In 2013, UK’s Ricky Lightfoot stood on the Otter podium and told race director Mark Collins that on the right day, with the right mix of athletes, a sub-4 hour Otter would be possible. Mark placed R100 000 on the table and said, “Impossible”. In 2015, impossible became a reality as a trail running moment in history unfolded.
It was the seventh running of the Otter African Trail Run, and what a year it turned out to be. The Challenge, with a 10 hour cut off time, was hosted before the Run, and participants experienced what was possibly the most extreme Otter to date. Driving rain, flash floods and limited visibility in many areas. But on Friday 16 October, the skies cleared and Mother Nature seemed to say, “Sorry about that, here is a splash of Garden Route perfection for you, enjoy it”.
The line-up for the Run was impressive. Two big international names - Marc Lauenstein from Switzerland and Emma Roca from Spain – came out to compete with local stars Kane Reilley, Thabang Madiba, Meg McKenzie and Nicolette Griffioen. There were plenty of dark horse names in the mix too; the yellow carpet finish line was set to see some action.
The prologue was 3km this year. Shorter, but tougher in terms of elevation. 300m in 3km, eina. Kane Reilley took it in a blistering sub-16minutes, with Mark Lauenstein a little behind him. Kane’s come back was well on track. Meg McKenzie was the fastest lady on the course, with Emma Roca only 1 second behind her. The banter during race briefing was fun and friendly, but the battle lines were drawn. The participants were treated to some video footage of the fastest runners on the prologue course courtesy of Jeff Ayliffe, and Marc Lauenstein said running the route felt a little like playing a video game. Previous Otter winner, Andre Gie, asked Kane and Marc if they would race to win, or race for the R100 000. Both side stepped the sub-4 pressure and told the audience they would simply go out there and give it all they had.
Mark Collins looked a little nervously at his cheque book…
17 October dawned with clear skies and mild temperatures. The heat would soar later in the day, giving the mid to back of field runners a tough time. 200 experienced trail runners lined up to tackle the journey and take in this incredibly special race. The pace set by the elites in the challengers group was fast and furious from the word go. Kane and Marc set the lead in the men’s race, with Emma Roca, Nicolette Griffioen and Meg McKenzie playing tag on the climbs. Reilley was just 2 minutes behind Lauenstein at the Bloukrans approach, but both Roca and Lauenstein surged from this position, securing their ultimate victories.
The finish line atmosphere was electric. Altus Schreuder was counting down to the big 4-hour barrier, and Marc Collins knew that if Lauenstein pushed the final kilometres from the beach, history would be made. It was going down to the wire. Radio comms confirmed that the winner had reached the jeep track area on the finish line approach; he was flying. The crowd was on their feet as the bell from across the lagoon signalled Marc’s imminent approach. He would do it, with seconds to spare, he would do it. Cheers went up, and the Magnetic South team raised their hands and welcomed their new champion home. 3 hr 59 min 29 sec and a 15 minute improvement on Ricky Lightfoot’s previous record, a trail running moment extraordinaire. Reilley followed nearly thirty minutes later; his impressive race signalling his much-anticipated return from illness. Thabang Madiba completed the men’s podium.
The ladies helped themselves to a few of the top 10 spots, demonstrating once again that trail offers a fairly even playing ground. Spanish athlete, Emma Roca, won in a time of 5 hrs 7 min 30 sec, setting a new ladies vet record. Nicolette Griffioen came in second with Meg McKenzie in third.
Post rain, the course was muddy and slippery. The heat and humidity brought the snakes out, and the river crossings were treacherous. The Otter African Trail Run never disappoints. It is unpredictable, tough, relentlessly technical and requires absolute concentration from start to finish. The organisation of this race is world class, bringing the best in marathon distance trail junkies from all over the world to South Africa’s picturesque Garden Route each year.
There are many magic moments in races like this. From the flash of a Knysna Loerie’s red wings deep in the forest to the friendships made as runners assist each other over jagged rocks and up the never ending climbs. And It was a magic moment indeed when Swiss speed freak, Marc Lauenstein received his R100 000 cheque at prize giving, and pledged 50% of it back to the Natures Valley Trust, and an NGO that brings underprivileged youngsters in to endurance sport. Not a dry eye in the marquee.
Words by Kim Stephens
Images by Jeff Ayliffe / GoPro