Two top South African trail runners, Johardt van Heerden and Daniel Claassen, laid down a marker in the Southern Cape this week with a record-breaking run over the tough Six Peak Challenge. The result also fixed the pair’s position as the men to beat in the upcoming Golden Tickets challenge.
Many top trail athletes have visited the Outeniqua Mountains in recent years to pit themselves against some of the most challenging mountain trails in South Africa but the two Cape Town-based athletes made light work of the Six Peaks.
The pair shattered the previous record (‘Fastest Known Time’) of 6 hr 48 min for the 47 km circuit – set by Gauteng athlete Ruan van der Merwe – by racing home in 6 hr 13 min 26 sec.
Van Heerden and Claassen’s time for the Six Peak run suggests that either one could top the leader-board by the final day of the Golden Tickets challenge. Two Golden Tickets for the 2020 Golden Trail Championship – one for men, one for women – are up for grabs for the fastest athletes completing a 30-km circuit on Table Mountain before 1 October.
Van Heerden, an attorney who was the stand-out, marathon-distance trail athlete in South Africa last year, with record-breaking victories in the Whale Trail 53km and the 42km Otter African Trail Run, was always going to be a serious contender for the Golden Ticket. The fast-improving Claassen has given notice that he will not be far off the pace at the challenge’s climax.
Claassen is only three years into the sport at this level. The 27-year old had an impressive 2019, with a runners-up position in the Bastille Day 50km, an emphatic victory in the 68km Maxi Race in Stellenbosch and then a superb 7th position in the Ultra-trail Cape Town 100km last November, just one place and four minutes behind the first South African, Van Heerden.
The strength and speed Claassen showed over the George mountains in staying the pace with and even stretching, Van Heerden is indicative that he has what it takes to race with the best in the sub-continent this year.
Stormy weather thwarted the attempt by Van Heerden, Claassen and a third athlete, Kyle Herring, to undertake a reconnaissance run the day before their attempt last Sunday, leaving the trio to opt for a more conservative strategy, omitting potential short cuts in favour of staying on track.
“We woke up to clear skies,” recalled Van Heerden, “although it was still windy in the town. We set off from the start on Outeniqua Pass at a fairly brisk pace, aiming to make up time from the start. We had started to feel the wind just below Venstersberg (the first peak at 1287m) on the ascent but were rewarded with a magnificent sunrise when we summited.”
Van der Merwe had taken 32 minutes to the peak when he set the record and the athletes were already in credit, having clocked 28:30 on arrival. They completed the mandatory “selfie” and wrist-watch photos, which the rules require they forward immediately to the event coordinator, Jacques Mouton, himself an experienced George-based ultra-distance runner.
Van Heerden was later to suffer the effects of a calories deficit, but now he had to cope with a shortage of phone data. The former Lowveld athlete scarcely missed a beat, however, as he successfully loaded the necessary while striding out on the steep descent from Ventersberg. A short climb saw the trio reach Losberg (820m) seven minutes inside record pace, clocking in at 1 hr 14 min.
“We then descended to the far side of Montagu Pass before reaching the railway, a designated part of the route,” Van Heerden continued. “Although it was uncomfortable running along the sleepers, we were able to push the pace to 4 min 12 sec per kilometre for 7 km to make up some time.”
Cradock Peak is the third summit of the challenge and, as the highest in the range at 1578m, looms largest, both physically and mentally. And with the wind picking up strongly, this climb proved a decisive moment in the challenge.
“Kyle was starting to lag a little and said we should go on to get the record,” explained Van Heerden. “So Daniel and I pushed on and up. The wind was really pumping now, coming at us from the side and almost sweeping us off our feet at times. I feared that if it stayed that way, we would never succeed. Fortunately, that was the worst of it.”
But now it was Van Heerden’s turn to struggle, as he fought to retain body temperature in the icy wind. “I pulled my buff over my ears, and that immediately helped to regain body heat and energy and we summited in 3 hr 14 min – our half-way point and now twelve minutes up on the record. The views from the top were stunning – it was crystal clear, but the wind was howling!”
The descent and climb to George Peak (1370m) is a short 3 – 4 km stretch, but the pair suddenly found ourselves a full twenty minutes up on the record, arriving in 3 hr 34 min. With another rail stretch ahead, the prospects for a record time were looking increasingly optimistic. “After our summit, we descended cautiously down a very steep and muddy slope,” Van Heerden explained. “While we were concentrating on keeping our balance, to our amazement, we passed a chap and a small dog running uphill through the mud! We heard afterwards that the dog is something of a legend in those mountains!”
Another brisk 7 km along the railway track took the pair to the wall of the George Dam, which they traversed before setting off to climb to the penultimate peak, Tierkop (778 m), a tough 400m ascent which saw Van Heerden in some discomfort.
“I was starting to struggle and was definitely short of calories,” admitted Van Heerden. “I tried to eat a banana, but that did not help at all. I staggered into Tierkop and fortunately help was at hand.”
Mouton had arranged to meet the athletes at Tierkop to lead them on an unmarked route through to the finish at Groenkop. Fortunately for Van Heerden, a bottle of coke which Mouton had brought with him performed miracles. “It made a huge difference! In just two minutes I felt strong and could run again.
“We had reached Tierkop in 5 hr 16 min – 38 minutes ahead of Ruan’s time – and I knew then that we would get the record, even if we ran slowly from there.”
The original Six Peaks Route included a detour via Saasveld to reach Groenkop, an additional 18 km. While the now recommended direct route saves substantial time, the absence of any trail and presence of thick bush and steep climbs provide a worthy challenge for the final stretch.
Van Heerden and Claassen held it together well, reaching Groenkop (665 m) in 6 hr 13 min 26 sec, a 35-minute improvement on Van der Merwe’s effort, the new Fastest Known Time for the challenge and a decisive statement leading into the Golden Ticket Challenge.
“Clearly it helped us to run together – we could encourage each other through the tough sections,” concluded Van Heerden. “We were also supported by Jacques and the community, which made a huge difference. Ruan did it alone, unsupported, and he did exceptionally well.
“I’m happy with our time but feel that it can certainly be improved. Getting around the 6 Peaks in under 6 hours, would be incredible but I think it’s possible! The Golden Ticket contest is really gaining momentum now! It is looking more and more unlikely that races will take place this year and the Golden Ticket segment provides a competitive base for us.
“I will likely go and run it as a recce then give it a full go in September, but I think Daniel will be the athlete to beat – he is incredibly strong right now. Although there is only one ticket for a fully paid trip to the Golden Trail Championship to be won (by a male athlete), it would be great if a few South Africans might pay their own way to provide support for each other.”
For details of the Golden Trail Championships and the Golden Tickets, go to https://www.goldentrailseries.com/gtwc-rules/, while the Golden Ticket SA Segment route and information can be found at https://www.strava.com/clubs/684249/posts/10743349.
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