Otter African Trail Run 2017: Challenge Race Report

2016 Otter (Retto) Post-Script:

When I entered the starting shoot of the Otter African Trail Run the first time in 2016 I had no idea what to expect. I had read and heard enough of the Trail to know that I was seriously ill prepared for what lay ahead. As a disclaimer, I have to mention that my Hubby got me a late entry into the Otter as a surprise for my birthday, which gave me only 6 weeks to prepare from 5k to trail marathon.

The night before the race, after tossing and turning anxiously for the longest time, a question was born in my mind: “How would you run the race if you already knew you would make it?” I suddenly had a clear image of myself crossing the finish line in time and receiving a (very huge, beautiful) finisher’s medal. I saw a tired me, smiling contently. I felt the immense relief and satisfaction of successfully finishing the race. And with that, a deep sense of peace washed over me.

Right there and then I made the biggest effort to burn those images and feelings into my being. And so, Body and Mind came to an agreement. Body agreed to give all it was physically able to and then some, while Mind undertook to take in the scenery and enjoy every single moment. Joy was sure to be had, and a LOT of it. I knew that they would have to physically remove me from the trail if need be because I would never just quit, but I undertook to make the absolute best of the time I was afforded on that trail, no matter what. I had an opportunity to spend up to 11 hours on one of the most pristine and picturesque trails in the world, and I was sure to make every second count.

Otter Trail. Photo Credit: Alfred Lor

During the race, when fear and doubt threatened to steal my joy or overcome my will to push through, I could regain composure by reaching back to that moment of peace. And I ran like I knew I was going to finish it. And I did. And I am sure I smiled through the entire race, but very much so at that finish line! It was my most memorable run to date. And ever since I have always tried to approach races with the same kind of peaceful optimism in order to allow myself to mindfully enjoy every moment, even the really really hard ones.

Classic or Retto?

They say that women have more than one child simply because their memory of pain doesn’t last that long.  Soon(ish) after childbirth the pain is forgotten and they many of them are ready to add to the family again. So a few weeks after Otter 2016, when I finally regained the full use of some of my vital limbs, I entered myself for the 2017 Otter Classic. I just had to relive the experience that was The Otter. Only this time I could anticipate, daydream (and train) a wee bit longer than the year before.

Cold and wet Otter Challenge start, 2017.

The Otter African Trail Run traverses the hugely popular Otter Hiking Trail along South Africa’s Garden Route. The hiking trail begins at the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and follows the coastline from east to west towards the town of Nature’s Valley. The Classic Otter follows this route every other year, while the Retto (otter in reverse) follows the reverse route in the years between.

Otter African Trail Run.

Which is nicer, the Classic or the Retto? The simple answer is Both. They are two very different races and if given the opportunity, one should really try both. How lucky can one get to experience such splendour in nature from all possible angles?!

But, lucky to have run the Retto and Classic, I would have to say that the Classic was my favourite. My choice may be biased because the Classic was my second Otter, so I was a little more relaxed. I had a better idea of what to expect. Also, I already had a medal in the bag so I knew what it took to complete the grueling course but that it definitely was doable.

Photo credit: Jacques Marais Media
Technical rocky ridges on the first parts of the Classic Otter. A little sunshine too!

Nevertheless, the reasons why I love the Classic more has to do with the technicality of the course.  Firstly, on the Classic you deal with the hardest part of the route in the beginning. The first 5 k’s of the Classic is from Storms River to Ngubu hut, a very slow and technical section that seems never-ending when it is your last 5 k’s on the Retto. Similarly, the last 8 k’s on the Classic is a beautifully flat(ish) section and one that you can run for long stretches.  It’s always nice to finish a marathon by actually running, not slow-crawling.

A nice stretch of runnable trail on the final parts of the Classic Otter route.

2017 Otter Classic

Needless to say, the 2017 Otter Classic experience differed vastly from the 2016 Retto. To start with, the Prologue in Nature’s Valley was a killer. Shorter, but with plenty more stairs than the one in Storms River. I usually don’t run the day before a race, so Prologuing is really tough for me mentally. The day before is traditionally a day of resting, eating cheesecake (I take Bruce Fordyce’s advice very serious of arriving at the start slightly overweight and undertrained) and receiving firm but encouraging pep talks from the Hubs.

And then there was the weather. True to form, the 2017 Challenge was the Wet One. Apparently, 2016 was the only time it didn’t rain on Challenge day. But 2017 saw a weather alert of 2 with rain and wind. Lotsa wind.

Not that any of the many steep, logged inclines are any worse than the next…

With a route inclusive of 14 000 log stairs and with loads of rocks and boulders, you can only imagine how slippery it gets when it is wet. Add to that some moss and mud, and you have a very long slip and slide from start to finish. And one really never dries out.

Ironically, the 2017 Otter was amidst one of the worst droughts that South Africa has seen in years. The nearby town of Knysna experienced devastating veld fires in the months before, and the destruction was still evident. The Tsitsikamma Forest between Natures’ Valley and Stormsrivier didn’t manage to evade the claws of the drought either. This year it wasn’t so much the lush greenery and enchanting sounds of the forest that epitomized the race for me. In fact, the forest was mostly quiet. Without the undergrowth to safeguard her privacy and secrets, one could see deep into the forest’s inner sanctum in places.  I didn’t really want to look. It felt a little sacrilegious. And at times, my presence along the outskirts of the majestic Knysna Forest, home to the elusive Knysna elephant, the iconic kalander, yellowwood and stinkwood and the birds and creatures that they offer refuge to, even felt like trespassing.

Instead, my 2017 Otter was defined by the presence of the ocean.  Possibly with the focus now shifted from the usual lush but now recessing forest, the sea featured very prominently. The ocean was rough and full, probably due to the passing weather system, with white-foaming waves crashing on jagged rocky ridges that did not allow itself to go unnoticed. The thundering roars followed me even where the trail ventured deeper inland and seemed to be amplified by the wind and downpour. All in all, it was one of those days where you experienced dealt with nature with mind, body and all of your senses.

Bloukrans Crossing. Photo credit: Jacques Marais Media

The Bloukrans River crossing of 2017 was also one for the books.  Bloukrans is to the Otter trail, whether hiking or running it, what boerewors is to Belville. And most often your Otter will be unofficially judged by the severity of your Bloukrans crossing.  Where 2016 saw a silted-up river mouth with the stream a mere trickle on the western bank, 2017 was quite the opposite. The mouth was wide and deepened with a far-up washing ocean. Forward movement, clutching the heavy swaying safety rope, was hard at times while contending with the strong ebb and flow of the surf. As the waves came in I nervously scrambled to stay on my feet with water up to my ears. I had to keep reminding myself that I can actually swim, albeit an ability that you don’t often consider an advantage on a trail run.

Whether it was because or despite the elements I don’t know, but I was able to take about 40 minutes off my 2016 Retto time and finished in 10h11min. With a bit more training in the bag this time around I felt more comfortable in general and still had ample time to take pictures and enjoy the journey.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Otter African Trail Run plenty times before (like here,  here and here) and probably will keep doing so for years to come. But honestly, from entry to post-race picture orders and every last detail in between, the organisation by the  Magnetic South Team is absolutely impeccable and comparable to none. It is still my favourite race in the world, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to add to our previous bag of Otter memories soon.

One last test… crossing the floating bridge and balance beam to the finish line.

My favourite people waiting for me – no better prize at a finish line!