The magic of The Otter starts right as you enter Nature’s Valley and start seeing “Otter” signage pointing to De Vasselot Camp site, the race hub during the Classic Otter. Every year Magnetic South stages a world class event from either Natures Valley or from Storms River, by building and running a welcoming, vibey race village from scratch. With the engaging staff and their phenomenal way of making everyone feel part of the Otter family, after your first Otter one starts to look forward to spending time at the race hub almost as much as to the race itself. I believe this very aspect of The Otter is part of the extreme FOMO we experience last year when we weren’t able to go down for the event.
This year was the Otter Classic, run from Storms River in the east toward Nature’s Valley in the west. A total different race from the Retto altogether. With the most technical (read TOUGH) part in the first half, the Classic eases up towards the end. The Retto, on the other hand, starts fast and easy and gets progressively tougher towards the end, resulting in a slow crawling finish for runners like me.
Having completed the Classic once before, I knew that there could be pile-ups on the rocky stretches before Ngubu Hut. For this reason I advised Nico to run his prologue faster than was necessary to gain some time advantage on the rocks on race day.
Because the Challenge is usually the “Snotter” instead of the Otter, we of course had to have at least a very wet prologue day. Nico didn’t mind the rain so much and as soon as he was registered, he set off on the short 2.9 km (250 m vert.) prologue. He took my advice pretty seriously and landed himself in the top 25 of the field for a while!
When I eventually realised that the rain wasn’t going to let up, I ran a very muddy prologue, which was perhaps a good foretaste of what was to come on race day. Despite the mud I was also happy with better Prologue time than 2017.
Race morning arrived without a hint of rain and, as promised the eve before, a Weather Alert Level 1. Nico and I took the race shuttle to Stormsrivier while our boys stayed with our beautiful friends who came down all the way from Bloemfontein to spend the week with us. It was the first time for us on a race shuttle together, and quite an adventure!
With his faster prologue, Nico set off 14 minutes before me. Nerves were wreaking havoc by this time, and I was very relieved when my name was called up along with the three other runners in my starting group, some 28 minutes after the first runners had gone.
The first three km of the Classic may be very technical, but it is also extremely picturesque. If only we had a bit more time to look around, but scurrying over slippery, jagged rocks requires full on concentration every step of the way.
The waterfall, however, did not go unnoticed. In 2016 on the Retto I completely missed the waterfall (blame severe exhaustion and panic!). In 2017 I asked other runners to please point it out to me once we got there, but that year it was a mere trickle. This year, however, with the rain over extended parts of the southern coast and interior the day before, the waterfall was simply spectacular.
By the same token, all the other streams and rivers were in flood, which made for interesting traverses but also provided fresh water in abundance to drink and fill up supplies.
The first of four mentionable rivers runners we had to cross was Kleinbosch River. Although not a wide or particularly deep one, Kleinbosch was a technical traverse with huge, slippery boulders. And as it goes with mountain forest streams, it was freezing! Holding on to a safety rope spanning the width of the river, I was lucky enough to cross behind some runners who all assisted in directing the ones behind away from awkward spots. In this way I could avoid a deep pothole after the lady in front of me almost slipped into it and called out in Afrikaans: “Hiert, jou fffffffffffrikadel!”, politely following with “excuse my French”. Got to love those Otter moments!
Back on solid ground, I really had to coax my lower body into proper movement again. The frigid water had sapped loads of energy from our bodies in a short time, and chilled limbs were slow to loosen up again. This time the slow climb up from Kleinbosch valley was welcomed and used to refuel and gently warm up all the extremities again.
In vast contrast to 2017, the forest was again lush and green and bustling with avian- and arthropod activity. I took hordes of pictures in my mind of bold and solitary Arum lilies, timid little red bell florets lining the trail and colourful critters scurrying between dense patches of abundance. Not to mention the diverse and exuberant Fynbos!
The GU Munchy Point, the only aid station on the Otter and Retto, is always a monumental highlight en route. One can usually hear the inviting, happy chatters from afar, even before starting the final descend toward the valley. But, as it seems to be an unofficial universal Otter theme, there should always be one final, very public, challenge as a sort of a rite to passage before one can enjoy some R&R. In this case the Lottering River lay between runner and recharge.
Now, at face value, the Lottering really didn’t look like much. It was wide, but from a distance it seemed shallow enough to allow for a quick and easy passage. Until you stepped foot in it… Which is when you’d realise that is was also filled with awkward rocky potholes, and a mass of fast-flowing water that was completely indifferent to anyone’s aversion to public humiliation. So, in full view of all those at the aid station, I spent a some time on bum and all fours before I cleared the river, hoping that good conversation and snacks sufficiently distracted the audience and that nobody noticed.
