Each year in late spring, the Cape clawless otters, which inhabit the Tsitsikamma National Park and gave their name to South Africa’s best-known hiking trail, have to adjust to the slow-moving hominids, who regularly walk the 42km trail between Storm’s River and Nature’s Valley over five days, suddenly speed over the trail in less than a morning.
Next year, these curious land and sea mammals might find the speed adjustment even more profound, as there is every likelihood that many of the world’s leading international trail athletes will take part in the 10th Otter African Trail Race.
While details are still under wraps, there is every chance that the “Grail of Trail”, as the “Otter” has become known, will host the climax of an international series of trail races over the marathon distance, with as many as 20 or more international stars lining up against South Africa’s leading athletes.
If plans come to fruition, this would be a first for South African trail racing – the IAAF’s latest recognised athletics discipline.
While races, such as the Otter and Ultra Trail Cape Town, have attracted international stars in recent years, never before has South Africa hosted what could be regarded as an international championship event.
“It’s certainly very exciting,” said race director Mark Collins.
“The primary challenge for us will be to find a local title sponsor to match the international funding being injected into the series and the South African event in particular. It’s a huge opportunity for a South African company or entity to come on board.
“There will be a large media presence from all over the world and we’re hopeful our district and local municipalities and SANParks will come to the party – the publicity will be huge.
“Many of the world’s top trail races are supported by their local government, and we hope that this will be the case with the Otter.”
In recent years international athletes of the calibre of Ricky Lightfoot (UK), Ruby Muir (NZ), Stevie Kremer (USA) and Marc Lauenstein (Switz) have excelled at the Otter, although such are the technical challenges of the route that it often takes athletes several attempts to gain proficiency over the testing terrain and find their way to the podium.
This year’s Otter African Trail winners, Christiaan Greyling and Meg Mackenzie, are cases in point.
Both Greyling and Mackenzie have improved steadily each time they have raced the Otter, with Greyling coming from a 5:26:06 in 2011 to win in 4:13:15 at his sixth attempt last weekend, and Mackenzie improving from 5:26:41 in 2013 to win in her fourth Otter in 5:01:08.
“I’ve seen many top athletes fail at the Otter,” explained Collins.
“It’s one thing being able to run fast, but at the Otter, you have to learn to dance.
“Unless an athlete can do that and master the technicality of running over wet rocks and on countless steps, they won’t be amongst the podium finishers.”
It remains to be seen whether world stars will excel over the Otter.
Some will find the going tough, although the likes of Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet will certainly find a way to make the Tsitsikamma otters sit up in their burrows and take notice.