Race tips for RETTO Otter African Trail Run

So, you really do want to be stronger at the end of the west to east Otter African Trail Run route known as the RETTO*?

Of course you do! This is one of the most amazing runs you’ll ever do and the main reason the event is sold out almost immediately entries go live.

But be warned! It’s a real beast.

Retto 2012 photo Peter Kirk

Retto 2012, the author, broken, near the finish (he thinks and hopes). photo Peter Kirk

There are two stages to being prepared.

Stage One. Simulate the conditions as much as possible in your training. Read Training in this article.

Stage Two. On race day, remember the advice below. You’ll benefit from applying some of my hard-won experience after making nearly every mistake in the eight Otters I’ve run (five official finishes and another three doing the full event again as a sweep at the back of the field, 2009-2013).

I’ve rolled/sprained/twisted my ankles so they swelled to the size of two alien ankles, tripped like a pathetic, incorrigible drunkard over lurking tree stumps, and smashed my toes against rocks like I was kicking at spongy soccer balls. Basically, my poor body finished each run battered, aching and abused. Sad!

But in mitigation, it was all in the name of research, of course.

So hopefully this article will save you some skin, blood and sweat on your big day. I’m really excited for you to have a fantastic day on one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth. There is still a lot of our Blue Planet that goes largely unseen by human eyes – but Otter is always going to be special.

So let’s go people, life is short!

Bloukrans leap of faith at RETTO 2012, photo Jacques Marais/SONY

This is one of several Iwo Jima-like images from Otter over the years, as a Bloukrans hero takes a giant leap of faith at RETTO 2012. photo Jacques Marais/SONY


Stair training is a given. Ideally, you need to find steep, long and high stairs and do them up and down, over and over. Notice I didn’t say stair running – there’s a good reason for that. Even the world’s best elite trail athletes** walk these stairs on the ups.

Also intersperse stairs hiking, bounding and striding with flat sections of running. So go from stairs to flat or undulating terrain and then back to many stairs of up and down. It might seem a little too methodic, but think of the violinist or guitarist. To the casual observer, what they do in rehearsal is mind-numbingly monotonous, but they’re training those synapses, aren’t they? You, the aspirant trail running machine, are no different.

Why all this effort, you ask?

Because there are a lot of stairs! How many, you’re probably thinking, right?

Well, I was foolish enough to offer to my fledgling stair counting skills to Mark Collins in 2013.

Of course, curious nature freak he is, he’d also been wondering how many there were!

I’d barely answered “Ja” to his “You being serious?” and it seemed I was on the course with a good old-fashioned finger click counter in hand. No clicking in a helicopter over the wildebeest herds on the plains of Serengeti, mind you. This was real bush research!

I (along with the good chiropractor, Grant Harper) took turns click-counting the wooden stairs – the ups only (I considered that a reprieve).

At the end of a long day, we counted 7,020 uphill stairs on the standard Otter. Assuming a similar number on the downs, there are 14,000-15,000 stairs on the route. Perhaps I will count the ups on the Retto route this year too, depending on how much of a crazy scientist wannabe I feel like on the day…

But enough of stats and stairs!

Let’s check out some of the other challenges that make it such a tough but utterly rewarding course to run.

RETTO 2012 photo Jacues Marais/SONY

We’re showing you all the nice easy sections. The stairs are just too scary to show to the public, especially small children. Sorry! photo Jacques Marais/SONY


There’s the beach start, which stretches for about 600m to the base of the Nature’s Valley headland. It’s easy to get carried away when you should be gently warming up your muscles and other vitals.

A steep but short stair-and-handrail climb awaits you to the top. You want your heart rate fairly low as you go up here. You don’t want to be at 90-95% of max. Why would this help you later, after you’ve covered 40km? So take this climb easy and enjoy the sea views as you ascend.

Now you’ll run along the fastest sections which are usually at the end of the Otter African Trail Run. There is a lot of up-and-down in this spectacular part of the Garden Route’s Tsitsikamma National Park. 

This is where you’ll most likely throw your run away. Really. I know. I think I did in 2012.

So, curb your enthusiasm! Enjoy the fresh air, the unbelievable scenery to your right (and everywhere) and count your lucky stars you are alive at this very moment. It’s a special place, so why rush it? Save your muscle glycogen and be the power athlete on the climbs much later when it’s just you and gravity having a tussle. You know who always wins anyway.

