Trail’s crème de la crème

Words: Stephen Cunliffe, | Photos: Jacques Marais & Peter Kirk

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Having successfully completed its fifth edition, The Otter African Trail Run, organised by Magnetic South and co-presented by Salomon and GU, has solidified its reputation as the premier marathon distance endurance event in South Africa. It’s on the bucket list of pretty much every aspiring South African trail runner, and has also garnered a deserved international reputation as the foremost trail running event on the African continent.

With a mere 400 extremely fortunate trail enthusiasts getting the honour of testing their mettle on the ‘Grail of Trail’ each year, entries are like hen’s teeth and get snapped up within minutes of going on sale. Stephen Cunliffe was one of the privileged few to get his hands on a coveted entry and on 22 September 2013, he returned to the Cape south coast to face off against his trail running nemesis for the second time.

Following the exact same route and direction as South Africa’s beloved Otter Hiking Trail, the Classic Edition of the Otter African Trail Run is an exquisitely beautiful beast of an event. Two years ago, the beast broke me; there’s no other way to put it. I left a trail of blood, sweat, and tears along the second half of the arduous Otter course that took two wet winters to wash away (see DIN Dec/Jan 2012). So, after a couple of long years languishing in the wilderness and licking my wounds, I finally felt ready to return and do battle with my old foe again. I arrived in Natures Valley feeling mentally much stronger, although I was definitely a little undercooked on the training front - courtesy of a nasty bout of tick bite fever and reactive arthritis that hampered my training schedule in the build up to Otter 2013.

The Otter is a gruelling 42 km endurance event and it loathes the ill prepared. It is not an event you can wing with a couple of training jogs a few weeks out. If you’ve neglected your hill training and short-circuited your preparations, then you will be made to pay. The Otter demands its pound of flesh from all but the most well prepared trail runners. For most, the right of passage to a sub-eight-hour finish and prestigious coloured medal can only be achieved after the Otter has exacted its toll in pain and suffering. With 2,600 cumulative metres of lung-busting ascent and quad-killing descent, swirling river swims like the infamous Bloukrans crossing, and relentlessly technical rocky underfoot conditions throughout, there really is nowhere to hide on the Otter and it doesn’t take the ‘Grail of Trail’ long to separate the men from the boys or the women from the girls.

At the front of the race, a battle of epic proportions played out amongst the abangeni (the race challengers) with arguably the strongest field of elite trail runners yet to square up on African soil. In the end, Salomon team athlete, Ricky Lightfoot, the current World Champion, became the first international runner to claim victory in the Otter. Cruising into the lead from the start, Ricky blew the field away and smashed Ryan Sandes two-year-old record by finishing in a blisteringly quick 4:15:27. Ricky dominated the other world-class athletes from the get go, leaving big name locals Iain Don Wauchope (a two-time previous winner) and AJ Calitz (the local favourite) to fight it out for the remaining podium positions. Incredibly, the first eight runners all finished with times under the previous course record, revealing both the class of the 2013 race field and the near-perfect running conditions.

The woman’s race was more closely contested with New Zealand’s young trail running sensation, Ruby Muir, edging out South African favourite Landie Greyling by three minutes to cross the line in a new lady’s record of 4:55:34. For us mere mortals a couple of hours further back, the podium was the furthest thing from our minds. Everyone sets a personal goal for the time they hope to achieve on the Otter and race organisers, Magnetic South, have done well to fuel these intensely personal challenges by awarding runners different colour medals dependant upon their finishing times. Undoubtedly, the most important race obstacle to overcome is a sub-eight-hour official finish. Runners who fail to make this cut-off in the race - or the more lenient 11-hour cut-off in the Otter Challenge event - are recorded as DNF; and no trail runner wants to have this hideous acronym recorded alongside his or her name in the record books for all to see.

In the 2011 event, I naively set my sights on a six-hour Otter finish and went out way too fast. At the 18 km mark, the first cramps attacked my poorly conditioned calves and it was a torrid 24 km to the finish from there. I eventually crawled across the line - a broken man - in 7:22:01. Two years later, I judged myself both fitter and wiser so, despite my training setbacks, I chose what I thought to be a more realistic six-and-half-hour Otter goal.

I loved the first half of the race. My legs were fresh, the conditions were idyllic and the seaside views spectacular. Setting out slower to conserve my energy for the latter stages of the race also allowed me to savour the trail’s pristine natural beauty and exquisite wilderness feel. It must also be said that SANParks, an Otter African Trail Run partner and custodian of this incredible coastal reserve, has done an amazing job of protecting and maintaining the Tsitsikamma National Park, its valuable marine precinct and world-renowned Otter Trail. Magnetic South has also come to the party by supporting the Landmark Foundation and their charitable work to protect and link the remaining wilderness areas of Western Cape that are so critical to preserving the wilderness on which the last of the Cape leopards depend.

As a trail runner and nature lover, I believe I speak on behalf of the majority of Otter participants when I say that it’s a real privilege to run through these iconic natural landscapes. And the thought that some of our hard-earned cash (spent on the entry process) goes to supporting the valuable conservation work to preserve the shrinking wildernesses on which our sport depends is a great feeling. These thoughts buoyed my spirits as I slogged past a couple of bushbuck at the halfway mark.

While I found the first half of the scenic race exciting and enjoyable, it wasn’t to last. Shortly after refuelling at the GU munchie point, a godsend for weary Otter competitors, I tweaked my ankle and suddenly the race became a lot more real. The Bloukrans swim a little further down the track afforded me an opportunity to ‘ice’ it, but while the chilly water assuaged my ankle, it also caused my left hamstring to tighten and cramp. Climbing onto the muscle-encrusted rocks on the far side of the river, I had a sneaking suspicion that the Otter would exact further tolls on my tiring body before the infamous floating bridge came into sight at the finish.

Thankfully, it turned out that only one more bout of hamstring cramp awaited me at the top of the scarily-named Fecalator ascent, the last of the Otter’s eight significant climbs, named for the occasional broken runner that has been know to soil his pants on this inhumane climb! From there it was eight glorious kilometres of reasonably flat and stunningly scenic (provided you can still see out of your bleeding eyes) trail along the cliff-tops to Natures Valley Beach and the finish. Hauling my battered, bruised, and cramping legs across the precarious floating bridge to the De Vasselot finish proved a helluva way to finish this utterly brutal event. But the endorphin high that kicked in as I crossed the line in 6:36:51 was unparalleled and the rewards sweet: shade, GU Brew, boerie rolls, sports massages, and a celebratory awards dinner later that evening.

Because the iconic five-day Otter hiking trail is strictly off limits to trail runners for 363 days a year, the world-class event takes on the potent allure of a forbidden fruit and once sampled trail runners salivate for months at the mere prospect of getting another bite at the cherry. With wannabe Otter entrants already queuing up for the honour of pitting themselves against the ‘Grail of Trail’ in 2014, make sure you get yourself organised and to the front of that queue for the chance to tackle the trail run of a lifetime.

THE Otter African Trail Run details

Next race dates: 21/22 and 23/24 September 2014
Race website:
Organiser’s website:
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