In the world of trail running, The Otter African Trail Run has deservedly earned the name ‘Grail of Trails’. Mark Collins, co-organiser and a legendary endurance racer, explains how they secured a race on one of the most famous protected hiking trails in the world.
WORDS Mark Collins | Photographs Jacques Marais
Staging a run on the Otter hiking trail was actually my brother John’s idea. He is absolutely besotted with the hiking trail. The 40km spectacular, unspoilt shoreline of the Tsitsikamma is in his eyes the crown jewel of the African coast, and to him the idea of a race along it was the ultimate event. Given the global boom in trail running and the Otter trail’s international renown, we thought it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would want to try and organise a run along it – so why not us?
The Otter hiking trail is a sought after wilderness experience and usually booked out throughout the year. Would SANParks, the custodians of the trail, even entertain such a notion?
We approached SANParks with the idea in 2008, expecting it to be dismissed out of hand, but our timing could not have been more perfect. SANParks was at that very time receptive to new sustainable concepts and to our surprise agreed to consider our proposal, and requested that we present our plan at the general meeting of the Garden Route National Park.
Trail running is arguably the sport that can be staged as an event with one of the lowest impacts on the environment. The erosive impact of shoes on a trail cannot be compared to that of the wheels of a bike, for example, and mountain biking is itself a low environmental impact sport.
Trail runners also do not use hard soled boots, carry less weight and strike the trail 30% less than even hikers do. Waste management is also an integral part of the trail running ethos and race rules dictate that everything taken onto the trail must be taken off. In this sport littering is akin to cheating and penalised with disqualification.
Although the sport’s impact still awaits the scrutiny of scientific study, some contend the holistic impact of an individual trail runner on a trail is even less than that of a hiker. Of course the impact of hosting an event is far more complex but we felt we could do it and do it well. We wanted it to be a credit to the sport and to our hosts. In our introducing the sport to SANParks, we presented these observations together with our proposed event management plan.
Our presentation was followed by robust internal debate. Frankly, given the status of the Otter hiking trail and the importance of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park to the environment, I would have been disappointed had it been anything less. Eventually it was agreed the only way to fully assess the impact of such an event was to give us the opportunity to stage a once-off event, provided an Environmental Impact Study was done and an Environmental Management Plan drafted and adhered to. Any future events would only be considered following the assessment of this one event. We were given our opportunity and we put our trail shoes on.
Running the Otter trail immediately captured the imagination of the South African trail running fraternity and demand for the limited entries was high from the outset. The Otter trail did not disappoint. The trail is a marathon distance but anyone fooled into considering it in kilometres alone is in for a shock. Metre for metre, it is one of the most brutal trail running challenges around and even the best of the best take twice as long to traverse its undulating course as they would for the same distance on the road. Although the trail climbs no big mountains, the cumulative altitude gain of the numerous short sharp hills makes it comparative with some of the bigger mountain runs in that regard but it is the unrelenting, twisted and tangled surface of the trail itself that poses the greatest challenge. No two strides are ever the same. It is just impossible to find a rhythm.
These physical challenges combined with the overwhelming beauty traversed left a deep impression on the 168 runners of that inaugural run in September 2009. The fact that it was off-limits to trail running outside of this organised event only added to its magical allure. One of the runners of that pioneering event dubbed it the “Grail of Trail”, a definition that resonated and stuck.
Today The Otter African Trail Run, presented by Salomon and GU, is considered the yardstick of South African marathon distance trail running and the limited 440 entries are snapped up as soon as they become available each year. The race has also won a SANParks Kudu Award and we have been nominated in several categories in the national Sport Industry Awards in 2012 and 2015.
According to former winner Dr Andre Gie: “it’s a reputation wrecker.” AJ Calitz, a South African national team trail runner with more trail race wins in more races than just about any other South African, says: “No disrespect to the others but the Otter is the one.”
AJ has yet to taste victory in The Grail of Trail but he came agonisingly close on three occasions, bagging two converted black ribbon medals for twice dipping below the 04:30 mark. Only four other runners hold black ribbon medals. World Champion Ricky Lightfoot from the United Kingdom is one of them. He professed to being “shocked” by how technically sustained the trail was during his record setting run in 2013. Shocked he may have been, but his mark of 04:15:22 is almost inconceivable to anyone who has hiked the trail in five days.
Lightfoot is one of a host of international trail running royalty who have made the pilgrimage to do the Otter run. Legends like France’s Sebastian Chaigneau, the United States’ Krissy Moehl, New Zealand’s Ruby Muir and South Africa’s own superstar Ryan Sandes all have carved their names into the history of the race.
Ruby became the first woman to dip below five hours when she edged Landie Greyling in 2013. Landie is the only South African woman to run sub-five hours.
Perhaps no other runner has made a mark on this race more than Iain don Wauchope, who won the Otter three times, including the inaugural race (04:59:02) and finished second twice. His competitors refer to him as “the Professor” of the Otter run for his uncanny ability to pace his race to perfection. Iain holds the record for the West-East running of the race, which was introduced in 2012 and is known as the RETTO (Otter spelled backwards), which he completed in 04:23:24.
While it is evident we are absolutely passionate about the race aspect of the Otter run, and thrilled by the status the event has attained, it is the environmental ethos of the event that we as organisers are most proud of. Our founding philosophy is that the Tsitsikamma must be better for us having been here. The manifestation of this philosophy has endeared us to our hosts and resonates strongly with our participant base. Good intentions are one thing, practically making a difference is much harder and we have a long way to go yet, but we have been innovative in our physical efforts and our Environmental Check Station with SANParks is a world first for a trail race. The cumulative awareness this generates is harder to quantify but perhaps more profound than the physical marine debris that the event marshals assist the rangers in removing annually from the rocky shorelines.
What not many people are aware of is that the greatest extent of the Tsitsikamma lies beneath crashing waves. The marine protected area extending five miles offshore is the oldest and largest in Africa and of critical importance to marine life along the entire coastline. How this is managed affects all of us and we never tire of making our participants and the media aware of this. Being entrusted with the opportunity to organise an event here is indeed a privilege and we treasure every moment spent in the park. With that privilege goes a big responsibility.
We will always be mindful of that.