned out I still would have missed the Abangeni. I had underestimated the strength of the field in the race, with the slowest qualifying time for the Abangeni turning out to be 23:20. The fastest time recorded was incredibly quick at under 20 minutes. With my lost time I ended up in the 9th batch behind the male Abangeni and two batches behind the female Abangeni. But the race timing is based on net time so I knew that I still had an opportunity to greatly improve my position.