An Otter’s Lifetime Worth of Races

In the world of trail running, few races are as challenging or as iconic as the Otter African Trail Race. A 42km route which contours the Garden Route’s coastline, scaling an impressive 2,500m across sandy beaches, boulder fields, river-crossings, and jagged, steep, rugged terrain.

The race proves to be a true test of endurance and determination and draws runners both nationally and internationally to its startline. 

For a select few, the Otter African Trail Race is more than just a one-day race. It’s a commitment to oneself to push the limits year after year. It’s a celebration of our country’s coastline; natural beauty, rich vegetation and wild ocean. It’s about honouring, being a part of and building the race and trail-running community. It’s about being driven by the thrill of the event and the desire to conquer the route’s formidable course. It’s about the way one’s shoes hit the ground… and so much more.

The Otter African Trail Race, since its inception and first official event in 2008, has seen many incredible races, and while many have toed the finish line, the true heroes are those who continue to return to startline year in and year out. We sat down with Otter runners who have participated in the event for 10 years (plus) – a feat that requires not just physical prowess, but mental fortitude and unwavering dedication –  to share their stories and celebrate their Otter African Trail Race legacies.

The below stories highlight the motivations, experiences, and lessons learned over a decade of running the Otter African Trail Race. From the thrill of podiums to the agony of defeat, from the highs of personal triumphs to the lows of physical and emotional exhaustion, from weather storms and overcoming obstacles; we take a deep dive into what it takes to be a 10-year Otter finisher.

Athletes Running their 10th Otter this year:

Johan Van Zyl ran his first Otter in 2013 when a friend extended the invite and offered him an extra ticket a week before the race. While Johan was a seasoned road runner at the time, and “not completely unfit,” he had never completed a trail race, let alone a marathon-distance event before; but, having accepted the ticket he knew “he couldn’t back out.” Crossing the finish line after 8 hours and 45 minutes, Johan shared that his first race will forever remain one of his most challenging Otters to date; but equally admits that all races since have been challenging in their own way. Given the race’s nature – river-crossings, winding, zigzagging trails, huge climbs and fast single-track descents – each and every year demands hard work, but once you finish “you only remember the good stuff, and never dwell on the struggles.”

While Johan reflected fondly on the many years of Otter racing, two years’ stuck out as being particularly rewarding for him. Somewhere in between his 9 years of racing, Johan ran with his wife, who before signing up had never been a trail runner, let alone a road runner, adding that when she first entered she “could not properly run 3 km.” Crossing the finish line hand-in-hand was a surreal moment for them both, and while the novelty of finishing was extremely emotional and incredibly rewarding, Johan shared that he loved the build-up to race day even more. To be able to train with his wife for one year to take on the “challenge,” not only left them both physically fitter but also strengthened their relationship.

In terms of personal achievements, Johan’s fastest Otter triumphs as another notable race. Having made use of his coach, Christiaan Greyling, Johan was able to find a wonderful balance between family life and work and following his goal-specific training, he achieved his personal best finishers time of 5 hours 53 minutes.

Despite not being the fastest downhill and flat-terrain runner, Johan “puts most of his focus into the climbs.” His love for climbing is fuelled by the route’s tough elevation, where summitting each high point of the race is rewarded with scenes of the sea stretching far into the horizon and feelings of immense success and victory. Johan shares that words cannot begin to describe the Otter trail, but “put simply, it’s just very special.” Although he has not run in many different parts of the world, Johan is certain that few trails come close to the wonders of the Otter.

Johan returns to Otter African Trail Race because: “it’s a privilege to run a race which is so beautiful, extremely isolated, where 90% of the time is spent in the company of yourself.” It’s an event which leaves him grateful. “Grateful to be able to do. Grateful to be healthy. Grateful to be a part of such a lekker event.”

His first-timer advice, “train, train hard,” and “enjoy it, from the moment you sign up, to the prologue, to the official start line, take in every single 42km and then soak up that finish line moment.” Johan doesn’t recommend “going for a moerse fast time the first time around,” but rather recommends taking it all in and then coming back again to set your own personal bests. 

Ralph Enslin will be running his 10th Otter this year, and when asked to reflect on his past races, he shared that his first race remains the toughest yet. Standing at the 2014 Retto start line with only a year’s worth of experience in trail running, Ralph confessed that he “had not yet figured out what worked for him, where his limits were and crucially, how to run efficiently.” About 15kms into the race, both of his legs flared up in ITB pain; leaving him mentally and physically pushing through the remaining kilometres, to eventually crawl over the finish. It was that finish line feeling, despite the errors, mishaps and setbacks along the way, that left Ralph “hooked.”

