I’m honoured to have my fabulous trail friend, Jennifer Crossman, guest blog about Retto 2016. For those that have read my posts you’ll know that Jennifer got me through the Giant’s Cup and to add to the whole fabulous experience, a new friendship was formed. I can’t wait until our next one together!
Retto 2016 Trail report
Spoiler alert! This is NOT written by a Salomon athlete. You won’t find me flying over the path nor leaping up the 7000 Otter steps. It’s probably going to be rather plodding but will get there in the end. Which pretty much sums up my race too.
So how, why and when? It started in 2014 when the Hot Hubby (HH) lightly suggested we try the Otter Trail Run. We’d done a few trails by then and were looking for a Great Big Adventure and this seems like just the thing. We were on the computers with fingers poised as entries opened and went thrilled to both get entries for the 2015 Otter Challenge. The euphoria of actually get one of the sought after entries quickly turned to terror, which accompanied me for the next 11 months through to October 2015 when we lined up for the start. Lets be honest: I am not a natural runner. I do these things because I love the outdoors, love adventures, and mainly because the HH insists that I can (even when I am full of doubt). Still, we survived the 2015 “wet one” and the HH did a spanking time. My own was rather less spanking but I still managed to sneak in under the 11 hour cut-off and bask in the feeling of achievement, while muttering “never ever ever ever again” under my breath.
But pain is a funny thing and trail runners seem especially good at forgetting it really quickly. Within a few days we were wondering if we could do it better in sunny weather, with more informed prep and training and with less nervous stress. So within a few days we were again poised over the computer, and again managed to both get entries to the Retto 2016.
Fortunately the year running up to Retto was busier than normal which kept the anticipatory terror at bay (mostly), but I think this also ended up with slightly less than optimal training being done….but nonetheless we set off from Jozi in high spirits on Tuesday 11th October. For once the weather was looking perfect for the Challenge – Level 1 looked likely which was a big relief after the Level 3 of 2015. With the race running in the opposite direction in 2016 (west to east) all the action was at the finish point in the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp in the Tsitsikamma National Park. We had booked accommodation in the Rest Camp which is a no-brainer for this version of the race. We arrived to find our little Oceanette was 200m from registration tent and the finish line- perfect!
With a little bit of experience on our side and good organisation, registration and kit check was a breeze. Get shirt and bib, get timing chip, sort accommodation keys, get in line to do kit check – and done! James, who checked my kit, said I was the fastest he’d seen. Wish some of that could come out on the trail! By now it was around 11am and the last thing we needed to get done before the evening’s race briefing, was run the Prologue.
The Otter have a splendid mechanism for seeding everyone on the course which is the Prologue. It’s run the day before your event, seems to be around 4-5km and kinda replicates the actual trail conditions (think stairs, forest track, a river crossing and some rocks etc.). If you’re planning to be up on the podium you need to complete the Prologue at speed and get yourself into the Abangeni (first batch) for the next day. The rest of us should try to run it at the same sustainable speed that you plan for the race. It’s also a great way of getting rid of travel niggles and get the whole focus right for the next day.
The start was about 1.5km from the registration tent with a beautiful walk along the road skirting the coastline and in glorious weather. Then a stiff set of stairs up the hill to the ‘actual’ timed start at the top. You’re given a quick race briefing, your timing chip is registered and then you’re off. The route was great, although somewhat tourist infested this year – obviously the good weather brought them out – and wound through the forest above the Rest Camp before heading back down to the coast to join up with the main Otter trail close to the end. At one stage I turned a corner and found two bushbuck right in front of me and I’m afraid to say I wasted many seconds game viewing (this is why I am not a racer!). The HH again did enough to ensure Abangeni seeding for the next day, and I finished at a pace that I felt I could sustain the next day (i.e. very very slow).
With all the admin done, the afternoon is your own. We got lunch, checked into our Oceanette, caught up with mates and spent time soaking up the sun and the atmosphere. If you’re thinking this all sounds far too cool, calm and collected, you should have seen us last year: flat panic, frazzled and we even forgot about supper, so ended up with garage pies – perfect pre-race meal NOT. This year we were a whole lot more sorted and it was a whole lot more fun.
Race briefing was at 17:30 back on the registration tent and we all gathered to hear Mark Collins give us the rundown. Yay! Bloukrans was looking better (read: lower) than ever before and best of all, Level 1 weather was confirmed! The difference this makes to the size and weight of your pack is significant, with minimal emergency kit being required. So far so good!
The next day was an early start as the last bus leaves Storms River at 5am. You are welcome to make your own way to the start but shuttles are provided for the runners staying in the Rest Camp. With HH in the first batch, we hopped onto one of the earlier ones and pulled out at 4:30am. The drive through to Natures Valley took about an hour, arriving on the beach below Natures Valley which was The Start. Eek! A chilly start but the day was fine and the light was magnificent. Definitely one for the photographers. And then suddenly you remember that you’re in for a 42km run over extremely tough terrain and things get serious.
