Otter Trail Run – insights

by Steven Granger

OTTER African Trail Run 2013

For many, the Camel Trophy conjures up images of the toughest 4×4 trails imaginable combined with other sporting challenges on foot, bike and kayak through steamy jungles in exotic places around the world.

The Collins brothers, Mark and John, represented the best South African had to offer in this mega global event and the siblings were considered unlucky to finish second in 1998 in Tierra del Fuego to a powerful French team, beating many other international adventure sport pairs.

At its peak some 20 years back, this high profile annual event was billed as an “adventurous expedition which tests teams’ endurance, courage, stamina, perseverance and reliance against the worst that nature could offer”.

Ten years later the Collins brothers and their Magnetic South team pioneered an event in South Africa which was to test a similar package of skills and specialities as those advertised for the Camel Trophy and in 2009 the Otter African Trail Run was born, tracking the iconic Southern Cape 42km five day hiking trail from Storm’s River to Nature’s Valley.

In a few short years “the Otter” has become the country’s premier trail event. Year on year it attracts the country’s best performers – and some of the world’s best in addition – with only injury or illness keeping them away.

80 participants completed the inaugural Otter Trail Run, including some of the best endurance athletes in the country. Most were effusive in their praise and the experience was described by a hardened trail runner as “the pinnacle of a life time spent pursuing outdoor endurance events.”

Numbers grew quickly in subsequent years and soon reached the maximum allowable field of 220 in each of two events – a more competitive race with an 8 hour cut-off (the Otter African Trail Run) and another two days later with an 11 hour cut-off (the Otter African Trail Challenge).

In 2012 it was decided to alternate the direction of the race and the “Retto” (Otter in reverse) was born, with athletes running west to east and ending at Storm’s River, instead of the conventional “Classic” route which finishes in Nature’s Valley. As with the “up” and “down” Comrades Marathon, runners are now motivated to complete at least two Otters.

The 2014 races sold out in 9 minutes and the event, which took place in good conditions during Heritage Week, was arguably the best ever.  Iain Don Wauchope took his third title in 5 years in 4 hrs 21 min 30 sec (the fastest time by a South African in either direction), ahead of national trail champion, Thabang Madiba, and pretender to the throne, AJ Calitz, while Landie Greyling edged out Nicolette Griffioen and Sue Don Wauchope in the women’s competition, winning in a new “Retto” record of 5:11:46.

But the smooth, problem-free running of the event this year, and the obviously strong relationship which exists between SANParks and the event organisers, belied the challenging origins of the race.

“We had a very difficult time convincing the leadership of SANParks in Pretoria to allow us to run the event,” reflected race director, Mark Collins. “To close their most successful hiking trail for a full week and permit runners, rather than hikers, to pass along the trail was something too much for some of the SANParks leadership to contemplate.

“They were clearly passionate about conservation,” Collins continued, “and saw this event as a potential threat.  But we were equally passionate about conserving the nature resources and beauty of the area and saw trail running as a low impact way of advancing this important cause.

“Finally the decision was to give us one year only, as a test. SANParks would be watching our every move to evaluate both its success and its impact on the Park.  It’s always been our aim to give back the trail in even better condition and we passed the test.

“We were then given three years. And then five and now indefinitely.  I think we have proved one of the most successful partnerships and have promoted conservation and sport alike.”

There is little doubt that South African trail athletes regard the Otter as the country’s premier event. Year on year it attracts the country’s best performers – and some of the world’s best in addition – with only injury or illness keeping them away.

Its success has also attracted other sporting celebrities, with former Springbok rugby captain, Corne Krige, running an impressive 7 hr 19 min 33 sec last year.  This year top trail athlete, Ryan Sandes, ran with former Protea wicket-keeper, Mark Boucher, with Boucher and former rugby Springbok Warren Brosnihan both dipping below 8 hours to earn their red medals.

Former Bok prop Marius Hurter ran the Otter Trail Challenge on Wednesday. “I was on a sub-8 hour pace for about 100m before I realised I would never make it,” joked Hurter.  “I cut back to a more realistic pace and was pleased with my 10 hr 37 min white medal.”

While there is little doubt that the success of the event owes much to the charisma, drive and passion of Mark Collins, he is the first to acknowledge both his immediate family (the directors of Magnetic South) and his wider support team of mountain rescue, NSRI and other officials who keep the event in best possible order.

Mark and John both met their wives, Belen and Christine, through the Camel Trophy with Belen competing for Spain and Christine for Germany.  All four are integral to the success of the Otter African Trail Run.

“It was fantastic having world champion Ricky Lightfoot of England and top New Zealander, Ruby Muir out last year and we would also like to attract more top international athletes to our race in future.

“But the basic core values of the race will remain – providing the opportunity for trail runners to experience the beauty of the trail and realise the importance of conserving places like the Tsitsikama for future generations.

“The fact that most of this national park is in the sea in the form of a Marine Protected Area is even more special – this is the nursery for our entire coastline.  Some people say we go overboard with our emphasis on the environment, but it is something that I will never compromise on.”

The combination of sport and environment has proved a winning one for the Collins family, who are equally excited about calving whales in sight of the trail as to whether a sub 4 hour time for the Otter Trail Run might be achieved – 15 minutes inside Lightfoot’s winning time last year.