STORM’S RIVER MOUTH REST CAMP, SOUTH AFRICA — This weekend, the 10th running of the Otter African Trail Run hosted the Grand Finale of the inaugural Golden Trail Series on Saturday 20 October, which brought together the world’s top 10 men and women marathon distance trail runners to compete not only for the prestigious Otter title, but the Golden Series trophies too. With so many elite athletes taking to the course, it wasn’t a matter of if, but rather how many would run under the existing record time. It was a day of new course records, surprise withdrawals, incredible performances and all-around fantastic entertainment.
In the Men’s race, Polish runner Bartlomiej Przedwojewski took the lead from the start. The Bloukrans River crossing did little to slow him down, and by the halfway point he had gained a four-minute lead. “The whole time I was running I thought the group behind me were going to catch me. I thought they were thirty seconds from me for the whole race, so I just tried to run as fast as I could.” He maintained his lead all the way to the finish line at Storm’s River Rest Camp, obliterating the existing record by fourteen minutes and setting a new RETTO record of 3:40:48,32. “I can’t believe that I ran in the new record time, I just can’t believe it,” he said.
Behind him, the field raced for the remaining two spots on the podium. Trail running superstar, and favourite to win not only the Otter Trail but the Golden Trail Series too, Kilian Jornet, was forced to withdraw within the first 10km due to a hip injury he has been battling for several weeks, leaving the race wide open. Marc Lauenstein, the RETTO and OTTER record holder, had a rough start to the race, but after a mid-way pep talk moved up the field to finish in second place, ten minutes behind Przedwojewski. The Swiss trail runner was ecstatic to be back in South Africa and has confirmed he’d like to come back and race again. He finished in a time of 3:50:22,12. Third place went to Spain’s Oriol Cardona, who ran consistently over the 42km route. He finished in a time of 3:51:59,4.
First South African’s over the route certainly gave the crowd a show in what can be considered one of the better sprint finishes at the end of a marathon! It was Robbie Rorich who sped over the finish line split seconds ahead of Rory Scheffer to finish 8th and 9th respectively, Rorich setting fastest South African time on the RETTO route. Last year’s winner, Christiaan Greyling finished 10th.
The Women’s race was equally exciting, Italy’s Silvia Rampazzo and South Africa’s Toni McCann playing tag for the front spot during the first half. The undulating stairs got the better of Rampazzo just after halfway, giving McCann an opportunity to make a move. She held onto the lead until the 30km mark, where the UK’s Holly Page caught and passed her. Page, who went into today’s race as a tourist to, in her own words, ‘soak in the beauty of the trails,’ started conservatively but slowly worked her way up the field. “My watch seemed to have malfunctioned, so I thought I had 3km to go, but I had 10km to go, so I ran past all the water points thinking I was nearly there wondering where all the rocks were that everyone kept talking about, but they never came. I gave it my all in the last section,” said Page. Her efforts got her across the finish line first setting a new woman’s RETTO record, in a time of 4:37:48,87. “To break Robyn (Owen)’s record was a surprise. She is super strong, so the whole time I actually kept thinking she was going to come along and overtake me. She is great so to beat that record is really cool.”
Despite New Zealander Ruth Croft’s best efforts to chase Page down, she finished second just 34 seconds behind her in a time of 4:38:22,57. The real surprise of the day was McCann, who hung onto a podium position and finished third to the absolute delight of the local crowd. She crossed the finish line in tears, absolutely overwhelmed at her performance. “I never in my wildest dreams expected a result like today. My intention has always been to go out and have fun, including today. It was so surreal out there, to have come third. I was so emotional. It definitely makes me want to race Golden Series next year. If I can wrangle some funds together I definitely want to figure out how to go and race overseas next year,” she said. Meg McKenzie, who has raced the Golden Trail Series this year, finished sixth.
In addition to the honor of being crowned Otter Trail champion, at stake at the Otter was the season-long title for the Golden Trail Series. The top-10 athletes who qualified for a weeklong trip to South Africa were determined by their results in the first five races of the season, with each needing to start at least three Golden Trail Series races in order to be eligible for the final. The men’s and women’s GTS champions were determined by each athlete’s top three performances in the first five races of the series, plus his/her result at the Otter Trail.
Ruth Croft and Norway’s Stian Angermund-Vik became the first-ever season-long Golden Trail Series champions and were crowned at the final awards ceremony. For Angermund-Vik, the Series win was a bit hollow with Jornet pulling out due to injury. Still, his consistent season against such top-tier talent earned him the overall prize. “I have not raced against this much talent all season ever before where you know every race is going to be tough,“ said Angermund-Vik. “We all know Kilian is the best runner, so winning because he is hurt is not the same. But it’s fun to see different people have their day, and today it was Przedwojewski. He just smashed us and I’m really happy for him. I loved the course and the way it changes up and down. It was one big smile from the beginning to the end.”
Ruth Croft was, like Angermund-Vik, a model of consistency throughout the Golden Trail Series. She won at the Marathon du Mont Blanc and was in the hunt just about everywhere else. At the Otter Trail she had another strong finish, besting everyone but Page. To win the Golden Trail Series season-long title was, she said, an accomplishment she is quite proud of.
The Golden Trail Series featured five most iconic “short-distance” trail races on the planet— Zegama Mountain Marathon in Spain’s Basque Country, the Marathon du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, Pikes Peak in Colorado and the Ring of Steall in the Scottish Highlands. The Grand Final will be held in a different country each year.
This year’s running of the Otter African Trail surpassed all expectations. Race Director, Mark Collins, was in his element to be able to share the Tsitsikamma National Park with the international athletes and RETTO runners. “This was in every way, without even hyping the event up, a world championship event with the best runners in the world. I had a big sense that you were witnessing history and witnessing the best of the best in action. Just seeing the guys on the course was phenomenal. Nothing quite prepares you for seeing the top 10 men and women in the world coming into Bloukrans like a pack of wolves.”
“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 10 years,” Collins went on to say. “I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Salomon South Africa for their continuous support, as well as LiveU, and of course SANParks and the Garden Route National Park who without, this event would not exist.”