Yesterday I took part in the most beautiful trail race I could imagine. The Otter Run follows the 42km hiking trail in the Tsitsikamma National Park in the Garden Route of South Africa. The coastline is spectacular, I’ve never seen a more stunning and dramatic place to run. Though actually I didn’t really ‘run’ it was more of a long walk with some periods of jogging. (More info and photos are here. I’ll post a link to the race gallery when it’s live.)
We set off for the start at 5:30am having done the Prologue the day before to seed us into starting times. The 24 fastest men and 8 fastest women over the 3.2k rocky climb of the prologue set off at 6:45am (the contenders for the podium) and then the mortals set off in groups of four until 7:30am. I went at 7:11am having come about middle of the 211 who ran the prologue.
I knew the first 5km of this ‘Classic’ route from Storm’s river to Nature’s Valley was going to be tough; very technical rock-hopping and some clambering. It didn’t disappoint. Conscious of my next race only a week away (250km in the Kalahari desert – I’d entered The Otter very much to enjoy the route rather than racing!) I didn’t want to turn an ankle or bust my feet so was pretty slow and many runners behind caught me up. It was dry and a sunny day – in the rain this would be even more treacherous!
I ran a steady pace after the most technical sections but it was hard to get into a rhythm – with 11 significant climbs and thousands of steps this route doesn’t let up once!
Coming into halfway with 3:40 time elapsed I was fairly comfortable I’d be inside the 8 hour cut-off, with the least runnable sections behind me. Though as I was thinking this my hamstrings started the first of what was to be regular cramping for the remainder of the run/walk. I struggled to even walk up some of the route having to stop and stretch with the cramping. In hindsight whilst I was drinking enough (it was a hot day) I didn’t have enough salt or electrolytes on me and I’m pretty sure I only carried on with the kindness of strangers – in one case a chap gave me some painkillers and another made me eat some salty droëwors.
With four rivers to cross I’d been pretty worried about the biggest of these but crossing Bloukrans I was relieved to only swim about 5m and find the bottom again. In fact my overwhelming feeling was from looking up the valley at the dramatic scenery. The race director and team are essentially conservationists and the race is set up to create minimal impact on the park. With only one aid station this means water points are basically streams – with the authorities having tested them for ecoli etc there were blue ribbons hanging from trees at drinkable streams and red ribbons for those we shouldn’t drink from.
The long slog to the finish was punctuated by lots of stopping and stretching – by now my hamstrings refused to let me even walk normally up hill so I ended up doing a funny sideways shuffle like a crab! I was quite often overlapping with s guy who’s calls were cramping and between us we managed to see some of the humour in the ridiculousness. The final 6km was by far the most runnable with a nice single track trail I just couldn’t take advantage of. Getting near the finish I could hear the announcer say ’15 minutes to cut off’ and I knew I had less that a km to go; albeit with a final river crossing to finish in a pontoon! I finished in 8:05.36 incredibly privelledged to have spent the day in such beautiful surroundings and such a well organised race.
I’d encourage anyone with a love of trails to come and do this race – the Otter trail has a long waiting list to walk it and this is one way to see the whole route in a day. I’ll definitely be back, SA trail running really is a bit of a hidden gem.
This year will go down in Otter run history as the year a new course record was set… And an unbelievable time achieved by Swiss runner Marc Lauenstein (who has some decent pedigree having won the Mont Blanc marathon). Before the race the RD had offered 100,000 SA rand (£5,000) to anyone breaking the 4 hour barrier. The previous record set two years ago by British runner Ricky Lightfoot, at 4:15. With less than a minute to spare Marc won the race in 3:59 and change. At the awards ceremony he donated half his prize money to the park trust and a children’s charity.
Marc finishing… And realising he’d broken 4 hours!
Emma Roca won the women’s race in 5:07, showing her technical skills that have been honed in the European Alps. Full results here.
I’m so grateful for my friend Georgina (who was 8th woman yesterday and had a great run!!) for suggesting I join her with a fab group of people – and I’m really thankful the race organisers gave me an international spot (though I think they expected me to race it, hopefully spreading the word about this awesome race makes up for that!).
For me now it’s 4 days until I meet up with the group running the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in Joburg and we fly up to Uppington. Can’t wait!