Heart transplant survivor tackles second Absa Cape Epic.
Images: WESTSIDERS | Jens Voegele
The Absa Cape Epic is a supreme physical test that demands near-perfect conditioning -you simply can't start eight days of tough trails and African weather if your body isn't in showroom condition. Somebody forgot to tell Elmar Sprink.
This will be Sprink's second start in the Untamed African Mountain Bike Race. In 2017 he became the first heart-transplantee to tackle the event, finishing in the top half of the field just five years after being wheeled out of a German operating theatre with a brand-new heart beating in his chest. "In 2017 I came over to race the Absa Cape Epic because I thought it was a good way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant, made in Cape Town." Dr Chris Barnard famously performed the first human heart transplant on Louis Washkansky at Groote Schuur hospital in December 1967.
Washkansky survived another 18 days; for Sprink the journey has already been far longer and has involved multiple Ironman finishes and, now, a second tilt at the Epic. Training at this level -actually, just existing – is slightly more challenging than it is for regular Absa Cape Epic athletes.
"The biggest difference to most of the riders is that I have to take medication to lower my immune system. They stop my heart from being rejected by my body. They have a lot of side effects, like slower recovery or more chances of getting an infection. That is the main reason we are not staying in a tent, like a lot of the other riders."
In 2017 he became the first heart-transplantee to tackle the event
It took almost two years to find a donor heart -the damage to Sprink's was too severe, without a transplant the prognosis was death. 197 days after the operation, he was discharged from the hospital and learning to walk, two months later he was back on the bike. Two years later... Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
The journey back to elite sportsman was hard, and interesting at the same time. "When you transplant a heart, you do not transplant the nerves. My nerves grew back. Not to 100%, but my heart rate range is much bigger compared to other heart transplanted people. Through my story I met Prof. Mark Haykowsky from Canada, who has done a lot of research on heart-transplanted people. Interval training is a key to getting the nerves connected again. I find my heart rate still responds a bit slower, which makes it difficult on steep climbs. I ride with a power meter to have better control on this."
I find my heart rate still responds a bit slower, which makes it difficult on steep climbs.
"Two years after the transplant, I almost had the same heart rate values as I had before; resting under 50bpm and max over 180bpm. I do a lot of threshold tests; my FTP is around 3,8-3,9 W/kg. I did the Ironman in Florida in 2006 and 13 years later in 2019 with my donor heart. My bike split was 4h57, for 180km, 17 minutes faster than with my old heart. That is crazy."
Former German MTB pro, Peter Schermann is Sprink's 2022 partner and is himself no stranger to medical drama having suffered a career-ending stroke in 2017, aged just 29. "He is much younger and fitter than me and he is riding as an MTB pro again. There is nothing to teach him and plenty to learn from him; he can help me during race week."
I did not return to my old job as an IT sales/marketing manager. Now I give motivational talks all over the world
The 2022 Absa Cape Epic is another important stepping stone in Sprink's new life. "After the transplant, I did not return to my old job as an IT sales/marketing manager. Now I give motivational talks all over the world, I wrote a book and I am competing in a lot of endurance events. Mostly I do Ironman races, but I love trail running and bike races as well."
Sprink has no idea whose heart was transplanted into his chest after he collapsed on a couch at home in 2010 while watching the 8th stage of the Tour de France. "That is the law in Germany, so I do not know anything. I just know from many, many ultrasounds that I have a healthy heart. In my mind, I made a picture of the donor and I am very thankful. Finishing a race, I always look to the sky and hope that they are looking what I am doing."