Johardt van Heerden and Toni McCann succeeded to the Merrell Whale of Trail thrones with royal command performances at the 2019 event at the De Hoop Nature Reserve yesterday (Saturday), leaving former champions Kane Reilly and Nicolette Griffioen to fill the roles of duke and duchess.
For Mbombelo attorney, Van Heerden, it was a return to his best form and he came out on the right side of an intense battle with Reilly, racing to victory in 4 hr 30 min 20 sec – eight minutes inside Reilly’s record, established last year. Exciting new talent, Cape Town’s McCann demolished Nicolette Griffioen’s record by a similar margin, clocking 5:28:36 in her first ever trail race over 50km.
Both athletes won R10 000 bonuses for beating the previous records for the challenging five-day hiking trail between the vulture-colony Potberg and the rich marine coast line to Koppie Alleen. Adding to their R25 000 winners’ cheques, it made it one of the biggest pay-day’s in South African trail running.
Van Heerden’s track and cross country background made him a formidable trail competitor when he switched to that discipline some years back and he represented South Africa with distinction at international level. But work pressure built as did his career in the legal profession, and he was unable to train consistently to compete at the highest level.
“At the start of this year I made a decision to invest in my passion ahead of immediate career prospects and I asked my boss if I could take a cut in salary in exchange for more flexible working hours. So since January I’ve been slowly getting back to where I was and today it finally paid dividends.
“I have so much respect for Kane – he is a class athlete and he has come out on top in most of our clashes recently. So it was good to turn the tables to today and get the record. Fortunately, everything went well and I felt strong to the finish.”
McCann’s prodigious talent was clear when she led an international field for three quarters of the Golden Trail Series finale at last year’s Otter Trail, eventually placing third. But injuries – including severely torn ankle ligaments impacted her build up and she travelled to Europe to race the classic Zegama and Mont Blanc Marathons on precious-little training.
She nonetheless secured top twenty positions in both, but another month training back home made all the difference yesterday and she raced away from Griffioen from the start, scarcely pausing to admire the southern right whales frolicking along the De Hoop coastline, to race home 42 minutes clear of the Gauteng athlete.
“I had heard this was a beautiful trail, but I didn’t realise just how stunning it is,” McCann said. “II’s been a tough year and I felt I did not achieve my potential in my races in Europe. Rather than return to Europe this year, I decided to stay back home and concentrate on my build-up to the Otter Trail in October. Today was a special run for me.”
Reilly started in his usual formula-one style, setting a fast pace from pole position, with only Van Heerden able or willing to stay at his heels. The pair appeared to be matching the flight of the Potberg Cape Vultures as they soared over the trail and down to the first check-point at Cupidoskraal at 14km, three minutes clear of Siviwe ”Lion King” Nkombi, with Bernard Rukadza, last year’s runner-up, running comfortably with Kennedy Sekhuhthe another minute behind.
The two leaders opened a further five minutes on their chasers on the shorter 9km second leg, leaving the mountains behind with an eight-minute cushion on Nkombi with Rukadza fourth two minutes back.
Reilly opened a small gap on the short third leg to the coast at Noetzie, but Van Heerden hit back on the notorious fourth leg, characterized by countless short climbs and a beach run to Lekkerwater, reaching the checkpoint just ahead of Reilly.
The two left the refreshment station within seconds of each other for the final 15km, but Reilly’s race was done. The Cape Town athlete admitted to being sub-par on the day, in particular in the face of a stellar performance from Van Heerden, who raced clear to take victory by fully 33 minutes.
Rukadza had overtaken Nkombi to move into podium territory when disaster struck, with the Delft-based Zimbabwean rolling his ankle 18km from home. Forced to a walk for much of the remainder of the race, Rukadza limped home in 7th, leaving strong-finishing AJ Calitz to snatch third in 5:10:39, ahead of twice former winner, Msizi Melakhaya.
Griffioen’s focus on her final year veterinarian examinations has taken the edge off her form and she was no match for McCann on the day, finishing in 6:11:30, with fellow Gauteng athlete, Karine Bezuidenhout delighted with her impressive third, just ten minutes adrift.