SA duo Van Heerden, McCann triumph at Otter Trail race

Nature's Valley Rest Camp - The 11th running of the Otter African Trail Run took place on South Africa’s pristine Garden Route on Saturday.

Warm, sunny skies welcomed runners at the start at Storm’s River Mouth, and temperatures continued to increase over the course of the morning making well executed hydration and nutrition strategies especially critical. The top 24 men and 16 women made up the Abangeni runners, who took off from the start at 07:00.

The Classic Otter, run from East to West, starts with incredibly technical, rocky and uneven terrain as runners make their way along the coastline towards the first overnight hut.

In the men’s race 2017 Otter winner, Christiaan Greyling, who struggled with injuries earlier this year, set the pace from the start with the front of the Abangeni pack doing their best to stick with him.

However, after the first technical section Kane Reilly and Johardt van Heerden took over the lead, breaking away from the rest of the field and extending the gap to 13 minutes by the Gu Munchie Table at the halfway point at Oakhurst.

Behind the two leaders, Greyling and Mvuyisi Gcogco dropped into a similar pace.

“Me and Kane broke away at Ngubu hut, just running together and having a ball of a time. I think we were both running within ourselves, not thinking too much about the record, just enjoying it out there. We were alternating setting the pace, so really working together until Munchie Point. It was so cool running together. He really knows the trail so well, he knows how to pace himself, so I used him as a pacer not to overcook it in the first section,” said Van Heerden.

At Bloukrans, Van Heerden was on Marc Lauenstein’s sub-4 hour record pace, and had created a gap between himself and second placed Reilly. The low tide gave the elites an advantage, and made the crossing relatively smooth.

Despite fatigue and cramp starting to creep in, Van Heerden continued to push over the final third of the course, moving as fast as he could to maintain the record pace.

Greyling left Bloukrans 4 minutes ahead of Gcogco.

“My nutrition was spot on, but I could feel the cramp starting to set in a little bit from the ups and downs. The last section was quite runnable, but I could feel my legs were just not responding as I would have liked. I was on the border for sub-4, but as I descended towards the beach I realised I was probably going to miss it,” said Van Heerden.

Van Heerden just missed breaking the sub-4 hour mark and finished in a time of 04:02:59, setting the new fastest time a South African has run the Classic Otter African Trail Run.

Switzerland's Lauenstein still holds the fastest time for the Classic at 03:59:29.

“It was such a great day for me overall, I’m really stoked about the win. Sub-4, well it wasn’t meant to be (laughing). I pushed really hard; I was still on time until Bloukrans but then Marc (Lauenstein) must have really hammered this last section to get that sub-4 in 2015.”

Reilly finished in second place in a time of 04:19:02, his first words on the finish line to Van Heerden were, “did you get it?” highlighting the bond between the community of South African elite runners. An elated Greyling took the last position on the podium in third place in a time of 04:27:58.

The women’s race was dominated by the four favourites, young guns Toni McCann and Bianca Tarboton and trail legends Landie Greyling and Nicolette Griffioen.

McCann took the lead from the start, securing her position in the top 10 from the start line. At the halfway point at Oakhurst, McCann and Tarboton were just 4 minutes apart, with Greyling 8 minutes behind her and Griffioen just 2 minutes back. Despite the humidity, the four women all looked comfortable in the race.

McCann came into Bloukrans 5 minutes ahead of Tarboton and in sixth position overall. She navigated the crossing with ease and continued to push ahead into the final third of the course.

“The last section is supposedly runnable, but it’s not actually that runnable when you’re tired like I was feeling. There is a lot of low-grade climbing that really messes with you mentally,“ said McCann.

At Bloukrans Tarboton wasn’t letting up, and moved into 10th overall, maintaining a 5 minute gap between herself and McCann. Running a strategic and powerful run throughout, Greyling kept her third position ahead of Griffioen in fourth.

With just minutes to spare, McCann hit the final obstacle of the day, the floating bridge and balance beam, on the finish line, to a cheering crowd.

