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6 Tips for Making the Most of Your Otter Trail Race or Challenge

First disclaimer: I am not a pro athlete. This article intends to help weekend warriors like me who want to give something like the Otter their best shot. I hope these tips will help demystify this “Grail of Trail” and answer some of the questions I know I had at the beginning.

I’ll assume you know as much as I did a month ago before I secured an entry into the event, which is pretty much zero, and start from that base.

The Otter Trail is a 42 km, five-day hike through the Tsitsikamma National Park on South Africa’s stunning Garden Route. For the last five years, Magnetic South has organised a race through this trail for about 200 entrants at a time. As the route is not open to trail runners outside of this race, it is considered a privilege to participate. In 2009 the event was extended to include two runs – a Race (with an 8 hour cut off) and a Challenge (with an 11 hour cut off).

Second disclaimer: 2013’s route was the classic route from Stormsriver to De Vasselot campsite, and we enjoyed optimal conditions – the weather was absolutely perfect. As such, I can’t comment with any authority on the RETTO route or what it’s like to run Otter in bad weather – I can only hope you share the good fortune we had!

1. Training

I didn’t train nearly enough for this race, and I paid for it on the day. The Otter Trail Race is not an event you want to go into feeling undercooked, purely based on the impact it will have on your mindset. You need to be feeling strong, confident, and capable. With this mindset, you’ll easily overcome the emotional roller coaster that comes with every climb, descent, and change in terrain.

To mimic the work you’ll be doing at Otter, especially on the various climbs you’ll face on the day, get used to climbing stairs. Lots of stairs. The climbs at Otter will be harder on your legs and mind than anything else. You won’t need to run up any of those stairs – you will need to walk swiftly up them, though. This is an important tip in and of itself – you don’t need to run up any stairs at Otter to post a decent time.

You’ll probably cramp up (I did at about 14 km), so train until you cramp and get used to a range of remedies that work best for you. A friend suggested Rennies, which seemed to help a little on the day, and I also had some salty biltong with me, which – I’m sure – made a huge difference. There is also a wide range of cramp blockers you can use.

Another useful tip would be to run a trail of the same distance as Otter before the event. You won’t be able to replicate the climbs or terrain, but you’ll get a feel for how your body reacts at different stages and distances, and how it responds to various types of nutrition. I hit a wall at 25 km and wasn’t sure how to deal with it at the time, rather have that happen on a training run than on race day.

Last point on training – train with your backpack full of water, clothes and other bits and pieces you’re required to carry. The Magnetic South team publishes a detailed list of equipment you’ll be required to have on their website. The equipment list is divided into various levels depending on the weather conditions on race day. Level 1 is perfect or near-perfect conditions, whereas Level 5 is so severe that the event will, in all likelihood, be canceled. Knowing how your equipment feels over long distances will make all the difference to comfort and familiarity on the day.

Obviously, you’ll only have a clear idea of the expected weather conditions a week or so before the event. In this case, you will have had to equip yourself to about a Level 3 (just in case), so it’s worth training for the worst so that you’re well prepared for just about anything on the day.

2. Timing

I was not aiming to finish Otter in any particular time frame. I was just concentrating on finishing. When I got through Bloukrans at the 30 km mark, however, I realised I was in contention for a sub-8-hour run and pushed a little harder for the last 12 km. The fact that I hadn’t overdone it on the climbs preceding the 30 km mark, and taken a little bit of time at each checkpoint to refill my water stocks and enjoy a snack, made all the difference.

I think if I had been thinking of doing a sub-8-hour time from the start, I would probably have overdone it early and suffered later. Having a chilled run from the start meant that I could take advantage of the flats at the end. You can view the details on my run and how it panned out on Strava (if that interests you at all).

My average pace for the run was just over 11 minutes per km. I can walk comfortably at a pace of 9 – 10 minutes per km. This should give you some indication of how slow some of the segments of the course are – you will do some climbs and technical traversing at 30 minutes per km. Don’t stress – you’ll easily make it up on the flats. As a friend of mine told me before the run, Otter is more a swift hike than a run. Bear that in mind, and you’ll do fine.

3. Nutrition

This was my first significant endurance event. My previous furthest run was a 24 km trail, and a half marathon on the road. I realised leading up to the event that everybody has got a different formula from a nutritional perspective. Ultimately what you eat and drink on race day is your preference. These are some of the things that worked for me.

