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Johardt’s Triple Triumph  

Three-time victor and South African course-recorder holder, Johardt van Heerden’s introduction to the Otter African Trail Race was, as he states, “rather a funny story.” A good friend of his, Sven Musica, told him about the race. While not a serious athlete, mid-parenting-twilight-years and rather a pace-plodder, Sven took to the 2013 starting line. Rocking up with one gel and a single stick of biltong, his strategy was to run light and fast. Before GPX watches were fashionable, Sven got to the munchie point relieved, thinking it was the finish; only to be told he was “halfway there.” The story of Sven death-marching to the finish line,” has always left Johart doubled-over with laughter and served as the perfect motivator to tackle this ultimate marathon race himself.

In 2015, with a successful year of race titles and results behind his name, Johardt entered the Otter. But, sadly the dream of trailing the Tsitsikamma coastline did not materialise as he took to the sidelines, injured from his training build-up. The following year, the same sequence of events unfolded; an exciting Otter entry shortly met with the frustration of an injury-induced-race-withdrawal. Despite not racing, he journeyed up to support and spectate; and recalls riding his bicycle the night before race day, in the pouring rain and mud, feeling extremely disappointed and defeated about this recurring turn of events. As he peddled through the wilding weather and worked through the disappointment of two consecutive false race starts, he reminded himself, “How much he wanted to race Otter.” 

True to the saying ‘three times lucky’, Johardt’s third entry to the Otter saw him successfully and officially toe the start line. Although, not the race he had dreamt of, as he tore his calf 9 days before during a speed work session; 2018, a part of the Golden Trail Series, was by far a challenging and unforgettable first-time finish. 2018 was a year marked by both notable highs and lows. On the downside, he struggled to keep pace with the world’s top athletes, crossing the finish line after a gruelling 6-hour effort. However, his highlights included, “finding solace, immersing himself in the beauty of the route,” “scouting for future years and races,” and drawing “inspiration from the remarkable performances of the skilled competitors.”

Johardt’s first Otter proved the perfect recce run, laying the foundation for an exceptional victory in 2019, and cementing an all-time career highlight. “In your running career, you get a run like I had in 2019, once a year. As professional athletes, we train for that perfect flow state, and it doesn’t happen often, but when it does it makes all those sacrifices worthwhile.” 

Ever since 2019, Johardt has returned to the Otter – not only drawn by the beauty of the trails and surreality of the spectators and community – but in an attempt to “replicate his 2019 race-effort.” With five Otters under his belt, three of which were victories, his first podium will remain a forever-favourite – an iconic day on foot which he now uses as a benchmark. 

The following year was “humbling;” as hopes of a consecutive win were overtaken by Spanish athlete, Pere Aurrell in the final 1.5 kilometre stretch. 2020 was undoubtedly a difficult year for everyone, especially for sporting events and athletes; and the Otter, as the first and only race during the pandemic, upped its challenge-ante. Built into an athlete’s training schedule is the notion of “racing yourself into a season;” and according to Johardt, without other races to use as practice, he was “not racing fit,” when Otter 2020 was given the green-light during lockdown. Holding the lead from the start, his sudden overtake came as a shock, – “it happened so quickly, leaving no time to respond – and even now, the 20-second difference between first and second remains a sore point. Nevertheless, his second-place fuelled the desire to come back for victory, and while disappointed with his results, “any day on the Otter trail is a day well spent;” especially when a race like this only helped “dial down on nutrition,” and understand what works best for him. 

Johardt achieved his back-to-back-victory dream in 2021 and 2022, and despite three victories to his name, he humbly admits he is “far from an Otter-expert.” While the course’s complexities and unforgiving technicalities make it extremely difficult to master, he will be chasing the elusive sub-4 hour-finish this year. “Otter is a race that really comes down to how you feel on the day,” and to honour this belief, Johardt has changed his 2023 strategy slightly… that being, to run without his watch. “The plan is to run to feel and rely exclusively on the mechanics of the body.” While it may seem crazy, big wins come from bigger risks; and even if the anticipation of a sub-4-race falls flat, he is not “going to allow the pressure of results rob him of the privilege of running this route.” 

Mixed into the emotions of this year’s race is the excitement of racing Kane Reilly again. “While an entirely different sport,” Johardt compares his and Kane’s competition to “Federer and Nadal’s iconic sporting rivalry.” Although not a rivalry but rather a friendship, the history between both local legends dates back to 2011 when they started competing in SA cross-country champs. Over the last -/+ 12 years they have shared many trails and chased plenty of podiums, pushing and learning from one another along the way. “The beauty of competition lies in its ability to push one another to improve,” and the best part about “Kane and I is that we can share a beer together after crossing the finish line.” 

Not only has Johardt found family in the Otter community, but to share these trails with his wife – Sume van Heerden – his sister and two brothers means that the race-weekends have transformed into cherished family gatherings, where shared trails have become the backdrop to lasting memories. 

The Otter African Trail Race Team is honoured to have Johardt van Heerden return to the trails and we wish him luck with this year’s sub-4-hour chase.