“I heard the crowd shouting that I had 2 minutes to make the record and new I had to finish this thing, but then obviously I face planted in the water before the bridge which was really classy (laughing). The bridge was a bit worrying but I am just super happy to have come in under the record. I’m just super happy.”

Navigating the balance beam perfectly, she crossed the finish line in a new record time, becoming the fastest women to win the Classic Otter African Trail Run in a time of 04:52:48.

McCann broke Kiwi Ruby Muir’s record which was set in 2013.

“It was tougher than last year, but it was beautiful. Bloukrans was incredible. The first half of the race was definitely stronger than the second half. I’m super happy with the outcome. It was fun to race knowing that there were people pushing behind me. I’m definitely happy to have broken the record. I started my watch late, so I wasn’t sure where I was,” said McCann.

Tarboton, who was racing her first marathon distance race, made it to Nature’s Gate in second place, but with roughly 3.5km to go, she blew and required emergency assistance on the trail.

“I didn’t fill up my water at Andre’ Hut and as a result I didn’t want to eat any gels from then on because I didn’t have any water to drink them with. I think I basically just had a complete glucose drop. I tried to push but when I got onto the beach I was feeling super dizzy. I got onto the jeep track and Tim (Chambers) was with me. He could see how much I was struggling, and I think he said we should walk, and he helped me, but I just got worse and worse and in the end I couldn’t actually stand. It was pretty terrifying. Between Tim, James (Montgomery) and the paramedics I was looked after. It was a terrible thing to happen, but I definitely learnt a lot and learnt how to never underestimate the importance of proper nutrition/ fluid intake because I really messed that up.”

Special mention to Tim Chambers who stopped to assist Tarboton. He sacrificed his top 10 finish to help a fellow competitor another sign of the strength and bond between the trail community in South Africa.

It was an emotional Greyling, who had moved up to ninth overall, who came in over the finish line second in a time of 05:08:52. Her son has just turned one-year-old, and she is in the throes of her comeback to trail, so was ecstatic with her finish.

Griffioen finished third in a time of 05:23:03. While she admitted it wasn’t her best performance, she couldn’t help but comment on the beauty of the trails and what a privilege it was to be able to run it.

This year’s running of the Otter African Trail Run was all about celebrating local South African trail runners.

“It was an incredible day, the young guns laid it down today. The new generation have been knocking on the door opened it today. We almost saw a sub-4 in the men, a first by an African runner. He missed it by 3 minutes which is phenomenal. In the women’s race, Toni is just phenomenal. She ran such a fast first half, that she actually slowed down but still did enough to get the record. It’s a six-year old record held by Kiwi Ruby Muir that has now come back to South Africa,” said Race Director Mark Collins. 

Regarding the Otter and putting on an event of its nature, he went on to say “we are always mindful. You can get caught up in all the stress and the excitement of the event but at the end of the day each for every one of us working on this event and participating - it’s actually a privilege. It’s becoming more and more of a privilege as the wildernesses across the world get pressurised. To do something that has a minimal footprint, and to do it in a way that maintains that footprint is a privileged. As always, an event of this nature would be impossible without the support of our incredible sponsors, some of which have been with us for the entire 11 years. I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to SANParks and the Garden Route National Park who without, this event would not exist.”

OTTER 2019 Top 10 men:

1. Johardt van Heerden 04:02:59

2. Kane Reilly 04:19:02

3. Christiaan Greyling 04:27:58

4. Mvuyisi Gcogco 04:31:53

5. Pieter Conradie 04:46:03

6. Gabriel Kriel 05:02:00

7. Matthis Grant 05:06:25

8. Rohan Kennedy 05:10:46

9. Russell Lund 05:11:01

10. Louis le Grange 05:11:16

OTTER 2019 Top 5 women:

1. Toni McCann 04:52:51

2. Landie Greyling 05:08:52

3. Nicolette Griffioen 05:23:03

4. Julika Pohl 05:49:42

5. Mags Wright 06:04:12

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Women's winner Toni McCann (David Sullivan)

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Men's winner Johardt van Heerden (David Sullivan)