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No let-up for sporty family

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Ultra trails demand a different skill set, focusing on endurance and experience, rather than speed

HARDUS van der Merwe, a 14-year-old pupil at Diamantveld High School in Kimberley, recently represented South Africa at the Biathle World Championships held in St Petersburg, Florida (USA). Picture: Supplied

HARDUS van der Merwe, a 14-year-old pupil at Diamantveld High School in Kimberley, recently represented South Africa at the Biathle World Championships held in St Petersburg, Florida (USA).

The event took place from October 23 to 27.

Together with Lisa Kleyn, from Gauteng, he came ninth in the mixed relay, while Hardus came 15th in the individual competition.

Speaking after his return home, Hardus pointed out that he had learnt a lot about competing at that level and was exposed to some world-class athletes.

“It was an honour to put on my SA colours, but also very stressful. I am highly motivated to work hard to make the SA team again and perform better at the World Champs next time. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

A keen swimmer and runner, Hardus trains at least 10 hours per week with his training partner, his sister, Frances, who is 17 years old.

The two have both represented the Northern Cape in biathlon and cross country before turning their skills to biathle.

This sport is not offered in the Northern Cape and the brother and sister had to travel to Bloemfontein for the competitions and take part for the Free State. This is an international sport that is governed by the South African Modern Pentathlon Association (SAMPA) that falls under the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM).

Hardus’ mother, Riana, explains that UIPM biathle is a sub-sport of modern pentathlon, invented to create opportunities to train the running and swimming parts of pentathlon in real race conditions. Biathle follows the sequence run-swim-run.

“It is a world class sport, but not an Olympic one. The legs are raced in a tri-suit with continuous transitions.”

Hardus had to run 800m, swim 100m and run 800m, non-stop.

“The swimming can be in open water, like in a lake or the ocean and the running on mixed surfaces, sand, concrete, etc.”

Hardus was the Free State boys’ Under-15 champion and won the silver medal at the SA Biathle Champs in June in Durban, where he was selected to represent South Africa.

His father, Mynhardt van der Merwe, previously a mountaineer and now an ultra trail runner, accompanied him.

According to Mynhardt, the conditions were very tough with extreme heat and humidity causing many athletes to suffer from heat stroke.

No stranger to tough conditions, Mynhardt and his wife, Riana, earlier this year also completed the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa 170km four-stage race on the border of Italy and Switzerland.

The event, which took place on September 4 to 7, has been described by the couple in three words: Bold. Beautiful. Brutal.

While the footpath around the spectacular Monte Rosa massif has been hiked for more than 25 years, trail runners have only been running this route for the past five years in an event which is run over four days as a 100 miler non-stop.

The husband and wife team of Mynhardt and Riana come from a climbing background of about 10 years and have been running ultra trails all over the world for the past 14 years.

They joined about 650 runners from 40 nations for this year’s event.

The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa makes a full circle around western Europe’s second highest mountain and lies on the Swiss-Italian border. The four-stage route starts in Grachen in Switzerland and goes through Zermatt in Switzerland, and Gressoney, Alagna and Macugnaga in Italy, to finish in Grachen again.

The route’s average altitude is above 2 000m and there is a total of 11 460m ascent and descent. The runners are surrounded by a multitude of 4 000m peaks.

“While the terrain is difficult, the setting, which includes wildflower-laced meadows and an unobstructed view of the iconic Matterhorn, couldn’t be more inspiring,” Riana said on her return.

“The trails are technical and exposed, so participants need mountain experience and must be confident to look after themselves in tough weather conditions.”

She explains that to enter for this race, participants need to pre-register with a list of their ultra trail running experience.

“The team then decides whether you are allowed to run this demanding race. Each participant must have personal accident insurance to cover the cost of evacuation in Italy and Switzerland. The course itself features the world’s longest suspension bridge, running across a glacier wearing micro spikes as well as the different architecture and ambience of Switzerland and Italy.”

Ultra trails demand a different skill set, focusing on endurance and experience, rather than speed.

“For this race, we needed to keep moving for about nine to 10 hours per day, for four consecutive days. We do a lot of strength and core training, as well as running in the koppies of Magersfontein. For us, it is about being out in the wild, a multi-sensory experience where the battle against yourself is more important than beating someone else.

“We have climbed the Breithorn, Allalinhorn and Bishorn in our young days, to run around them, is just amazing and special.

“Maybe every race is more beautiful than the previous one, but this one was breathtaking, literally and figuratively. We have spent a lot of time running around Zermatt as a family, but want to take the kids back to the Italian side, specifically the town of Macugnaga, at the foot of the Monte Rosa.”

“We are thankful for opportunities and good health and the joy of making memories together.”

The Van der Merwe’s haven’t put away their running shoes and are currently training two to three hours a day for the Skyrun on November 16.

This will be their 12th Skyrun, a 100km race with an elevation gain of 4 500m in the remote terrain of the Witteberg mountains near Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape.

“What makes it unique is that it is self-supported and self-navigational where athletes move with a GPS unit and a backpack containing all their food, water and compulsory equipment that will enable them to survive a maximum 30 hours in this harsh environment,” Riana said.

“To explain why our family loves travelling and adventure so much . . . the hard training and the challenge, the feeling that you are on top of the world.

“And this is a beautiful, breathtaking world.”