After another short briefing, and reminders to ‘dib’ your timing chip, we’re let loose on the adventure of a lifetime. Mark warns during the race briefing that it is a ‘war of attrition’ out there, and to pace yourself. The last 15km of the Retto are probably the toughest of the route, and you need plenty in the tank to survive them. Nevertheless after we pass the first dib station a few hundred metres down the beach (and the real timed start), people hare off as if they’re running a 10km. Its about 3km on the beach before you climb the first stairs of the day up onto the plateau next to the coast. And people are going FAST. The first 8km or so of the Retto are relatively flat, and the tips all say don’t blow out in the first 8km. It’s the last 15km that count. At 5km into the race the sweep has caught up to me and I’m puzzled – I check my watch and I’m spot on my prologue time, but have been passed by the rest of the field. Oh well, fortunately Deon (Braun from Trail Mag) was the sweep and was great fun, if just a tad too chatty and ridiculously fit, bouncing up the stairs like a cheery mountain goat. I think he was rather puzzled himself, at how slowly I was going – yup, that’s what its like for the back markers! We chatted, ran, walked, and even did an on-the-go interview (unlikely to make me famous, certainly NOT at my wittiest right then) while we ate away at the 42km….making it through the slide at Bloukrans (so much fun), the nasty climb up the other side and the long section along the coast and over rocks to the GU Munchie point at Oakhurst, approx 20km in.
A friend who finished this year commented so truly that its amazing the range of emotions you experience during an event like this, and I can wholeheartedly agree. By halfway I had already decided to withdraw about 5 times, complaining to myself that I was nauseous, had sore kidneys and sore feet, wasn’t fit enough, was too fat and too darn slow to even consider finishing under cut-off. I questioned what I was even doing out here when I clearly wasn’t even marginally qualified to be there. I cursed a few times. Blamed everything under the sun for my lack of fitness (other than myself of course) and miserably assured myself that I was the reason Mark needed such elaborate emergency evacuation plans. But in between all this negativity, I was thrilled by the views! The sun was out and everything looked just amazing – last year my enduring memory is of cold & grey and water in the path. This year was turquoise and green with light clouds dancing along the horizon. I was loving being out in the park on this trail that you can wait for YEARS to get onto, and in perfect running weather. If you can relate to this confusion of emotions then welcome: skitzo trail runners unite!
I took a breather at the Munchie Point. It is a good place to stop and re-consider. The guys there were fantastic as last year, and so super encouraging. I demolished a number of oranges, mixed myself up a shake, filled up with water and set off again, feeling a whole lot more cheerful. I’d also past a few runners by now so the sweep was off my tail (sorry Deon – No offence intended!) which calmed me down a bit.
By this point you’ve done 4 major climbs, and crossed two rivers. You have another 4 (or 6 depending how you count them) climbs and another 2 rivers to cross. You also have the feared end section over the rocks near the waterfall.
The 8km from the Munchie Point to Scott hut passed in a blur – I was running with a fairly steady group and we ran/walked/staggered along in shared silent pain. Scott hut was a good spot for a refill of water before heading onto Ngubu. For me this next bit is the unheralded really tough part of the Retto. Everyone always talks about the “really tough technical bit” at the end over the rocks past the waterfall but this is my favourite bit and I look forward to it. But the 8km between the last two huts is torturous. Its up and down stairs in the forest for what seems like the whole 8km, and this is where that refrain starts up in your head again: “Never ever ever again” over and over….. Or perhaps “why why why??”. That bit for me was the worst of the Retto and the major reason why the traditional direction may be my favourite. The stairs seem unending. Eventually we pulled into Ngubu and you know when people say “I have never been so glad to see that….” – well yup, that was it.
From here I knew the route and knew it was only 4.6km to the finish, including some of my favourite bits, so this perked me up. The race official at Ngubu warned our little group though that we were cutting it very fine for cut-off and need to get a hussle on – no faffing now! That seems to give me the incentive I needed as we raced (relatively) along the undulating path until we reached the rock section. The waterfall was of course beautiful as ever and a welcome sight – the end was now very near! My running mate said I was “like a klipspringer” over the last rocks which motivated me to go as fast as I was able. We were now passing tourists and daytrippers on the path (who cheered us on and no doubt secretly though us mad – and smelly) and it seemed like the last 2 kms couldn’t go fast enough. With so little to go I was adamant that we wouldn’t be cut off.
The sight of the finish chute at Storms River is enough to bring any finisher to tears – at that stage of the day its just the most welcome sight in the world. I made it in just under 10hr30mins, a fractional improvement of 5minutes over my Otter time from the previous year but the sense of achievement was immense. I was also surprised to find another 22 people finished behind me (after I was stone last at 5km in) and around the same number withdrew. The war of attrition took many casualties despite the glorious Level 1 weather.
The HH managed a super 45 minute improvement in his time, securing his podium finish for the second year running, and I proudly took home my “Otter in a Day” medal to join last year’s one. 10 days on, as I write this, its had time to sink in. Was I fit enough? Definitely not. Are you ever? Probably not. Could I do it faster? Perhaps. Am I going to do it again?…..TBC!
- Get organized beforehand and take all your compulsory kit with you to registration. Remember they check up to level 3 so you need everything on the list.
- Don’t forget to clean your running shoes before you go – get rid of all those nasty alien grass seeds from distance places. They’ll clean them again for you but its polite to have them at least mostly clean.
- Try to get all the “admin” (registration, kit checks, prologue) done as early as possible. This gives the legs time to recover and gives you time to chill and soak up the sights.
- Try to stay at the same place that the race starts (i.e. Natures Valley for the Otter, Storms River for the Retto) – this takes a lot of driving out of the weekend. The Oceanettes are heartily recommended especially for the Retto, being well equipped, super clean and comfy, as well as being close to the finish.
- You can never do enough stairs as prep.
- Actual race tips: better check the Salomon athletes reports for those!
- And finally, being able to do this race on this course is an extraordinary treat, and difficult as it is at times, try to appreciate the glorious scenery: or at least promise yourself you’ll be back as a hiker!