Runners get ready to go ‘Off the Beaten Track’

Derek Haines is planning to run Off the Beaten Track as his first race of 2016.

In the pre-dawn hours Sunday, hundreds of runners will limber up to take on one of the toughest racing challenges in Cayman – “Off the Beaten Track.”

The runners received maps of the grueling course a week ago and were given a chance to check out the course and do some reconnaissance before starting the race, which begins at the waste ground between Pinehurst Drive and the Esterley Tibbetts Highway.

At the official start at 6 a.m., runners will be on the road, but as the sun climbs in the sky and the runners have a little more light to work with, the course will veer off into the wilderness.

The finish line is at the George Town Yacht Club, where runners can recover with breakfast and a cool beverage.

“There is a great festival atmosphere at the finish line,” said race director Anna Keating, “and runners are encouraged to bring their family and friends down to the finish line to cheer on the exhausted runners and enjoy the fun.”

Inspired by the world’s toughest race, the Marathon des Sables, ultramarathon runner and KRyS Global executive chairman Kenneth Krys established Off The Beaten Track in 2010.

Relay teams of up to six runners can take part. Each runner covers about 5 miles, or 8 kilometers, in the cross-country event. Distance runners can also take part and cover the full 30 miles (50 kilometers) on a solo run.

Keating said she expects between 75 and 80 relay teams to sign up this year, as well as up to 30 individual runners.

Competitive spirit

Helki Weber was last year's female winner.
Helki Weber was last year’s female winner.

Some of Cayman’s keenest runners take part each year. Last year’s female winner, Helki Weber, remains a force to be reckoned with, and “She seems to be stronger than ever,” Keating said. “OTBT has always been her race, and she has comfortably dominated it for the past number of years, with Justine Plenkiewicz and Jalene Cruz fighting to the bitter end for second and third last year.

“However, we have some fast newcomers, in that Joanna Mansi has now pinned her colors to the OTBT mast. She is a well-known prize-winner in the shorter 10K and half-marathon distances. It will be interesting to see how she gets on in this terrain.”

Among the men, David Lim, who won the past two years, is obviously one of the strongest contenders.

But while many eyes may be on the individual competitors, there is also strong competition among the teams.

“Bragging rights for the all-male category tends to be the competition that gets the most attention,” Keating said.

Last year, the Mourant Ozannes team of Sam Young, Greg Meaker, Chadwick Webster, Mike Ridsdale, Hayden Isbister and Neil Ainscow went head-to-head with the 2014 winner, BDO CRI, made up of Andrew West, Stuart Bray, Michael Ford, Stephen Peel, Conrad Proud and Marius Acker. The Mourant Ozannes team crossed the line first, in 3 hours, 35 minutes, and BDO CRI finished 12 minutes later.

“Rumor on the street has it that Marius [Acker] has now joined forces with Hayden at Mourant, so I imagine they will be the team to beat,” Keating said.

There is also keen competition among the female teams. Last year, Our Girls in Limbo finished in 4 hours, 35 minutes, followed 19 minutes later by the Blister Sisters.

Another hotly contested category is the mixed relay. Last year, Winston’s Warriors crossed the finish line at 4 hours, 22 minutes, followed 4 minutes later by Divemasters.

“The corporate race is always fun to watch and a difficult one to call,” Keating said. “Year on year, these corporate teams are getting stronger and it’s anybody’s guess as to who might win.

“These teams are often made up of runners at varying levels. However, The Ritz-Carlton’s Furious 7 took the title last year in a very lean time of 4 hours, 14 minutes.”

Individual runners

Derek Haines, who in 2014 ran six marathons around the world to raise more than $1 million for Cayman HospiceCare, is slated to participate in Off the Beaten Track as his first race of 2016. This time he is involved in the Special Needs Foundation’s 50/50 initiative.

Runner Mike Kenna, who has set his own personal challenge of 12 in 12 (12 marathons in 12 months), is also expected to take part.

Don’t get lost

The course can be complicated, as it winds through some of the least traversed terrain in Grand Cayman, along beaches and through the brush. Organizers ensure the runners have maps a week ahead of time so they can familiarize themselves with the route. Flags and markers are planted throughout the course to help the runners find their way. However, there is always the risk of some getting lost.

“By leg three or four,” Keating said, “the runners start to get tired and they spread out. The teams have the benefit of a fresh pair of legs at the start of each leg. However, for the individuals, they need to be digging deep at this stage. So while the course is marked, we do have runners who sometimes go astray and bring those following behind with them.

“The path is not always obvious, but that is part of the challenge. Runners are also provided with … course notes indicating where to go, and we encourage runners to do their homework. Each year, we do get a couple of participants who have gotten lost, but it’s never for long and we generally get them back on track fairly quickly.”

Once the last runner comes through a checkpoint, course designer Derek Larner, of Race Caribbean, is usually on hand to close it down. Race Caribbean provides the timing and results service, using electronic chip timing. The finish times are displayed on a screen at the end of the race.

New challenges

Off the Beaten Track is one of the more adventurous race courses on the running calendar, which seems to expand each year to include new, more challenging events.

“The running community is quite active in Cayman, and once people have completed the regular challenges, it seems instinctive for many to look for something new and even more interesting and exciting,” Larner said. “With events like the Mercuryman, the Pirates Mud Trail, the CITA Triathlon, the Halloween 10-10-10/30K solo run and OTBT, there are so many activities to keep us busy and fit.”

Most of those events have the added benefit of being fundraisers, and thus they are “an opportunity for people to make a contribution to a worthy cause whilst keeping fit and remaining healthy,” he said. All proceeds from this year’s Off the Beaten Track go to Meals on Wheels Cayman and international charity Facing Africa.

The registration fee for individuals is US$100; and US$300 for a relay team.