What is arguably the strongest field of trail runners ever assembled on South African soil will be gathering in the Garden Route National Park for the annual Otter Run presented by Hi Tec. Winners of almost every major trail run in the country including the likes of desert running super star; Ryan Sands fresh from his win of the iconic Leadville 100 miler in the USA, have entered for what runners have dubbed the “Grail of Trail.” The Otter Run, which traverses South Africa’s world famous five day hiking trail; The Otter Trail, is now in its 3rd year and is already considered the benchmark by which participants of this wilderness sport measure themselves. Unlike the hikers, Trail runners in The Otter event only have eight hours in which to complete the 42 km course. Some do it in less than five hours and those in the know believe that, with the field assembled, the 4 hour 48 min record will be breached on Friday.
The Otter Trail is renowned for its splendour and spectacular beauty but the rugged and undulating nature of the trail itself, by beautiful coincidence, forms the perfect test for the group of people who find the challenge of running in the wild irresistible. “The Otter Run is the yardstick,” says two times sub six hour finisher Ian Morshead, “The pinnacle of an active lifestyle.” But the Otter Run is as brutal as it is beautiful. With 65 vertical meters gained for every kilometre traversed, the average gradient of The Otter exceeds that of even some of the world’s most respected mountain runs making it an extreme challenge of strength and stamina. That’s not all, the trail is rock-strewn and uneven requiring what trail runners refer to as technical running skills. “The Otter Run is one of the hardest endurance medals to attain,” says founding runner John Collins who is amongst the favourites to win the Otter in 2011.
Part of the allure of this race is that it is the only time of the year when trail runners are afforded the opportunity to run on the trail. Outside of this event, the Otter Trail remains the domain of intimate groups of hikers and any running on the trail is strictly forbidden. SANParks only considered opening the trail to a Trail Running event after an extensive environmental impact study and then only for a trial event in 2009. The 2009 event proved that the trail could be run without any significant additional impact on the environment and showed that trail runners revere the wilderness experience as much as hikers do. “It is a privilege to be on the trail,” says event organiser Mark Collins. “Whether you hike it or run it, the important thing is that you value it and that you leave it better than you found it.”