Apart from the normal energy drink tablets, Rehidrat and GU-type meal replacements that are available for a boost, I appreciated having a good old peanut butter sandwich and a small packet of biltong in my bag. That “real food” definitely lifted my spirits.

I planned to have the sandwich at the halfway point and “rewarded” myself with energy supplements at every hour, on the hour.  I alternated between peanut butter Gu’s and another absolute lifesaver – “Joobies” energy supplements. Local supplier, Pace and Power, makes these and a friend introduced me to them before the race.

Because the water in my hydration pack got warm quickly (and almost always tastes bitter and plasticky), I carried another two bottles with me and tried to keep the water in them as cool as possible. Those precious sips of cold water after every major climb were not only transformative physically, but they also served as a brilliant personal goal: “You can have some water if you don’t stop climbing!”

4. Water

Do some homework on the water points and where you need to fill up and hydrate. Take a little time at those water points to cool yourself down, wet your buff, and drink a bit. I spent 2 – 3 minutes at every stop and still managed a sub-8, so it’s very possible.

5. Take it all in

The stretch of coastline you’ll run is one of the most glorious places on this earth. That’s not just my opinion – most trail runners at the highest level cite this as one of the greatest runs on the planet, not just in South Africa. Ricky Lightfoot, who recorded a sensational 04:15:27, talks about it in his interview with Brad Brown on Trail Talk SA – well worth a listen.

Try to take in some of the sights, smells, and sounds of the trail while you’re running. A moment to appreciate your surroundings will be in and of itself a big boost.

6. Prologue, Registration and Awards Dinner

The race or challenge prologues are compulsory seeding events before the respective runs. The prologue is compulsory, and how you run it will depend entirely on your intentions on race day. If you want to start in the first group (of 24) and have a chance at a podium place, you will need to run the prologue hard.

The 4-point-something km route we ran was awesome – and had a little bit of everything in it. Pebbles, single track, technical rocks, and one massive climb, all of which gave us a good taste of what to expect come race day. I chose to run the prologue fairly easily and placed in the top 60, which meant I got out somewhat early in the morning and ran with people close to my strength and ability, which made a big difference.

The registration process was very well handled (in fact, the whole event is spectacularly well organised and managed), but like everyone else, I rushed to the registration at 10h00 and landed up in queues. My advice? Chill in the morning, register, run the prologue, and then come back to hand in your timing chip (for seeding) and do your compulsory equipment check at the same time.

Make sure you attend the awards dinner after the event. If you’re anything like me, you’ll still be on a massive endorphin high, the stiffness won’t have set in yet, and the great food, drink, and vibe will be just what you need.

Final disclaimer: I nearly quit. A week before the event, I messaged two friends (both runners I respect a great deal) to say I was wussing out. They could have told me to stop being a big baby, but instead were kind enough to encourage me, tell me to treat it as an adventure, and do my best no matter how petrified I was.

I did, and as much as I was flat broken at the end, it was one hell of an experience that I will never forget.

If you want to race it and need more info, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with the right people. If you are racing and want my very unqualified amateur input, drop me a line, and I’ll help as best I can. But whatever you do, don’t quit. It is ALWAYS worth it at the end.

18 thoughts on “6 Tips for Making the Most of Your Otter Trail Race or Challenge

  1. Still immensely proud of you bugger. What an accomplishment. Hope I can follow in your steps one day, literally.

    On nutrition. I’m not a runner, but as a marathon and stage race MTBer, I generally prefer to stay away from gels and energy supplements. Genuine food always works better for me, mixing simple and complex sugarsr sustained energ Gels are fast acting BUT throw me off a cliff shortly afterwards. Aiden

  2. Nice one Mike! Well done all round.

    See you on the trail soon for a training run – and for the RETTO next year again.

    Mike Shapiro

  3. Mike, this is fantastic advice, thank you! Just the sort of thing that I need to know. I’m on the priority list, and hoping that I’ll manage to secure my 2014 entry. Seeing your success, and hearing your account of this exciting race has me 110% sold. Bring it on.

  4. Just read this post now. I’ve hiked the trail and can’t imagine running the full length, sub-8, 12 or 24! Hat’s off to you and all the trail runners who have attempted this

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