Valuable tips to save your legs

  • Walk the climbs steadily.
  • Minimise the height you have to lift your feet wherever you can.
  • Don’t take double-steps if you can avoid it. One step per step.
  • Breath deep and slow for as long as you can. The gasping will come automatically anyway.
  • Cut the apex on the inside of turns, while staying on the pole steps to prevent erosion around the edges. This normally provides the shortest and lowest point from log A to log B.
  • Use stones and tree roots between the stairs as short steps.
  • Focus on relaxing, think how peaceful you are and this alone will reduce your heartrate. Meditation works!
  • Lots of small steps, high cadence. Think funicular. There’s a reason it contains the letters f-u-n.
  • If you run with a heart rate monitor, watch your levels from half way up the steepest climbs and don’t let it run away from you.
  • If you don’t run with an HRM, be aware of your breathing (sorry, gasping).
  • Eat and drink on the flats at the top of climbs, after regaining your breath. Use your mouth only for breathing on the uphills!

Ryan Hodierne, the Otter coach for 2013, shared this insight last year, “Save half of your Smarties for the final third of the race. This will require going through halfway with relative ease. The only way you can do that is by having a decent training base and to be technically sound on the rough stuff. You can lose a lot of time in the final stretch if you work too hard through the first two thirds.”

He was talking about the standard Otter course (east to west) but the same applies here.

Pacing tips from Ryan

  • Do your very best to run your own race.
  • Don’t get caught up racing other people.
  • It’s easier said than done, I know, but be mindful that you can control the urge to push too hard too early!
  • The telling factor here is to run your prologue the day before cleverly.
  • How? The idea is to run the prologue the day before at maximum speed for minimal effort.
  • Run too hard and you set yourself up for failure, run too slow and you will struggle to settle down during the race the next day as you will keep catching people who beat you in the Prologue.

Technical advantage

  • If you have been working on your skills over technical terrain like pebbles, sand, through low lying branches and over roots, and feel better here, you are guaranteed to shave a considerable amount of time off. “Fitness counts, but fitness with added technical skills and an efficient ability over the rough stuff counts the most,” says Ryan.

The route is dealt with at length during briefing and on the comprehensive Otter website (Retto / Classic), but suffice to say that by the time you reach the big ocean rock shelves near the end, you will feel shattered.

This is survival time, so my best advice here is:

  • Watch your step! Although jumping the gaps between some of the big rocks seemingly sometimes in the middle of a heaving ocean seems like a big ask, it’s a good idea to do so – and do it right! Unless you like boxing multi-million-year-old rocks. You will come second, mark my words!

Although that last sentence sounds like you’ll be having as much fun as an innocent in the middle of a battle apocalypse, you’ll finish feeling more alive than you have in a looooong time.

So run well, watch your steps (all 15,000 of them) and have a great Otter. I will most definitely see you there this year, for both runs!

Best, Deon Crash Test Dummy Braun


PS – if you want to see what can go wrong at Bloukrans, this GoPro-losing Youtube clip will give you a decent idea.


*R-E-T-T-O. That’s Otter spelled backwards. (You don’t need to run the race backwards though, although we’re sure someone will try it one day. Good luck!).

**Ricky Lightfoot won the World Trail Running champs in 2013, as well as the 2013 Otter, so let’s assume he’s the current Mohammed Ali of marathon distance trail running. We won’t mention Kilian Jornet and a handful of other equally blitzy runners over that distance, so pretend you didn’t read this last sentence.


TRAIL magazine has been the media partner of the Otter African Trail Run since 2009.




Other articles posted in this period

About Deon Braun

The founder of Go Multi and TRAIL magazines has a 100% dedication to health and fitness and communicating that to the tribe that resonates to it. Both publications are simply vehicles to get the good health message out there and make the immediate world a better and happier place. If it's an adventure under a big sky, chances are Deon's going to try it at some stage. He's cycled, paddled, run and swum since 1982 and believes that we should continue to improve our training and fitness skills no matter how the years advance. Sport standouts in his short life so far include winning the 2011 Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, finishing despite bloodied feet at the 2011 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon after running barefoot over 60m of desert-baked paving, running the debut Dodo Ultra Trail Run in Mauritius, starting and finishing all but one of the Otter African Trail Runs to date and surviving five days and six stages of the 2003 Eden Cycle Tour.

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