Driven by the desire to continuously push his running abilities, Ralph has returned to the Otter race year after year, with the goal of “attempting to beat his previous year’s time.” The benefit of returning to the same trails means that sections of the route become familiar, and one “develops an understanding of their strengths and weakness, and can consequently train according to such understandings.” While Ralph has been able to refine his boulder-hopping skills and cruise comfortably over the rocky sections between Ngubu Hut and Storm’s river; he struggles with the “flattish parts of the route, especially at the top of the cliffs after Andre Hut on the Classic Route.” The faster pace and flat-flowing parts have often left Ralph “frustrated,” as he previously has “been unable to take full advantage,” of these runnable segments; too often “expending too much energy on the earlier, tougher climbs and descents.” Nevertheless, Ralph, as a well-tested Otter veteran ran his best race in 2020. “Everything on race day seemed to fall into place,” and tackling his “favourite race direction,” – the Retto – Ralph crossed the finish line in 5 hours 30 minutes.

The Otter African Trail Race, while being the perfect playground to set new PBs and break-new-running grounds, remains incredibly special as its untamed and beautiful trails made for the perfect engagement spot in 2021. The 2021 Classic race was the first year that Ralph and his girlfriend completed the Otter together. While crossing the finish line – Ralph having completed the race and his girlfriend the challenge – marked an incredible accomplishment for the couple, it was only the start of their lifelong adventure, as continuing the post-race celebrations, they were engaged the following day.

Ralph has started and finished 9 Otter races to date, and 2023 will be his 10th. A decade’s worth of Otter races has filled Ralph with gratitude for his health, his family, our country’s outdoor spaces and the trail-running community. As the trail-running community grows and first-timers lace up for their Otter premier, Ralph shared some advice… “Be careful not to go out too hard in the beginning, holding back in the beginning rewards you near the end.” Ensure you have enough energy, “eat often, every ~30 minutes,” and most importantly, “smile, realise where you are and don’t get stressed about arbitrary goals.” 

9-years of racing the Otter African Trail Race has seen Christiaan Greyling secure a first-place title, smash and set the 2017 course record, as well as battle against several of his own, personally-trained athletes. Christiaan’s Otter racing journey started when he was just beginning his running career; and standing at his first Otter start line, he confessed, was met with both extremely high expectations and pre-race nerves.

The Otter African Trail Race has since, in Christiaan’s opinion, been his “school fees race.” It’s the only event Christiaan has ever returned back to race every year, as the technical terrain, alternating route (Retto and Classic) and highly competitive elite field means that “each year there is something new to learn.” Not only does one leave the weekend’s festivities of running overwhelmed by the beauty and bruised by the trails, but one leaves with a burning desire to come back and race better than before.

Christiaan Greyling’s toughest race to date was his 3rd Otter. A year’s worth of planning and training had gone into achieving his goal of breaking the sub-5-hour mark; but, sadly, crossing the finish only 4 minutes short of target left him “disheartened.” Despite the physical and emotional rollercoaster of defeat, Christiaan battled that year; he choose to focus on and celebrate areas of growth. As a returning runner, growth becomes “more visible,” and easier to track; for Christiaan, it’s been a noticeable “10% increase in stats over the years.” It’s this exponential graph of growth which keeps one motivated and makes race finishes’ like Christiaan’s 2017 Otter possible.

Christiaan crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 13 minutes to take first place and set the fastest South African record in 2017. Although the record no longer stands, 2017 remains a race highlight for Christiaan; a day where all the training hours and hard work left him feeling “fantastic the whole way.”

2021 was another memorable year, as while Christiaan “may have undercooked his training;” he stood next to Johardt van Heerden – professional runner and 3-time-Otter victor – who encouragingly said “so, sub 4h29,” and a “podium?”. Having coached Johardt to this year’s Otter start line, Christiaan replied that he would “leave the 4-hour race,” up to Johardt. Christiaan said, “moments like these were the comradery of the Otter triumphs;” calm the pre-race jitters and set the stage for the race ahead. His interaction with Johardt allowed him to step away from “focusing on who he was competing against,” and rather soak up all the race environment scenes.

To Christiaan, the Otter African Trail Race is a rollercoaster; it “sucks you in on one side, spits you out on the other side, and takes you on a wild experience in between.” Its trails which roll between boulders, squeeze under branches and hug the coastline demand everyone’s full attention; and in order to ensure 2023’s participants are prepared, he has teamed up with race organisers to provide training programs to all participants; be it first-timers, returning-runners or PB-chasers.