I hiked the Otter Trail when I was 19 years old. My backpack weighed over 20kg's, which I recall at the time was one third my body weight (I was a skinny runt), until my fellow hikers removed several cans of baked beans, curried vegetables, tuna and my collectible Rambo serrated-edge knife (with a compass built into the handle).
The 5-day hike was life changing. It felt like peaking under Mother Nature's petticoat - a regular hiker's nirvana. Pods of dolphins grazed the beach edge outside our log cabins as the sun set and the camp fire crackled. We wondered out loud if anyone could run the entire trail. In one day. That's a crazy idea we sniggered, chewing on our tuna and Marie biscuits.
Fast forward 20 years to early 2011 and someone handed me a wine-stained napkin with my scrawled signature underneath garbled words which read "I promise......Otter Trail...shall run...lest a wrath be incurred ......possible fine.....hung, drawn and quartered."I had no choice but to honour the testament of my inebriated self.
Within the first 4 minutes of the race, my left ankle twisted itself around a ground root and I face planted into the pathway. The thud felt like running smack bang into a reversing bus. My ankle's ligaments screamed and tore at the bone. The stars eventually disappeared and I gingerly rolled onto my back and spat out some ground. I felt like I had inadvertently stumbled into a first team rugby match thinking it was a cheer leading tryout. I was way out of my depth.
My brother and I (pictured below), and a handful of friends who regularly suit up as Cows, had entered the race full of bravado, vin rouge and not much in the form of a clue. Armed with our secret weekly run which consisted of running up a flight of stairs to a municipal memorial 9k's from home and then running back, we entered the 42k trail run. We chuckled when we heard about the 8 hour cut-off. "Please china, we're from Joburg" and all that.
The day before the race was the 3.8k trail prologue (5k road running equivalent). It was an eye opener. My brother lost his shoe at one stage and had to excavate it from the soft beach sand with his hands. In the middle of it all there was a holding area as a marshall judged the incoming wave crashing against the rocks before allowing us to continue. At a trickier part of the course, I took a wrong line in the rocks and ended up having to climb, like Sly in Cliffhanger, back onto the path. 21 minutes later I dragged my bedraggled self over the line. My quads burned with the exertion. Almost like a premonition of what was to come the following day.
Two friends tweeted that I should treat the race with much respect and that I should enjoy the surroundings. Now, I don't know about you, but when racing I take in a cement pill or two, but I certainly don't take in the scenery. How bad could things really get?
It was when I twisted my other ankle and face planted for the second time, that I became aware of one important fact: my feet were having difficulty finding the ground. It felt like running on a treadmill at a silly incline as an evil game show host rolled twisted twigs and stones under my feet, and tapped at my toes with crooked sticks. It's interesting the thoughts that flood your mind at times of extreme stress. I started thinking about additional rules to suggest to the organisers for next year's event:
- People from Gauteng or other non trail running areas are not allowed to run the Otter unless they write a page of motivation in animal blood as to why they should be allowed entry.
- No-one is allowed to enter this race unless they can hop up 5 flights of stairs on one leg.
I tightened the laces around my ankles to try protect them from going over and continued. I moved delicately and conservatively over the course taking in the wild ocean and Fiela-Se-Kind forest. My friends were right - this place was out of this world. It was just after the half way point whilst sweating like a jungle marine and munching on some goo-babies that I realised I was feeling pretty good and picked up the pace.
About 3 metres after this decision, my left and right adductors cramped, insinuated mutiny and gave me the middle finger. I stopped in my tracks. My legs looked like those of a giraffe preparing to take a sip from a watering hole. The pain was incredible but the main concern was that the pain was rising up past my groin into my gonads, like a crafty snake slithering up an apple tree. I grimaced and waited for the fangs to penetrate the crown jewels. Like a wave retreating back into the ocean, the cramp subsided, and I exhaled sharply in prayer thankful that me and my boys been spared.
This cycle of preparing to run, cramping, praying and wave retraction (or fangs retraction if you will) repeated itself up and down the steep cliffs and along the winding staired river beds.
[By the way, the cool pictures of the waves, the ladder and mini-runners, were taken by sports photographer and adventurer, Jacques Marais, one of the coolest people on the planet.]
I eventually crossed the water bridge at 6 hours and 50 minutes. It's hard to explain the feeling of completing such a tough race but I reckon it would be tantamount to the feeling experienced by the lead singer of a boyband after being released from a Sing-Sing cell block for fixing the outcome of a talent show.
My brother, Alberto, pictured above finished the race in just under 9 hours. He was overwhelmed with cramps not unsimilar to my own which suggested road running and walking up stairs from the parking lot to the office is not a suitable replacement for training in mountains with goats, crampons and carabiners.
Next year they have decided the race will be an up run, that is, the Retto. Or, as you may have worked it out yourself, Otter in reverse. As much as I enjoyed the idea of the race, and in particular the after party and the company, the chances of doing this race ever again in this life time, or the next, are slim.
Now where is that napkin....
In search of the holy trail,