Debutant, Robbie Simpson and Otter African Trail Run stalwart, Bianca Tarboton, won the fifteenth edition of the Grail of Trail on Saturday, 7 October. The adidas TERREX athletes claimed their victories in different ways, with Simpson relying on the experience of others in the first half of the course. Tarboton tapped into her extensive route knowledge to win her second title in her fifth finish.
Overnight rain and fears of precipitation throughout the day led to nerves on the start line in Storms River. Yet, despite half an hour or so of heavy rain – in Natures Valley, while the short-course Dassie event was taking place – the sun eventually came out, producing perfect trail running conditions. It was cool, but drying, with a light breeze. Only the conditions underfoot made the going tougher than usual, with slippery rocks, roots and swollen rivers all adding minutes to the finishers’ times.
“I knew beforehand that it would be challenging with the wet weather, especially with the slippery rocks,” Johardt van Heerden reflected. “And it certainly was challenging, especially on the technical section to Ngubu. We kept it controlled and careful until there, but Robbie Rorich just pulled away.”
Renowned for his technical skills, Rorich thrived over the first 20 kilometres of the course. After establishing a lead past Ngubu hut he built a 45 second lead passing through the 12 kilometre mark, before extending it to 70 seconds through the Munchie Point, at the half way mark. “Given the weather conditions we always knew it was going to happen,” Kane Reilly smiled, when asked about Rorich’s fast start. “But it’s always amazing to watch him move over those rocks. We just let him go, thinking if we can catch him, we’d catch him. Otherwise, we’d see him at the finish line.”
After climbing out of the Lottering River Valley, at the halfway mark, Reilly, who had Simpson for company and with Van Heerden just behind, started to reel Rorich in. By the time they started the descent to Bloukrans River they had all caught and past the early leader. The racing was still fierce and positions would change a few times yet.
“Bloukrans was really exciting!” Simpson confessed. “I’ve never done anything quite like that. The waves were coming in pretty big from the left, and I was being swept against the rope. Then suddenly my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore. So, I just basically lay on my back, closed my eyes, and pulled myself along on the rope.”
“Once I was out the water, I was just glad to have that done and I thought to myself, ‘now it’s just running, no more swimming!”
Even those were not easy going however. “I thought that going along the top of the cliffs would be a real strong point for me, because its really runnable and smooth. But it was really muddy, so I couldn’t push full gas there. So, I just had to tick along. Once we did the descent onto the beach, the sand was quite firm so I could push again.”
Behind Simpson, Reilly and Van Heerden were engaged in their annual Otter showdown. “Johardt came past me in the Bloukrans crossing,” Reilly noted. Van Heerden was however struggling with nausea and Reilly soon regained second place off the 2021 and 2022 champion. The likable trail runner from Cape Town then ran it home, reducing Simpson’s advantage slightly over the closing kilometres. Van Heerden recovered, after a stop to compose himself, to complete the podium places, well ahead of Marcel Höche and Christiaan Greyling. Who himself had put in a stellar run having started in the first non-Abangeni start group after having missed a top 24 slot by 15 seconds on the Prologue.
Simpson’s winning time was 4 hours, 12 minutes and 36 seconds. Reilly was 1 minute and 58 seconds back, to claim his sixth second place finish in the Otter African Trail Run. A good minute of Van Heerden’s 6 minute and 14 second deficit came as the three-time champion extracted himself from the Groot Rivier. Within strides of the finish line, he launched himself into the river, much to the amusement of the crowd, Simpson and Reilly.
In the women’s race Tarboton led from the opening kilometres. “I knew Bianca was on a different level,” Lijan Burge confessed. “She went off so fast and I just had to focus on my own race.”
It looked as if Tarboton might be able to challenge her own course record and in so doing supplement her prize money with a R100 000 bonus from the presenting sponsors EasyEquities and race owners Faces. “It was a good day, the conditions were really tough and I think I underestimated them,” Tarboton noted upon sealing her second Otter African Trail Run crown. “It was a bit slower. I felt really strong and the rain was actually very nice, it helped me stay cool. All-in-all I’m stoked. I thought maybe I had a record in me, but it wasn’t the day for it.”
Despite being slower than she may have liked, Tarboton still came within less than 7 minutes of her course record. She ran much of the day on her own, playing an impressive seventeenth overall. Tarboton’s margin of victory was 27 minutes to Burger, who herself enjoyed a good day out.
“I felt much better this year,” Burger added. “I think it’s pretty common for people to post a better time second time around at the Otter. Course knowledge certainly helps here. There are definitely areas I can make up time in still, including the river crossings. I timed Bloukrans really wrong, as I got out a wave hit me to the rocks. I’m happy with my run. I stuck to my plan and I’m happy to have improved my time, which was my goal coming into the race.”
Burger’s happiness was surpassed by that of Ruth Cozien. Holding back tears the third-place finisher and first veteran woman home said: “This is way beyond my expectations. I came in hoping for a top ten finish. Today was awesome. It was everything it was supposed to be. It was beautiful. It was tough…”
The only athlete who came near to Cozien’s praise for the race was German trail star Marcel Höche. Having visited in South Africa twice before this trip Macy Pacy, as he is affectionately known is clearly deeply fond of the country and the racing here. “It was so beautiful!” Höche emphasised. “It was amazing. Everyone out there who hasn’t done Otter, do yourself a favour, run this race! It’s so amazing. The ocean, the trails, it’s basically one hundred percent trails. It’s beautiful, but it’s tough and technical. If you like that kind of thing, come race it. If you don’t just come for the view. It’s simply amazing!”
2023 Otter African Trail Run
- Robbie Simpson (04:12:36)
- Kane Reilly (04:14:34)
- Johardt van Heerden (04:18:50)
- Marcel Höche (04:27:26)
- Christiaan Greyling (04:33:00)
- Robbie Rorich (04:33:12)
- Ryan Sandes (Veteran | 04:33:29)
- Angus Teeton (04:41:51)
- Oli Morris (04:43:03)
- Simon Purdon (04:44:10)
- Bianca Tarboton (04:52:01)
- Lijan Burger (05:25:19)
- Ruth Cozien (Veteran | 05:31:58)
- Rebecca Watney (05:46:18)
- Annalise Scholtz (Veteran | 05:55:34)
- Marina Egorov (06:06:36)
- Jenny Reynolds (06:16:00)
- Sveta Becker (06:21:56)
- Mila Geldenhuys (06:27:38)