Regular top trail athlete at the Otter African Trail Run, Gauteng’s Thabang Madiba, at the Bloukrans River crossing. Photo: Stephen Granger

Trail runners are celebrating the confirmation that the 2020 Otter African Trail Run will be run as scheduled at the end of October, while the Merrell Whale of Trail ultra-marathon in De Hoop Nature Reserve, postponed from its usual August date, looks set to take place in January.

With Athletics South Africa adopting a conservative ‘wait and see’ position in respect to a return to formal track, road, cross country or trail competition, Magnetic South, organisers of ‘The Otter’, have taken the bull by the horns after being given the green light by SANParks to host the event, which is held in the Tsitsikama Section of the Garden Route National Park.

The Otter has established itself as the leading trail marathon in the country and has attracted many of the world’s leading trail athletes to compete on the testing 42 km course through forest and fynbos along the coast between Storm’s River and Nature’s Valley. This will be the year of the ‘Retto’ – the Otter in the reverse direction, run from Nature’s Valley to Storm’s River.

Leading Italian trail athlete, Silvia Rampazzo, leads the 2018 Otter African Trail Run in the early stages. Photo: Stephen Granger

Elite athletes complete the trail in close to four hours, while trail hikers take five days to complete the coastal forest meander, overnighting at four distinctive trail huts en route.

“It’s been a tough year for so many, with uncertainty been the biggest thing,” admitted race director Mark Collins, whose family emerged unscathed after being infected with the virus in March. “The big question has been ‘when will things get better’?  I had a gut feeling about the infection rate slowing and we decided to go for it.

“The way the Otter is organised, it will not be difficult to comply with government lockdown regulations.  Level two has given a go-ahead for events of not more than three hundred on condition of adhering to safety protocols.  The race prologue (a 4km race the day prior to the marathon to establish the starting times for the race) is a time trial held over a 6 hour period, while the race has always had staggered starts.  I think the only adjustment we will have to make is to widen the width of the starting pen.”

A key characteristic of the Otter African Trail Run is the strong commitment to conservation from the organisers, who go the extra mile to ensure that the trail is returned to the Park Manager in better condition than before the run and to emphasise to all runners the conservation importance of the unique coastal forest ecosystem through which they run.

“While I have great admiration for athletes who can run fast on trails and over rocks, I have an even deeper respect for those early pioneers who had the foresight to set aside this section of coast as a national park to be conserved in perpetuity,” Collins says.

The partnership between the Magnetic South team and SANParks has been strong over the years and is essential to the success of the event.  The decision to close the trail for hikers for just one week in the year to accommodate the race has been a mutually beneficial one. “We are delighted that the new park manager for the Tsitsikama section, Victor Mokoena, has been very positive about the event. He seems to have a very good team and we look forward to engaging with him in the weeks to come.”

South Africa’s elite have been quick to sign up to the Otter, with athletes who have excelled in previous years looking for a 2020 podium finish. Last year’s winners, Johardt van Heerden and Toni McCann, have both confirmed their participation and are looking forward to attempting to add the Retto title to their impressive trail CVs. Other top runners slated to be in action include Robbe Rorich, Rory Scheffer, Tim Chambers, Christiaan and Landie Greyling, Bianca Tarboton and Susan Sloane.

Team Magnetic South aka the Collins Clan, organisers of the Otter African Trail Race. Photo: Stephen Granger

Meanwhile, spokesperson for the Merrell Whale of Trail, Tatum Prins, is also delighted at the prospect of their 2020 race taking place, albeit a few weeks into the new year. “Cape Nature have already given green light for the event to take place in January, provided we adhere to all protocols. They have been very supportive and it’s looking good so far.

“Runners need to have something concrete to work towards. They need to know there is something coming on the calendar,” continued Prins.  “There’s something special about the camaraderie of runners being together for a weekend and racing over this special trail.”

Like the Otter, the Whale of Trail takes place in an important conservation area – in De Hoop Nature Reserve, one of the country’s top Ramsar Wetland sites. Run over 53km, it is one of the most lucrative trail races in the country and attracts many of the country’s leading trail athletes. The change to mid-summer will add a further challenge for athletes, with the potential for temperatures into the thirties making the already challenging trail even tougher.

Johardt van Heerden leads Kane Reilly through the Potberg Mountains near the start of the Merrell Whale of Trail. Photo: Peter Kirk