Run your best Retto

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Retto Otter African Trail Run tips
Retto Otter African Trail Run 2012

retto-2012-deon-braun-peter-kirk-photo
Retto 2012: the author, broken, near the finish (he thinks and hopes). Will this be you in 2016 or 2018? photo Peter Kirk

Have a brilliant RETTO 2016!

There are two stages to being prepared for your first (or second, or third) RETTO. If you’re wondering, RETTO is Otter spelled backwards, and alludes to it being the reverse direction to the Classic Otter, which started in 2009. It is run on even years (RETTO started in 2012, the second race was 2014 etc).

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 the hard-won experience from these seasoned runners. Personally, after making nearly every mistake in the 11 Otters I’ve run (seven official finishes and another four doing the full event again as a sweep at the back of the field, 2009-2015), I feel I know most of the pitfalls, and hope to help you avoid them.

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. Low blood sugar turned me into a slow-motion stair crawler at Andre Hut in my first Otter back in 2009. If anything knocks you, it’s thinking you are going to style this run, while in reality you feel like you’re drowning in thick syrup.

My poor body finished each run battered, aching and abused. Sad!

But let’s remember, it was all about learning, about research, about experimentation, about growing.

So, I hope that 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. The Otter Trail is always special, rain or shine.

Retto Otter Trail Run
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

Training

Stair training. 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. So do some running and some power hiking on the stairs. Salomon athlete Kane Reilly, second behind Classic Otter record holder Marc Lauenstein in 2015 says: “While it’s possible to run RETTO with out course specific climbing or stair climbing (I took on my first RETTO in 2012 with very little knowledge of the course), it’s exponentially more fun being conditioned to steep ups and downs! Get the climbing right and the route becomes far more beautiful.”

Train for the terrain. Also intersperse stairs hiking, bounding and striding with flat sections of running, within the same session. So plan a session weekly where you 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.

Specific gym work. Kane says: “You need to be strong. Adding a functional gym session (with specific focus on glute and hamstring strength) into your training week will do wonders in preparing you for the challenge of running the RETTO.”

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 Otter Trail Run
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 really easy and enjoy the sea views as you ascend (but not at the expense of tripping on the stairs, they are tricky!).

Once on top, 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.

Landie Greyling, the women’s winner of the 2014 Retto in a fast 5:11:46 (and 12th overall), agrees: “Pacing is key for me. Because of the great vibes on course, it is easy to run ahead of yourself or run someone else’s race. Try to run at your own strengths: make up some time on the climbs if that is your strength and recover on the downs and flat sections.”

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.

Talking of glycogen, nutrition is really the factor that will make or break your race, whether you’re well trained or not. So put a big portion of your planning into that in the final days. Have you got enough food, and do you know when you need to consume it? What works on flat terrain at low heart rate is not going to be the same as what you need when running over the hard terrain of Retto.
Kane Reilly knows about that. “The Retto may only be 40km, but it doesn’t offer too many easy cruising sections. Due to the nature of the route, it’s important to have a solid tried-and-tested nutritional plan, and to start taking food in early on and consistently throughout.”

His Salomon teammate Landie Greyling agrees: “Start eating early, after about 45 minutes, when your body can still digest easily, even if you just take little bites at a time to keep your energy levels constant. Unfortunately there is no little man on your shoulder to warn you that you will bonk, so you have to take the necessary precautions.”

Some people set a regular interval alarm on their wrist watch to remind them, while others use their internal biological clock to eat when the terrain allows. Trial both of these in your longer training runs if you haven’t already done so naturally.

Valuable tips to save your Retto legs

  • Walk the climbs steadily.
  • Minimise the height you 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: this alone will reduce your heart rate. 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 a heart rate monitor (HRM), be aware of your breathing and exertion.
  • Eat and drink on the flats at the top of climbs, after regaining your breath. Use your mouth only for breathing on the uphills!
  • “Save your legs. Unless you’re planning an attack on the four hour barrier, don’t light any matches before you hit Bloukrans. Trying to steal time in the first few runnable kilometres could mean a long death march over the rocks in the final kilometres,” says Kane Reilly.

Ryan Hodierne is the official Otter coach. He shares a similar insight: “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 is talking about the standard Otter course (east to west) but the same applies here.

Retto 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.

Chris Crewdson, the race manager for both the Otter and Retto says: “The Retto entails crossing the Bloukrans River within the first 13km of the 4okm challenge, so it’s important to have covered your feet, groin, underarms (and for some, nipples) in anti-chafe cream. Squirt Barrier Balm has never let me down in the 25 Otter Trail recce runs I have been so fortunate to do. I have seen some poor souls chafe with the sea water friction, until they bleed, using some questionable products. Having 30km left while you’re chafing is not pleasant!”

Of course, needs to use anti-chafe creams, so test this for yourself in training first, if you have a problem with friction. Tight-fighting tops may limit or eliminate your chafing altogether.

Chris also cautions about injury. “The majority of the athletes injured and needing to be removed from the course happen in the first third of the route (Retto and Classic). Ankle strains and falling are the major causes, so don’t run beyond what your skill levels permit. It’s better to be cautious with your footing, especially if the conditions are wet. Once you have your confidence and some measure of finding the right stride, then start to open up your options.

“Avoid running with any wide-brimmed floppy hats that obstruct your view. Yup it has happened that this headwear finds its way onto the trail and voila! this option has resulted in some pretty nasty head injuries while running into overhanging  rock ledges and tree branches.”

“Please don’t take your make-up along on the trail. Believe it or not we have had a couple of people carry beauty packs to keep up their appearances, especially when the event photographers are around and out on the route. Our Bloukrans Safety Team have even been asked to carry the make-up in a boat across the river to avoid it getting wet…”

So run well, eat regularly, leave your make-up behind, watch your steps (all 15,000 of them) and have a great Retto. 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.

RETTO CODE CORNER

*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.

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

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