Rainy conditions notwithstanding, South African trail athletes enjoyed their ‘moment in the sun’ by taking the top places at Friday’s Prologue for Saturday’s Otter African “Retto” Trail 41km run, while a nagging injury to Kilian Jornet could see the Spanish star withdraw from the race.
Friends and Salomon South Africa teammates Kane Reilly and Thabang Madiba were the only two athletes to break 20 minutes for the testing 4.5km prologue to lead the star-studded international field going into the main event on Saturday morning between the Storms River and Nature’s Valley near Plettenberg Bay.
Little-known Cape Town athlete Toni McCann blitzed to the fastest time among the women, her 22 minutes 36 seconds (22:36) almost 40 seconds inside Meg Mackenzie’s 23:15 in second place.
Madiba won the prologue over the same route two years back in 18:59, and although the wet conditions slowed the athletes, the Gauteng athlete again showed his speed and dexterity over the shorter distances, before Reilly gave it a full blast to top the table at the end of the day.
Four South Africans finished in the top 10, with former track and cross country star Johardt van Heerden making a welcome return from a long-term injury, sixth in 20:17 and Tim Chambers eighth in 20:22.
Last year’s Otter winner Christian Greyling turned in a solid run in 12th position in 21:13, one behind runner-up last year, Robbie Rorich.
The slippery, technical trail took several victims, with several athletes, including South Africa’s Robyn Owen and Melikhaya Mzizi, Spanish athlete Sheila Aviles and Norwegian Fanny Borgstrom, bleeding at the finish, with Aviles and Mzizi’s injuries potentially threatening their run on Saturday.
Most of the favourites backed off a full effort, content to record times to allow them to start at the front of the field on Sunday in the 25-strong “Abangeni”, with twice Otter winner, Swiss athlete Marc Lauenstein, seventh fastest in 20:18 and Jornet 16th in 21:28.
“It felt okay today, but I was still conscious of the injury,” Jornet admitted after his run on Friday. “I don’t know how it will go tomorrow, we will just have to see on the day.”
But Salomon marketing director and the Golden Trail Series founder, Greg Vollet, was pessimistic.
“Kilian will start, but I cannot see him finishing the race. He can’t risk a major injury at this stage in his career.”
Two strong favourites in the women’s contest, Ruth Croft of New Zealand and British athlete Holly Jones, had strong runs, ending in third and fourth respectively, both indicating their delight at racing the Otter and capable of taking on the notoriously challenging Otter Trail route.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, the planet is likely to be better off, with the 20 international athletes from the Golden Trail Series running for environment-related charities.
Any prize money won on Sunday will be paid into charities ranging from the serious climate change advocates, Protect our Winters, supported by Lauenstein and several others, to the African Pangolin Working Group, supported by Meg Mackenzie.
“Pangolins are the most widely trafficked mammal in the world. I’ve always had a very strong love for pangolins and it breaks my heart that they are declining so rapidly in population due to their so-called ‘medicinal value’,” said Mackenzie.