The Comrades Marathon Up-Run record. Check. The South African marathon record. Check. The Two Oceans Marathon title. Check, twice. Tokyo Olympics qualification. Check. What’s next then for South Africa’s road-running sensation Gerda Steyn now that she has cemented her status as a great of the sport?
An Olympic medal? That, though, could be pushing it a bit given that she finished a distant ninth place in running that 2:25:28 new national record during the Xiamen Marathon & Tuscany Camp in Siena, Italy in April.
“It was an incredibly fast race with a lot of talented Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. In my case, the South African record was my sole goal. So, as far as positioning in the race went, that didn’t really feature much in my mind. All the race did was give me an opportunity to compete in a race and perform to the best of my abilities regardless of the position I finished in.”
That record time she ran in Siena would have seen her finish way outside the medal positions at both the Rio 2016 and the London 2012 Games. Yet, such has been her phenomenal running in the past few years that to discount her from going faster than that in what would surely be a much stronger field would be folly.
This, after all, is an athlete who keeps on getting better and better. “Holding the national marathon record, as well as that of the Comrades Marathon up run and winning Two Oceans twice is something I would not have imagined in my wildest dreams just six years ago,” Steyn says as she reflects on her whirlwind running career that saw her quit her well-paying job as a quantity surveyor in Dubai initially to give herself a chance at Comrades glory.
Having achieved that in style, she won the 2019 Comrades in the record time of 5:58:53 – the first time a woman completed the race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in under six hours – as she shaved a massive 10 and a half minutes off the previous record set by Russian runner Elena Nurgalieva in 2006. Steyn then set her sights on the shorter distances. Her special focus was the marathon so she could qualify for the Olympics.
She achieved that with a brilliant run in her second New York Marathon in November 2019 to finish 11th in a then personal-best time of 2:27:48. Steyn then ran even faster, 2:26:51, at the Covid-19 affected 50th London Marathon that was run on a 7km loop in cold and wet weather conditions, narrowly missing breaking Colleen de Reuck’s national record set back in 1996 in Berlin.
“I will never forget the mixed emotions I felt leaving London last year. I was delighted with a new personal-best time given the conditions we had to run in that day. But, at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I had missed out on breaking the 25-year-old South African record by only 15 seconds. Looking back now, I don’t regret anything about it because it made me realise the importance of patience and consistency as an athlete. It taught me not to give up but to rather work hard until one reaches their goals. Because the longer it takes, the more appreciative you will be once you’ve done it.
“The national record is something I had my eyes on for a while now and finally reaching my target feels a little surreal. But I can say that I am really humbled by the responses I have received and the words of congratulations.”
Fuelled by London disappointment
She has found the reaction to her amazing feat encouraging, she says. “It has given an assurance that I am on the path that I am meant to be, and it has left me feeling humbled to be a South African record holder over the marathon distance.”
One of those pleased for her is De Reuck: “I think Gerda ran a fantastic race. I am happy for her because I know how hard it is to train for one’s goals. But it is a sweet reward when you achieve them,” explained the America-based athlete.
“Records are a goal that athletes strive for. I didn’t even realise I had it [the record] as I knew that Elana (Meyer) had run faster than me,” De Reuck said, referring to Meyer’s 2:25:15 at the Boston Marathon in 1994, a time not ratified as a record because the race was deemed to have been run on an assisted road course (downhill or favouring wind).
Having been close to the record in London, Steyn was keen on setting a new mark and was always looking for a fast race not only to achieve that but also to set herself up for a good run at the Olympics with a good time. “The plan was always to better my personal-best time, which was a mere 15 seconds slower than the longstanding SA record. In other words, I knew that breaking my personal best would also mean breaking the SA record and it felt good to achieve this goal on a day when conditions were not ideal for racing.”
The race, over a 5km loop course around the roads of the Siena-Ampugnano Airport, was run in wind and rain. And to have been able to run such a good time under those difficult conditions has given Steyn more confidence going to the Games: “I am really excited to see what the next months will bring.”
Steyn finished ninth, but was the second South African to cross the line in the national half-marathon championship in Gqeberha, with a time of 1:12:13 on 1 May. Glenrose Xaba was the first South African to finish the 21.1km race, finishing fifth overall.
This is part of Steyn’s building blocks for the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to have taken place in 2020 but had to be moved owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most South Africans will no doubt be hoping that Steyn emulates Josiah Thugwane’s feats from Barcelona 1992, where the man from Mpumalanga delivered a gold-medal run.
“The marathon is an unpredictable event where anything can happen on the day of the competition,” said De Reuck. “The Olympics will be so different this year [because of the Covid-19 restrictions on crowds and fans watching the events]. The good thing for Gerda is that she is used to running in hot and humid weather conditions [in Dubai] and that will be her strength, and she is a tough athlete.”
Steyn though is currently just pleased to have had a fantastic run before the Games. “I wanted to run a fast marathon leading up to the Olympics and I am happy with my time in Siena. Even though the Olympic race in Sapporo might differ a great deal to the experience in Siena, I believe that a fast time would still play an important role mentally going into the preparations for the Olympics.”
Making up for starting late
How she does at the Games is not something Steyn is thinking about, at least not yet. “I will have to assess my fitness and progress closer to the time for me to be able to say whether a podium finish is possible or not. But when I think about the dynamics of some of the Olympic marathons in the past, I will leave nothing out because I do think it will be a battle of the strongest athlete rather than the fastest one.”
And given what she has shown in the past few years, Steyn is both a strong athlete – as evidenced by her remarkable feats in both the Comrades Marathon and the 56km Two Oceans Marathon (which she won two years in a row and missed out on the record by just 20 seconds) – and fast as well, judging by the run in Siena and her times in the half marathon and 10km races.
Hers is a remarkable tale of a late starter going on to shine brighter than even she would have expected given that she “was never great at school back in Bothaville [Free State]. I was not the fastest kid.”
“Everyone has a unique story. My story starts at a later stage in my life, but I realised from the start that this doesn’t have to be a disadvantage in any way. I may have missed out on some early lessons, but I strongly believe that the excitement I have for this fairly new-found passion for running outweighs any and every lesson I missed out earlier on in life.
“Success is a combination of a lot of different things. A talented person will achieve nothing without hard work and determination while a determined person will achieve very little without a strong foundation and a supportive system around them. It is the combination of many aspects that have to come together in a harmonious manner for athletes to succeed. When I run, I run for everyone who stands behind me and supports me, whether it is in following my journey or hands-on daily coaching and guidance.”