Johardt van Heerden interview

Johardt van Heerden was born to run. He is arguably South Africa's fastest marathon distance trail runner. It's taken him five short years to go from schoolboy dreamer to representing his country. He featured on the cover of TRAIL magazine issue 16, and this interview was printed on page 84.

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Johardt van Heerden running by Erik Vermeulen
Photos by Erik Vermeulan

Johardt outran class runners like Thabang Madiba and Lucky Miya to take the title at South Africa’s Long Distance Trail Championship at Molweni Trail Run in May 2015. That gave him the opportunity to compete on the world stage at the IAU World Long Distance Trail Championship on Saturday 4 July, placing 21st. He was seventh in his category. This is the best result in the South African team.

All that at only 22. Maybe he’s born with it, maybe it’s excellent mentoring, combined with a competitive spirit. Either way, his father Arrie has played a role in his success.

Johardt transitioned to trail from traditional running in 2014, winning the first stage of the 2015 ProNutro AfricanX with teammate Edwin Sesipi, finishing third overall. This was a worthy podium, considering it was shared with AJ Calitz, Bernard Rukadza, Eric Ngubane, and Thabang Madiba.

What was your childhood like?

Johardt van Heerden, aged 11, competing in the National BCVO School Cross Country Championships in 2005.
Johardt, aged 11, competing in the National BCVO School Cross Country Championships in 2005.

When I was born, my family lived in Sonop (a small town just west of Brits in Gauteng).

We are five children: Cornel is the oldest at 26. Then Chandri is 24. I am the middle child and I’ve got a younger brother Arlo who is 18, and Andreas who is 14.

We are all very sporting and active people. My loving parents, Arrie and Miranda, raised us with a sense of appreciation for the outdoors. We are a very close family and support each other in everything.

My parents live in Nelspruit, while I study and live in Potchefstroom.

I love having so many brothers. I couldn’t imagine life without them. We are very competitive and play some fierce games. I also like to train with them.

We are big tennis and cricket fans. We watch a lot of rugby, but we don’t play it anymore. My family is keen on any sport that involves a ball and ball- sense. I find tennis in particular very relaxing. It takes my mind off things.

Has success changed things?

Johardt van Heerden finish the sentenceMy life has changed in some ways since becoming the South African Long Distance champion. Now I am fortunate to have support from sponsors like First Ascent, 32Gi, and ButtaNutt.

Training-wise, nothing has changed. I still do exactly the same workouts and training as before I arrived on the scene. Stick with a winning formula.

My confidence in races is much higher now because I now know that I can mix it up with some of the best trail runners in the country.

My family and friends are still extremely supportive and it’s good to know that I am giving something back to them.

A day in the life…

I wake up at 5:30am or 6:30am, depending at what time my classes start. After a quick coffee (I am somewhat of a coffee addict), I’m out the door for my morning run. This is at an easy pace and often serves as a recovery to get my muscles awake. Shower and breakfast follow, and then I am off to class and academic obligations. I am currently in my final year of studying law at Potchefstroom.

I have lunch around 1pm with coffee afterwards. When my classes are done, it’s time for my second training session of the day at 4:30pm. This is usually very hard. For example, I do hillwork, a tempo run, or an interval session.

After training, I usually stretch a bit and have a warm shower at 7pm, with dinner afterwards.

From 8pm to 10pm, I chill with friends or do some more academics. It depends on how much work I have.

I try to go to bed by 10:30pm. Sleep is important to me and I try to get seven or eight hours a night. Before I hit the sack, I drink green tea or something warm, and read a bit.

Johardt van Heerden by Erik VermeulenSo, a law degree?

I study Law because I have a passion for people and want to use my Law degree as a platform to have a positive impact and to protect the environment.

I particularly enjoy Public Law, debating topics like the environment, or the implementation of the Bill of Rights (such as the right to adequate housing, water, and education). International Law interests me too.

Johardt van Heerden rock run by Erik VermeulenTraining?

My morning run is usually 12km, depending on how I feel and how much time I’ve got. Sometimes I do four or five 100m strides at the end to loosen up my legs.

I try to stay on grass and gravel as much as possible, because it is less hard on the legs than tar and otherwise my shoes don’t hold up to the mileage!

To be honest, I am a bit lazy to do a lot of cross- training, but I try to do core and stability work twice a week. I focus on the core and lower back muscles as they are important for running.

If I do a lot of cross- training, I burn out mentally, because I feel that I’m training constantly and don’t have time to recover.

Talking of injury, my dad is recovering from a knee operation. He started running quite late in his life and trained very hard on all kinds of surfaces. I think all that pounding took its toll. I don’t want to say that it is because the technology of the shoes wasn’t great compared to now, because there are a lot of people that didn’t get any injuries.

But it played a part.

Specific cross-training, like core and stability exercises and working on your hip flexors, can help prevent knee injuries. But it also depends on the individual.

I am very lucky not to be injury prone. I have never struggled with a running injury. If you give yourself adequate recovery after hard sets and train a lot on soft surfaces, it definitely helps. Finding the right shoe for you also plays a big part; whether it is regular, minimal, maximal, or a barefoot model.

What motivates you?

Running itself drives me. My father, Arrie, who was my first coach, taught my siblings and I that running is a lifestyle. This is the truth. My father did a lot of track and road running and was one of the top steeplechase athletes in SA when he was in his prime. He is still my running mentor and I value his opinion about training.

Running really is the best feeling ever, and even when I can’t race anymore, I will still keep doing it. It is such a primal and simple form of moving and really brings you back to the basics of life.

The more complicated our lives and society get, the more we need to keep it simple. I love to push my body and see how far or fast I can go.

Johardt van Heerden standing by Erik VermeulenNature, in particular the mountains and the ocean, inspire me. Some of my best memories are those as a family on the KZN South Coast, spending the whole day on the beach, and playing games and swimming. That played a big part in my love for the ocean. I still do some of my best training on holidays at the sea. Sitting on rocks and watching the sun go down is just incredible.

My love for the mountains comes from hiking trips. When we were younger we were sent to these survival camps and I absolutely loved it. We learned so much from our surroundings, and to respect and protect nature.

Competition pushes me to train hard. I have been a competitive person since I was very young. I still remember how I hated it to lose a backyard cricket or tennis match against my older brother, Cornel. Often, the competition is against myself, to improve. I just love the adrenalin and the feeling of racing. I am very fortunate to say that my biggest rivals in trail running are also very good friends of mine. I just love going to trail races and enjoy the camaraderie of like- minded people.

It is important to remember the words of my wise mother, Miranda: “At the end of the day, it is just a sport, so don’t get too down on yourself if you lose, or be arrogant when you win.”

My family supports me so much and I really want to win for them.

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