Every time doctors dare to utter the words “You can’t do that” or “You will never be able to do it again” – something inside Alan Hardaker lights up.
He shrugs off the initial shock, refocuses and almost immediately begins planning his next move.
Over the years words of discouragement have become a source of inspiration for this new Barrydale resident who – just days after offloading his furniture – vowed that he would summit Mount Everest by 2026.
That’s right: Alan believes that regardless of his diabetes and the fact that he nearly died from a heart attack just a few years ago, he will achieve what most mountain climbers only dream of.
He will do this as part of a new initiative he started with a few good friends. Their goal is to raise funds for various worthy causes under their newly established NOWW “No Ordinary Weekend/Week” initiative.
But before we find out how he ended up in Barrydale, first a word from the editorial team:
*Alan, here at News62 we are very serious about brining our readers only news that is accurate, comment that is fair and opinion that is as good as it gets. So we will therefore follow-up to ensure you keep this promise you have just made to our esteemed readers.
Alan and Magriet do Barrydale
It was only supposed to be a quick visit to the Barrydale in Bloom Market-on the-Lawn at Sorgvry House of Guests in October.
Alan and fiancé Magriet Van Zyl (who has also overcome a life-threatening disease or two in her day) introduced the town to her KaasHaas Cheese Straws and while locals fell in love with her product, the couple explored the idea of buying a house in one of the best places on the planet to own property.
Rumour also has it that the former Cape Town couple drank from the very same well that inspired Sorgvry owners Uwe and Carel to buy their dream house in the Klein Karoo all those years ago.
They have since settled in, with Alan running his Financial Planning business from home.
A long road to recovery and self-discovery
Interestingly, Alan is one of those sportsmen who has achieved more in his career after being diagnosed with a life-altering illnesses, than he ever did when he was considered to be in great health.
His first significant shift happened in 2010 when tests revealed that he had acute pancreatitis.
Alan gained a lot of weight because of the fists-full of chronic medication and when he tipped the scales at 128kg (from a 78kg average), he knew he had to do something.
While a normal month these days often includes an ultra marathon, mountain biking adventure and/or an endurance race, Alan knows that it all started with that first step – in his case, short walks along the promenade.
“It reached the point where I had to make a very important call in my life. Back then it used to take me two hours to walk 4 to 5km, but I gradually improved and later I started to enjoy hiking.”
Another significant change in that time – doctors would later learn – was that Alan had decided to reduce his prescription quite significantly.
Three years after he was advised to “take it easy” he entered his first half marathon in what turned out to be a funny start to his road running career.
“As I approached the finish line of the Two Oceans half marathon everyone started cheering. I thought I was famous, but then I realised the oldest competitor in the field was right behind me.”
Not too perturbed about his rather comical debut, Alan joined a friend in Knysna for another race a few months later.
The master planner did not plan it all too well and instead of running another half marathon – he dived into the deep end.
Alan vividly recalls how his knees locked-up over the last five kilometres of the race and even though he had to walk to get over the line, he still made it before the five hour cut-off time.
After that experience he was hooked. He then entered a few local triathlons, as well as iron man contests that saw him travel to Western Australia to compete.
This was followed by his first extreme marathon: the Kalahari Marathon, a self supported six-day 250km run through the desert.
He entered one ultra trail run after the other and although he had a few injury setbacks in 2014, he remained in good shape by following a tailor-made eating plan.
Things were looking up for Alan and in 2015 – just five years after he was forced onto chronic medicine – he was selected to represent Western Province at the South African Duathlon Championships.
Another twist as things come crashing down
Alan’s dream of competing against some of the best athletes in South Africa were shattered just two weeks before the national championships when he crashed into the back of a station wagon with his bike.
He broke both his left wrist and sustained serious leg injuries.
Despite being sidelined for most of the year, he ran the Kalahari Marathon again in October and – thanks to the incredible work of the doctors at the SA Sport Science Institute who helped with his recovery – he recorded his best finishing time.
“It happened to be one of the hottest years in the race’s history, with temperatures peaking at 58 degrees and the event insisted that we run at night, but even then temperatures reached 36 degrees Celsius at 3am.”
