Thabang, relaxed at home or wherever he is, is willing to chat to anyone, making them feel like he has all the time in the world for them.
I first met him after he ran the Voortrekker Vasbyt 25km. Full of sweat, out of breath and partially bent over from running at a phenomenal pace, I approached him nervously and reluctantly, expecting this elite runner to shun me. I just wanted to say hi! With the biggest smile ever, Thabang greeted me as if we had been friends for years. Hand up high in the sky, followed by a high five and a hug, I felt content and special as if we had been mates for years. Thabang didn’t know who I was. I doubt he even remembers meeting me.
I recently stated on Instagram, “His smile and his jokes are more potent than his running”. I mean it and Thabang has proved that many a time. His 2016 Otter is a story to share.
A few years after meeting Thabang at a number of races, we found ourselves at The Otter, The “Grail of Trail”. Thabang was a top dog and my favourite to win it. I don’t think any Gautenger has ever won the Otter and considering I knew him best out of the field, I had high hopes.
Before I get into why I believe in my statement, allow me to set the stage.
The Retto 2016, Marc Lauenstein made his return and eyes were on Kane Reilly to be his achilles heel. Thabang ran the fastest ever prologue recorded the day before the race. He blitzed a super technical 5km Otter styled course in under 19 minutes. Nearly 2min ahead of the nearest competitor. Everyone was blown away.
Come race morning, the game had changed. Marc was still pressured to nail another sub 4 hour Otter. Kane was expected to be the main hunter and with Thabang announcing his intentions on the prologue, things were going to be interesting.
Awaiting the leaders at the Bloukrans River Crossing where I planned to shoot them, Marc, Kane and Thabang all came speeding by within 40 Seconds of each other. Incredible to see really. A drop on their right and cliff face on their left and they pranced through as if it was nothing.
A short while later I arrived at Ngubu Hut ready to shoot the leaders again. The order they sped through this point was ultimately the podium positions. 1st was Marc in a new record time, 2nd was Kane in a new RSA record and 3rd… Christiaan Greyling. I pause’ not because Christiaan was 3rd but because after waiting for over 30minutes and shooting the ladies, there was no Thabang! Had he dropped out?
With camera gear, I ran the final section of the race to capture the runners as they passed the waterfall and the massive boulder area. What might have been another hour, there was still no sign of my race horse. Puzzled and confused I carried on. In the last 2km with my eye in my view finder, an unexpected but familiar sight was walking (like most people at that stage). It was Thabang!!!
After snapping away, I finally chatted to Thabang for a bit as we shared a km or so. Turned out Thabang had had the time of his life…
At 18km, he decided to up his efforts and make a move. At 19km he found himself with no energy and a dizzy head. After walking for a bit and not feeling better, Thabang decided to have a nap. Yup, a 30min nap at the Grail Of Trail! Instead of withdrawing, like one would expect an elite to do, he was determined to finish the race. The benefits were that now he actually got to see the Otter Trail in all its natural glory.
When I saw Thabang, 6 hours from the start of the Otter, 2 hours after he was meant to be finished, he had a smile on his face and was as contented as could be. Racing aside, this legend realised there was still so much to enjoy. He shared this joy with each person that passed him. Another runner tripped just as he was getting ready to overtake Thabang (probably because he realised who he was over taking) and Thabang stopped, helped the guy up and told him to keep it up. 2km from the finish, of what some might call his worst race ever, the former SA Long Distance Trail Champ, a guy that can run a 4min/km on the most technical trail was helping other runners along and cheering them on.
Thabang finished the Otter, just short of 6h 30min with a smile and enough energy to make the odd joke.
Now in 2017, Thabang is set to take on the Otter again!
Thabang and I discussed his 2017 Otter bid during a photo shoot.
“My Otter prep is the toughest i've ever done. I've run back to back races for 5 weeks. I feel excited and physically ready. I'm still dealing with my emotions as final prep and I feel I have what it takes. I've had good preparations for a main focus race along with my coach and if I have a good day, i'll produced the results I expect.
Last year I learn that re-hydrating is crucial and it's important not only to focus on drinking on race day but also in the build up before. I have learnt that starting hydrated on race day is not enough.
Last year there was a point where I had no energy because of my hydration and I drank as much as possible to no avail. I feel out of every bad day you must make something good. I decided to walk the second half after my nap. It was nice because there are views I've never seen before as at speed you focus so much on the track. I saw some some whales on route and got to cheer on other runners. It was a tough but beautiful journey that taught me many lessons.“
This is Thabangs 5th Otter having placed 2nd in 2014 and 3rd in 2015.