Christiaan Greyling celebrates victory in the 2017 Otter African Trail Run together with Kane Reilly (left) and Robbie Rorich who filled the minor podium positions. All three will be contesting tomorrow's race. Photo: Stephen Granger

All trails this week lead to the enchanting coastal forest resort of Nature’s Valley, where South Africa’s leading trail athletes have assembled for Saturday's 11th running of the Otter African Trail Run.

Not for nothing does the 42km race carry the epithet “Grail of Trail”. The race is unquestionably South Africa’s leading marathon-distance trail event and as a result has attracted the best athletes to compete for the considerable prestige and honour associated with an Otter podium position.

The legacy of the event, which takes place along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet, through the Tsitsikama Section of the Garden Route National Park, has also attracted a steady stream of top international athletes, never more so than last year, when the race doubled as the Grand Finale to the inaugural Golden Trail Series.

The world elites ran the “Retto” last year – the Otter in reverse, from Nature’s Valley to Storm’s River.  Tomorrow reverts to the classic east to west “Otter” direction between Storm’s River and Nature’s Valley and South Africa’s finest will be chasing the classic records of 3 hrs 59 min 29 sec and 4 hrs 55 min 48 sec, established by Swiss athlete Marc Lauenstein and New Zealand’s Ruby Muir in 2016 and 2013 respectively.

Cape Town’s Kane Reilly is likely the most talented trail athlete in South Africa never to have won the Otter.  Many of the country’s top trail races list Reilly’s name behind their race record, but success at the Otter has been elusive.  His form leading up to the race has been impressive, notably his record-breaking performance at the Table Mountain Challenge last month.

His dual role as athlete and full-time employee for Salomon – the race sponsor – has possibly counted against his success on the trail at the Otter, but if he can be sufficiently focused on the race tomorrow, he has every chance of correcting the aberration on his otherwise near-perfect South African trail-running CV.

But Reilly won’t have it easy.  Ranged against him is Gauteng racing attorney, Johardt van Heerden, in the form of his life, having enjoyed a decisive victory over Reilly at the Whale Trail in August, Christiaan Greyling, whose strong finish took him to victory over Reilly at the Otter two years ago and Robbie Rorich, first of the South Africans in last year’s race in the fastest time ever run by a South African.

And with vastly improved Timothy Chambers, former double Whale Trail champion, Melikhaya Msizi and Eastern Cape’s Mvuyisi Gcogco in the line-up, the race will not be lacking in depth of talent even without the heavy contingent of internationals this year.

The women’s competition promises to yield an equal dividend of excitement and unpredictability, with the stage set for a generational showdown between the experience and proven quality of past winner, Landie Greyling, and Nicolette Griffioen and the vastly talented younger pretenders to the throne, Toni McCann and Bianca Tarboton.

Like Reilly, a win at the Otter is virtually the only significant absence in Griffioen’s South African racing CV and she has the grit and mental strength to turn that around tomorrow, while Greyling is returning to her impressive best form after injuries earlier this year.  McCann shocked many of the internationals last year by leading the race through 30km before placing third, while Tarboton’s natural speed has marked her for future international success.

Academic pressure could impact the outcome.  Both Griffioen and Tarboton have had to focus on important study requirements, and with the latter having arrived late last night due to pressure to submit an important assignment for her Chemical Engineering qualification this could give an edge to the more race-focused McCann and Greyling.All trails this week lead to the enchanting coastal forest resort of Nature’s Valley, where South Africa’s leading trail athletes have assembled for tomorrow’s (Sat) 11th running of the Otter African Trail Run.

Not for nothing does the 42km race carry the epithet “Grail of Trail”. The race is unquestionably South Africa’s leading marathon-distance trail event and as a result has attracted the best athletes to compete for the considerable prestige and honour associated with an Otter podium position.

The legacy of the event, which takes place along one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet, through the Tsitsikama Section of the Garden Route National Park, has also attracted a steady stream of top international athletes, never more so than last year, when the race doubled as the Grand Finale to the inaugural Golden Trail Series.

The world elites ran the “Retto” last year – the Otter in reverse, from Nature’s Valley to Storm’s River.  Tomorrow reverts to the classic east to west “Otter” direction between Storm’s River and Nature’s Valley and South Africa’s finest will be chasing the classic records of 3 hrs 59 min 29 sec and 4 hrs 55 min 48 sec, established by Swiss athlete Marc Lauenstein and New Zealand’s Ruby Muir in 2016 and 2013 respectively.

IOL Sport