Two months after the Kalahari extreme experience Alan decided he wanted to get back into climbing again.
“Having previously summited Kilimanjaro in 2000, I decided the goal would be to target the seven highest summits.”
“I joined a team to climb Aconcagua in South America in January 2016 which meant that I went from the hottest temperature in October (58) to minus 35 when we summited the mountain at 6069m.
Six weeks later, Alan had a heart attack
“They put in four stents and at that stage they told me that my days of being able to climb at high altitude, or partake in any ultra distance running or cycling, were over,”
The recommendation was that he could do 30 minutes of exercise, four times a week.
“That really did not sit well with me and I went back to sport science institute where I started a rehab program with them.”
Under the guidance of Dr Jeroen Swart, Alan made huge strides towards recovery and they also made a significant discovery when blood test results returned and it was confirmed that he had diabetes.
“The opinion of all the specialists and the doctors was that, being diabetic, you are not going to be able to do ultra-distance sport. They said that I couldn’t climb at altitude, because we do not know how that would affect my blood sugar levels.
A confirmed diabetic in May, but by December he opted to take on the Munga Mountain Bike Race. It was on this epic journey between Bloemfontein and Wellington where started realising just how serious his condition is.
“About 480km into the race I got delirious, dizzy and my sugar was off the charts. I had no control and I had no other option but to stop.”
He returned from the race despondent and disappointed, and decided that in 2017 he would focus more on mountain climbing.
In June 2017 he was part of a team that climbed mount Elbrus. Alan suffered yet another setback and while his sugar levels were fine in training, his heart rate was far too high on summit day.
“At 5000m I had to turn back, as I knew I was putting the team at risk as well. I thought that it was the end of the road for me. I was sad and the hopelessness started kicking in.”
As fate would have it, he met diabetes specialist Dr Hennie Nortje who explained to him that every athlete he had worked with, handled diabetes differently and that treatment of the disease should be approached as such.
Dr Nortje advised Alan not to measure his sugar levels at events – instead he needed to start understanding how his body feels when he is doing certain things.
“I started to realise that it was more about listening to your body – and that’s what I started to do from 2018.”
Alan got back into trail running and did the Otter Trail Run and also managed to successfully summit both Kilimanjaro and Elbrus that year.
Heart attack, what heart attack?
“The blinkers were taken off, I could do extreme events again and I set myself the goal that in 2019 I would do many multi-day races.
However, a more common, less drastic setback would prevent him from achieving these goals.
Alan tore ankle ligaments on a three-day trial run and had to spend a big chunk of 2019 confined to his sofa.
By December he realised that his fitness levels were far from ideal and that 2020 was going to be another tough training-orientated year.
During the first few months his training was on track, but then life took another unexpected turn.
Determined to contribute to the Childhood Cancer Foundation of South Africa (CHOC), he completed the Two Oceans Marathon in his Sandbaai (Alan and Magriet moved there because of the Covid related risks diabetics face) backyard.
“So many charities lost so much funding because of Covid, but by completing the race on the 100m track in my backyard, we were able to raise just over R28 000 for the charity.
Alan started that ridiculous run at 4am and 8 hours, and 540 laps around the garden later, he completed his 58.4km run.
“My neighbors thought I was a lunatic, but the run attracted a lot of attention and this showed me that even in the time of lockdown, while people were feeling desperate financially and everyone was concerned about what the future holds, there was still a lot of concern for others.”
Then Alan had somewhat of an epiphany: He realised that had he listened to the physicians who told him that he would never be able to compete in marathons and extreme events again, he would probably be a depressed, overweight, middle-aged man today.
Now he’s just middle-aged and as happy as can be – I mean who would not be with a fiancé who makes the best cheese straws around?
Here is his preliminary itinerary for 2021:
April: Sedgefield 500
April 23: Self supported walk through Cederberg 310km over five days to raise awareness for animal welfare.
May fast pack trip to Fishriver Canyon.
November: Cycling to the Munga starting point and back – 2280km in 10 days. https://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/munga-there-and-back