….a tale of treasures and a little torture too.
A bucket list adventure that was born in my heart in the early 2000’s when I did the Otter trail hike with a bunch of work colleges. The 42 km of hiking through the untouched, rugged coast and cliffs of the Tsitsikamma National park leaves you feeling deeply connected to nature and yourself, and in awe of the Wonderful Natural Beauty that is ours’ in South Africa.
The dream came true a few years later when the vision to make the hike a run became reality…
The organization is amazing and the day itself was pristine. There are two races- one is the challenge - which has a cut off of 11 hours and then the race that has a cut off of 8. It is an expensive entry and when you add up all the costs of travel etc it's not something that the average person can say is annually affordable.
The risk of bad weather can also add to the stress of having made all the investment of time and training and the bucks - only to get told its off. So if you are someone who stresses a lot this will be a challenge, and learning to get that Mother Nature is in control - not you, will be a good lesson to learn. A few days before the race, a summer storm rolled in and the challengers were allowed to start the run in the rain - with record size swells pushing through the bloukrans which is one of the many river crossings. Thankfully the storm did not stay to stop the race happening and in fact the morning of the race - it was perfectly still and fresh - with the enormous crashing waves echoing the last remains of the passing weather.
The Race briefing was an experience too. It's the first time I've left such an occasion with dread! Besides being told that you can die on the route and that's not all- the gorges are so deep you may not be found. They then had the following to say, if you encounter snakes - please move them so your next runner doesn't have to make their introduction and then to top it all off - it is much more dangerous to drive home than to participate tomorrow. Having a bushbuck ram into my car on the highway afterwards did leave me a little shocked. (The Buck survived and ran into the woods- rangers despatched to check that it was OK) Grateful for Insurance- R 50 000 later.
I had done my prep - barring a few niggles which are parr for the course - ( I've learned our Spirit never ages - we can choose to remain young at heart - But - we must learn to embrace the reality that the body does age and it needs to be treated with respect.) This does not mean if you have treated your body well that it can’t perform with aplomb. But it is wise to recognize that at one stage of life, your body’s natural resilience and elasticity - and recovery will have masked the basic abuse we can tend to inflict as gung ho youths (one day the hens will come home to roost.)
I like to climb - ( as a teenager a friend had said to me after I had exclaimed, “ I hate the hills!” that - He loved the hills! What? - Why! - He went on to explain, “it's where I pass the others”. His mental adaptation to see the hills and climbs as friend rather than foe - to recognize the resistance is what makes him stronger and faster - and also being mentally prepared gives him an edge ) From that day on - I changed my mind and started to see climbing as an advantage. It's tough but it makes you tougher. You get better at climbing and slowly you start to notice the difference in your strength as you rise up hills that used to haunt you from the first few steps of ascent and now you find yourself halfway up and feeling strong. It's also less stressful on your body and will even make you faster…. What goes up must come down and in turn improve your leg speed. NB- Unless you are in a race for Gold- at the Olympics, not in your head- I say that training is always better when you can do it. Injuries are inevitable in our sport and especially on the trails but unfortunately most injuries are related to Ego and Competitive nature that can’t trust the process and have an addictiveness to winning at all cost - and so it ends up costing - right! For all you non competitive, just-for-the-jol athletes reading this with a self righteous - that’s not me, ask yourself where it is you, as in, where does competitiveness show up in your life, because we all have our stuff!
Let’s just say - you get a lot of time on the hills in the Otter. Besides the elevation of close to 2.5km over 40 kays - there is the descent too- oh blessed knees hang in there! The fact that you are run/hiking through pristine beauty with the smell of the ocean mist and the song of the forest birds is what contributes to this experience being sublime. It's a proper privilege and to be present and grateful is just the start of the story. The effort and organization to make it all happen is monstrous and not enough can be said about how well this world class event is managed.
The lessons learnt are numerous. Running the prologue the day before is interesting, 6 months of training and then a 2,7km seeding trail race which begs to ruin your big day by presenting a perfect opportunity to twist your ankle in the river bed. It is to be run with presence and patience and not raced for ego’s sake of a first out the pen position. How not to adapt your nutrition the night before - (I will say no more- even at 48 - you can let the adrenalin mess with your mind and make decisions that are absurd and yet in the moment seem quite plausible.)
Make sure you have entrenched the routines before a big day and whatever happens - don't change anything. I get that sometimes circumstances ask for you to adapt but in general you need to get to the race day and know the basics of what routines work for you and then follow through with them with hard nosed attention and without allowing any panicked distraction. Practise how you will play is a good adage here.
I had a fair day out, feeling rather nauseous for 2 hours in the middle (dehydration I think). I finished strong in a respectable 6.31 and had I been a year older could have stood on the Masters podium- next to the 61 year old who ran a 5.53- gulp.
The finish is over a bridge made of large floating platforms ...You are asked to navigate a balance beam, and perform a crazy maneuver for a prize (Price would do well here). No doubt someone has a sadistic streak in planning the finish and then with your wobbly legs you climb out the dam and complete the day by running over the equivalent of SUP- Boards. The Spit Braai at the finish allows you to refuel on a five star spread and then join in with from what I could see every finisher in welcoming the rest of the field home - Pro’s included. This was a highlight for me. The feeling of accomplishment is coupled with the euphoric sense of comradery as each racer completes their day - welcomed by a mini grandstand and announcement as they complete the dam crossing victory lap. In summary, if you like trail- this is grail. Make it a bucket list event - it is one you will remember for many good reasons and fears overcome. I wish you all a very Happy Holiday and that at the start of a New decade you will make 2020 your best year yet.
By Dave Vaughan