The Otter Trail is an immensely popular 42 km hiking trail along the southern coast of South Africa through the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Once a year trail runners are gifted the opportunity to run the trail in a race dubbed the “Grail of Trail”. Last year I completed the race, which had been renamed the Retto (Otter in reverse) since for the first time it followed the course in the reverse direction to normal. This year I returned to run the course in its normal direction. You can check out my race report from last year here.
I will start this year’s race report by restating a comment that ended my race report last year. Krissy Moehl had just won the women’s event and then stated that the course was, kilometre for kilometre the most difficult she has raced. Last year I finished with my legs sorer than I can ever recall, and I entirely concurred with that statement. But this year I returned in better form than I have ever been.
Last year the event assembled the strongest field of trail runners to race on South African soil. This year the field was even stronger.
All runners complete a 3.8 km prologue the day before the race, which is used to seed the competitors into batches. The 24 fastest males form the first batch, named the Abangeni (the Challengers), and the podium positions can only originate from this group. Behind the males the 8 fastest women set off in the female Abangeni. The remaining competitors take off in batches of four runners every 30 seconds, with final positions based on net times.
My legs were far from fresh after my runs at Mont-aux-Sources and the Wildcoast Wildrun during the prior two weekends, but I was hoping to run a strong race. After finishing in 28th position last year I felt that I could move into the top 24 this year despite the stronger field. However I did not expect to run fast enough to qualify for the Abangeni due to the short distance involved, which doesn’t play to my strengths. I attacked the prologue with a relatively fast pace but my time was clearly behind the leaders, placing me just inside the top 50. But most worryingly my quads were feeling extremely sore after the prologue so I was very concerned about how they would hold up during the race.
After a fairly chilly overnight low race day graced us with perfect blue skies. Runners assembled at the start and I watched as the earlier batches set off. The lead men were followed 30 seconds later by the lead women, and 10 minutes after the men had left, the remaining batches started being released every 30 seconds. When it was my turn I scanned my timing chip and then set out on a very short section of tar that lead onto single track. The trail would remain 100% technical running for the next 40 km over single track, jagged rocks, sand and pebbled beaches. As either a curse or a blessing we would finish with two kilometres of jeep track before a bridge crossing to the finish line.
I followed two other runners from my batch onto a forest trail that was typical of a large portion of the course. But the first 5 km also includes some of the most technical running of the race, with extremely tricky rock sections. I fell into a good pace with the runners around me, occasionally overtaking slower runners over the difficult terrain.
The race features over 2,400 metres of ascent, with most of that taking the form of extremely vertical climbs up uneven and often high stairs. As we started to reach the major climbs I continued to run wherever possible but also maintained a quick hiking pace that started to take me past a number of runners.
My target was to break 5:30 after my time of 5:47 last year. I had not calculated my required pace or studied the course at all, but was simply running by feel and using a pace chart provided by the race organisers as a point of comparison. I compared my pacing for the first time after around 1.5 hours to discover was just a minute behind pace.
The race only provides a single aid station providing Gu products (thanks to their sponsorship of the race) as well as water. It is also possible to fill water from streams or from the huts that are used by hikers on the trail, but either of those options would take a longer time. I had opted to set out with 1.25 litres of water in a bladder within my hydration pack, and then I carried an empty 500 ml soft flask that I could fill if needed. When I reached the aid station just before halfway I picked up some Gu but skipped on refilling any fluids. I would need to hope that I could make it through with the water I was carrying. At the checkpoint shortly after the aid station I checked my pacing and realised that I was now over 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
As I neared the 30 km mark I knew that I would soon be faced with the race’s most infamous feature, the Bloukrans River crossing. We had been promised a swim, and after last year’s experience I was expecting it to be epic. As I turned a corner and was offered my first view of the river I finished off a half-eaten energy bar, thinking that it wouldn’t taste too nice after the swim, and proceeded on my descent to the river. As I reached the water level and made my way over slippery rocks towards the river I realised that it was much lower than expected. I was able to wade through all but the last couple of metres, where a narrow channel of deeper water required a couple of strokes before I could pull myself out of the water.
I had earlier passed one runner that I knew to be from the male Abangeni, and shortly after the river I passed two more females so that I only had three females remaining ahead of me. I assumed that everyone ahead of me would would now be from the two Abangeni batches. Therefore I did not even need to finish ahead of them to beat them but simply needed to cross the line within 11 minutes.
I passed another female and some more male runners as I continued, particularly on the ascents even though I was really feeling the lactic acid in my quads. When I passed Charl Souma, one of the Abangeni runners that I knew he mentioned that the next runner ahead of me was also not part of the Abangeni. I now had a more immediate target, since I didn’t know exactly which batch this runner was from and therefore needed to cross the line first with as large a gap as possible in order to ensure I beat him. A 6 km section of mainly flat running along the top of a cliff leads up to the final descent, and I could often glimpse my target. I was slowly closing in and was close as we started to descend, but gave back some ground on the rough stairs down.
The prologue had started and ended on the beach at Nature’s Valley, and I had mentioned to one of the other runners that it was a shame that the race did not involve more running on sand. After my race at the Wildcoast Wildrun I was feeling confident with my speed and efficiency on that terrain. One of the only sections of sand would now give me a chance to put that to the test. As well as the runner I had been chasing there was another competitor that was not far ahead of the two of us. I made my way to some relatively firm sand and focussed on taking short, light steps as I propelled myself along the beach. I slowly closed in on both runners, overtaking my target just metres before leaving the beach. Then on the steps leading from the beach I overtook the runner ahead, and made my way onto the jeep track.
I wanted to make sure that neither runner was able to respond as I wasn’t fancying a sprint finish so I picked up the pace as soon as I hit the relatively smooth surface. I glimpsed at my watch, and noticing that less than 5 hours had elapsed I realised that I should finish in under 5:10. I started pushing the pace up towards 4:30 min/km, ran up the final hill and took the final sharp turn towards the lagoon.
Then for the final race challenge. In order to cross the river mouth to reach the finish line it is necessary to cross over a floating bridge. It is a cruel finish on already tired legs. A couple of times I started to loose balance and edge towards the water, making it necessary to slow down and regain momentum once again. I finally stepped onto land once more, ran across the line and passed my timing chip over the sensor.
I had smashed my target time by finishing in 5:06:46. It was good enough for 21st overall and 19th male. The only downside was the realisation that on fresh, tapered legs a sub-5:00 finish would have definitely been achievable.
I had returned in better form and improved my time but my legs hurt as much as, if not more than, last year. I think I can safely reconfirm Krissy’s statement: the Otter Run is kilometre for kilometre the toughest race I have completed.