But alas! While at the aid table, another runner arrived at the far side and cleverly hollered “where do I cross?!” standing at the very spot most of us entered the river. Much to the bemused embarrassment of everyone on this side, one staffer replied “Go upwards! People are falling stupid over there!” One runner, who obviously suffered the same fate I did, still remarked “why does she get assistance?”, which was met with laughs and a chorus chiming “she asked!”.
Although a dry and pleasantly cloudy race day, the ocean still bore evidence of the the passed front. Swells were monumental and the sounds of waves thundering to shore were thrilling, if not somewhat unsettling. And so it was that “Otter Challenge 2019: The year of Bloukrans” came into being. According to race photographer Jacques Marais who spent an hour the river to take photos, he has never been subject to “such brutal and massive tidal surge” in all of the 11 years he has been shooting the Otter.
After the Munchy Point I met up with a runner who was doing his first Otter. He told me that he was tired and taking strain. I comforted him that the worst was over. “But what about Bloukrans”, he insisted. “Oh, Bloukrans is nothing!” (said no man or woman after the effect on 2019 Challenge day!) Well …
With the high seas on the day, Bloukrans was quite deep and rough by the time we arrived. At the lookout point race director Mark Collins, radio in hand, was looking a bit less cheerful than usual. “It’s a good one …” he remarked as I started on the steps downward. Later only we would learn that, at that point, he was contemplating closing the river and rerouting athletes away from it. Which would have been a bummer and a massive undertaking for the organisers, but luckily proved not to be necessary. It goes to show that, even with all the experience and expert safety precautions in place, Mother Nature still has the upper hand on the day.
A while earlier, Nico crossed the river along with three other runners, all holding hands. By the time I arrived the tide was higher and the lifeguards allowed only a single runner to cross at a time. I waited on the rocks for instructions from the life guard before I proceeded. She was in the water, ready to escort me half way through, when an unanticipated wave pushed us upstream just after I entered. Now, this girl, much smaller in posture than me and only 15 years of age, had been in the water for hours by that time, assisting and directing tens of runners across the river to safety, smiling and cheerful as ever. And without assuming that I could swim (some runners couldn’t – and respectably so, they signed up for a trail run, right?!), she held me up and made sure I stayed safe.
On her instruction I swam to a quiet inlet behind the rocks, climbed out and over and went for a second attempt. This time it went smoother and riding a couple of waves, we made it to the second life guard waiting to take me further. Three life guards to get one runner across gives you a fair idea of conditions that day and how dedicated the organisers and the exceptional staff are to ensure runners’ safety.
On the rocks beyond Bloukrans I met up with the newbie of earlier. “You call that “nothing”?!”, he exclaimed with feigned indignation. Well, I suppose “safe and easy” makes for boring stories!
The remaining 12 km from Bloukrans to the finish was the most “raceable” part of my race. The route eases up on the climbing and there are longer runnable stretches, so one can make up a little time. Now mostly beyond the forest, runners traverse dense stands of diverse and colourful Fynbos, a true feast for the eyes.
That being said, the final 2 km from the final descent to the floating bridge at the finish can become the longest part of the route. The very last section of the course is on a service road hugging the lake but with dense stands of trees obscuring the view. The sounds of the MC and cheers from supporters were audible from a distance, but that final turnoff seemed to stay ever elusive.
And then, of course, where there is a crowd there is opportunity for mortification, this year with an added twist on the floating bridge, the runway for weary Otters.
Just as runners emerged from the forest, elated to finally have the finish line in sight, they had to reach the start of the floating bridge by stepping a short distance into the lake. Short and shallow, initially, until suddenly it was not, and, being in a hurry, one face planted one final time (or so you hoped) into waste deep waters.
And just when we thought it was all over and done, the balance beam was waiting. This year sans the course carpeted cover, the beam was a slippery, slanted metal gangway of doom. One glance at it and I already foresaw an awkward slip which relieved me of all my shin skins. Drenching myself before the big sit was also not an option, so I went for Safe and Stupid.
Hubby decided that swimming was a good idea, and he got this glamorous finisher’s pic after he got back on the walkway.
The poor runner that went ahead of him was less fortunate. Good sport that he was he decided to give the photographer more than he was after, and in doing so he at least won the prize for best picture of the day!
We were super fortunate to spend the rest of a lovely week with our boys and friends in Natures Valley, enjoying good company and good weather, making good memories.