After being easily lulled to sleep by the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean the night before and sleeping incredibly soundly that night, the 4am rumblings of my cabin-mates were welcomed. The bowl of Jungle Oats porridge with peanut butter drew a couple of funny looks from the lodge staff, but the warm bowl of hearty fuel sat well for the 50km shuttle ride to the race start.
The chatter and jokes of the predawn ride filled the small van as we journeyed out of Storms River, back up to the N2 highway and in to the Nature's Valley access. The memories of my hike there seven years prior came flooding back... we had walked the final 11k's to our pre-planted car, shoulders weary from the heavy backpacks and bellies hungry for something other than camp food... Snapping back to the now, now a fellow runner wished me good luck and we piled out of the vans to stop at the lou so as to not make a mess of the beautiful beach start. A short ride down to the beach and the chilly morning air kept the 12 passengers sitting tight rather than jumping out of the van too quickly. The view out the windows was rather inviting though with the amazing sunrise, waves crashing on the wide, open beach and the cliffs rising up from the ocean less than a kilometer away.
With my dibber secured to my watch the countdown for the men's abangeni began and 27 top South African and a few international athletes took off for the sponsor flag posted 400 meters out along the beach. At the flag runners turned left down the beach, across a shallow inlet and on to the cliffs where the real trail began. Thirty seconds apart the remaining runners left the start in groups of 4. Each runner had to "dib" their dibber to start their time before taking off. About four groups after the mens abangeni the eight leading women (based on times from the previous day's 4km prologue run) formed their own abangeni. My time placed me 5th in this group and we lined up and left quickly to warm up after waiting in the cool wind.
The adrenaline of the start coursed through the group and we quickly gained the ridge line and caught the group of men that had left immediately before us. The first 5-8kms were beautiful, cruise-y single-track running. I caught a glimpse up the jagged coastline and felt the inspiration of the day to come. Having hiked the trail seven years before glimmers of the rocky shoreline views including dolphins & river otters occupied my mind as the k's clipped by. It wasn't long before a super smiley ranger greeted me with cheers and then warned me of the technical descent starting... now! We danced down the trail, awkward rocks and roots galore as we headed straight down to the beach and the Andre huts.
Patagonia: Draft Tank, Cross-over sports bra, Tester fabric shorts, Merino LW ankle socks, Gamut shoes, Houdini Jacket
Additional clothing: Buff
UltrAspire: Surge Hydration pack
First Endurance: Optygen before, EFS shot flask and Pre-Race during, Ultragen at finish
Additional Nutrition: Gu Roctane and Gu Chomps
now now - right now. As opposed to just now which means in a couple of minutes (15-2 days)
lou - bathroom
dibber - timing chip, each athlete has to "dib" their chip into a reading device to register their time at each pre-determined point
abangeni - "challengers" to compete for the podium runners had to race in this group of runners
prologue run - each participant had to run a 4k course for time the day before the actual race. This seeded runners in their heats and place the top runners in the abangenis
Magnetic South - race organization
oaks - guys, dudes, buds (male)
tar - road
The Otter Trail is a protected hiking trail in the Tsitsikama National Park. People wait years for a permit of 8-12 people to hike the 42k trail in 5 days, where they stay in established huts along the way. The traditional route is from Storms River (east) to Nature Valley (west). The brothers of Magnetic South have historically poached the trail and run the route multiple times. Five years ago they asked permission of the parks to hold an organized event/race. After a presentation on the conservation values of the race organization they were granted a trial permit for 3 years. At the end of the first three years an additional five years were granted. The Parks representative complimented the runners and Magnetic South for leaving the trails better than found and for respecting the parks while increasing the value of the experience for everyone. "You have left only footprints, but you have left your footprints on our hearts.
"JUMP! They had fortunately shown a video the night before at the pre-race event of the scramble into Bloukrans. "Jump away from the rocks so that you do not catch your legs on the mussles and jagged rocks. Then swim." The Bloukrans crossing was about 50 meters across right at the river's mouth to the Indian Ocean. Fully submerged after my launch off of the rocks I came up with a gasp and inhaled a mouthful of salt water and the shock continued with the chill of the ocean. In spite of the shock, the group of six runners that I had traversed the rocks with, amdst the powerful gusts from the film crews' chopper, kept our forward momentum through the river. Popping out on the other side, completely soaked in sea water, my feet slipped with every step. After finding balance we moved toward the trail leading back up to the cliff crest.
Up, over, down, across the beach at another inlet, find the trail on the other side, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Eyes locked on the trail ahead, smelling the sea, but barely finding more than a glimpse of more than my next step is how the course continued. I found inspiration from my surroundings, not from looking around, but from RD Mark Collin's presentation the previous night. His Mom taught him from an early age the importance of conservation. The family would regularly travel to the beach and rather than spread blankets and set up a picnic, they would instead pick up trash. "The beach is better because we visited." Mark and his brother John along with their wives have continued this mind of conservation in their event production. Inspired by the wildlife and work to protect animals, such as leopards, their goal is to leave the trails better than they found them. Large portions of the entry fees and sponsorships are directly donated to the parks. Magnetic South draws inspiration from the wild terrain around them and works to ensure the opportunities to have these experiences will be there for years to come.
The women's field stayed hot on my heels, but just out of site so I did not know what my lead may be. However looking ahead, when the terrain permitted, I could see the men's field spread out in front of me. I would be lying to say I didn't utilize the thought of catching them as motivation. I made it my goal to place among the oaks of the men's abangeni. At the halfway point at another river's mouth, Oakhurst, nutrition sponsor Gu had set up a "munchie point". I took the time to fill my bladder with water as the humidity was taking its toll. The beautiful setting made it hard to hurry the process. A mostly dry, sandy riverbed opened out to the sea, rocky cliffs on either side contained the little oasis; it looked like a great spot to hang out and cheer runners through. South African female runner Landie Greyling passed through the aid quickly with a couple of guys, so I didn't waste much more time to zip things up and getting back to it.
Race marshalls claim that there are eight significant climbs in this race. To me it felt like there were at least eight climbs after the munchie point. Kilometer for kilometer the Otter Trail keeps coming at you. Rocky awkward steps up and down. Steep short climbs to power up if you have anything left and quick feet, balance-y descents that require focus to ensure you stay vertical. We crossed in front of a magnificent waterfall with about 3km to go. I only caught a glance as it was amidst the final push through beach boulder rock hopping, following the painted yellow otter prints along the way. With 2km to go the trail smoothes out and I could see the banners marking the trail's end. From there we finished on the tar. My thought was that I would finally be able to run, but my body tired from the hopping, climbing, jarring found making stride almost foreign. Continued forward motion and great cheers along the way the final finish area soon came into sight. With only 100 meters to go I was joined by a young lad carrying the American flag. We journeyed down the finish shoot together and got to break the tape with hands and flag held high in celebration.
The Otter African Trail Run was one adventure on the 10 day GoTrail #getultrainspired Tour. We hosted three clinics to motivate people about trail running. We covered countless miles of the South African coast line driving from spot to spot. We met beautiful people and amazing hosts along the way all contributing to the inspiration of the tour. A couple of days in each location was only enough to get a taste of what each region has to offer. Sometimes those tastes have a lasting effect and draw you in for more experiences in the future.