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.
Almost two months ago I wrote about my Retto Prologue. That blog covers details of the race and my motivation for running it. It may be Well overdue but here is my write-up for the race that took place the following day. I watched the recorded footage of the race on SuperSport (a South African satellite television sports provider) last week and I managed a fraction of a second of airtime as I descended a hill just behind one of the leading ladies, but you will need to read on to find out who…
Race morning started off with a bus trip from our accommodation at Storm’s River to Natures Valley. It was a chilly morning as we waited on the beach for the staggered start to begin so I stood around in my waterproof to keep warm until it was time for me to move into the corral. Setting off with the other three guys in my batch I started out at a fairly brisk pace along the beach and soon was running on my own with some of the earlier seeding batches visible in front of me. Within 500 metres of the start we forded a tributary to wet our feet for the first occasion of the day and then left the beach for the first major climb of the day. Upon reaching the top of the first hill the course followed along the top of the cliff for the longest flat section of the race, and it provided an introduction to the stunning scenery to follow.
I gradually overtook people as I ran and decided to count off the females that I passed as a way to track progress through the field. After more than 5 km along the top of the cliff we commenced our descent to Andre Hut, where hikers stop for their final night. From Andre Hut there was a steep climb, followed by a short cliff-top section, and then another steep descent. From there we continued along beaches and sections of beach-side forest until we reached the famed Bloukrans crossing.
During one of the beach-side sections of trail I was jumping a log across the path when I grazed the top of my foot along a branch only to hear the snap of plastic that I instinctively knew was the sound of my foot pod disconnecting. Sure enough I looked down to find that the foot pod clip was still under the laces but no pod was attached. I decided to give myself a minute to look for it. I started searching the path and brush around the log but soon realised that I was not going to find it. By the time I lost the pod I had overtaken five of the females ahead of me, but one slowed down just enough to ask if everything was alright as I searched. I confirmed that I was fine, gave up the search and took off behind her. The additional problem was that while I normally switch off the auto-pause functionality on my watch during races, I had forgotten to do so on this occasion. Since my foot pod (or lack thereof) now indicated that I was not moving my watch had therefore paused. As I took off along a stretch of technical single track I had the additional complexity of stopping my watch, reconfiguring it to disable auto-pause, and then restarting it. But I was on the move again and heading towards Bloukrans.
As the major river crossing along the route Bloukrans can run below knee height at certain times of the year during low tide, but for the race this year it involved a 50-metre swim across water that was 2 metres deep. As we scrambled along a rocky section towards the river I overtook the fourth-placed female again, reached the water’s edge and quickly jumped in. A line was stretched out across the river so I pulled myself across hand over hand until I could stand and wade out to the shore on the other side. Then, as followed most of the river crossings along the route, we faced another steep climb. During the climb I overtook the third-placed female and soon found myself behind the two leading females: Krissy Moehl and Landie Greyling.
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.