For once the trademark smile is absent as Gerda Steyn ponders a question relating to her pioneering way of running. She rolls her eyes as she seemingly searches for the right words.
“It is special for me,” she finally says. “I just hope that it has given a message to people out there. That I have made someone realise they can achieve whatever they set their minds on.”
Her mind then takes her back to Bothaville in the Free State, where she grew up on her parents’ farm. “You know, at school I was never great. I was not fast enough. So no one would have expected this from me. Yet I found out later in life that I had the endurance talent. But even through this, I am still an ordinary person.”
An ordinary person she certainly is not. At least not after what she did on Sunday 9 June in KwaZulu-Natal. Steyn finished the 2019 Comrades Marathon Up Run in a time of 5:58:53 and she calls herself not fast enough? This is the fastest a woman has ever run the almost 90km distance that separates Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
It was the first time a female runner dipped under the six-hour mark in the Up Run. Her time was 10 minutes and 30 seconds faster than the previous record set by Russian runner Elena Nurgalieva in 2006. She placed 17th overall in the race, beating some of the men who are renowned Comrades specialists and were touted as potential winners.
And she did it with such consummate ease that it will not be surprising to see her improve on that time. For the immediate future though, the 29-year-old’s focus is on a goal of a different kind.
“I want to qualify for next year’s Olympics [marathon in Tokyo]. I have never represented South Africa, even though I had the chance to run at the 100km World Championships. My goal now is the Olympics. I need to run a 2:29:30 to qualify and I will be training for that. I have a 2:31:04, which I ran at the New York Marathon last year. I hope to improve on that time at this year’s [New York Marathon] race.”
She says this the morning after she had run a half-marathon in a personal best time of 1:11:53 at the Athletics South Africa 21.1km Championships in Port Elizabeth, coming fourth overall and the second South African behind Glenrose Xaba. Surely with that kind of time in a half-marathon she can achieve her Olympic qualification goal?
“It will be an honour to run at the Olympics. I think it is the dream of any athlete to be at the Olympics. I dream of it like I dreamt of Comrades.”
While she grew up “watching the race on television with my mom in her bedroom”, the Comrades Marathon dream only came about much later in life. Steyn chose the academic route, becoming a quantity surveyor like her brother, and it was while working in faraway Dubai that she took up running largely because she was bored and at the persuasion of colleagues.
“Of course I always knew about Comrades, and I remember how when we were young we would take the TV into my mom’s bedroom the night before the race and she would wake us up early to watch. But it was only when I moved abroad that I realised just how big an event it was. Everyone spoke about it and they were all excited to go and run it. And these were people from many different parts of the world. It hit me that this Comrades is more special than I realised and it made me proud to be a South African.”
Steyn was encouraged to start running and quickly found herself beating established runners in the club she joined. She ran a marathon, earning herself a B seeding for her Comrades debut in 2015, which she completed in 8:19:08.
“In November 2015, I decided to try and run a sub-three marathon and I did it, I ran a 2:59:18,” she says, that famous smile now a permanent fixture on her face. “I then phoned [former Comrades champion and now Nedbank Running Club manager] Nick Bester and told him I need coaching and a club.”
Steyn then went to the 2016 Comrades intent on getting a gold medal, but finished in 14th position.
“It was very tough and when I crossed the line I knew where I stood in terms of the competition. I knew I had to get better. So in 2017 I decided to leave my job, not really to become a pro athlete but rather to just give myself a chance at Comrades.”
And then the worst happened: “I got injured and it felt like I had made the worst decision of my life. But that injury was somewhat of a blessing because through it I learnt all about cross training. I biked and I swam. Healed, I called Nick and he made me run a 40km as a test. I did it with ease, we headed to Comrades and I finished fourth.”
Learning from past failures
In 2018, Steyn won the Two Oceans Marathon and was a favourite to win Comrades, only for Ann Ashworth to come from left field and deny her the South African ultra double. She finished second.
This year, though, just about everyone was in agreement that it was Steyn’s time to shine. She had all her sights set on Comrades glory from the beginning and while she held on to her Two Oceans crown, she disappointed many by not breaking a record that was there for the taking.
“The plan was to defend the title, it was my one and only goal. Yes, I was very close to the record [she missed it by 53 seconds] but it didn’t bother me much. Before this year, they had said the [30-year-old] record is not possible. But I showed it can be broken if we set our minds to it. Now I believe that even more. Still, I felt content with having held back for Comrades.”
Of course she would be, given the kind of run she had in the world-famous KwaZulu-Natal ultra. Steyn’s build-up to it was near perfect. She took a break after Two Oceans, then spent time training at high altitude in the Alps before heading home shortly before 9 June.
“The Alps was very quiet, although cold and snowy sometimes. But I got quality training there and because I had male training partners, I had to push harder. I came back home very content and confident I would do well in the race because I was in good shape, better than the previous year.”
How she broke the record
Given the strength of the field assembled this year, talk of the female record being in danger abounded. Did this bother her?
“Not at all. I actually agreed that to win Comrades this year would take the record because the field was very strong. My plan was to improve on my time from last year and to win. I’d learnt from last year that I am able to run what I say I will run. But one thing I changed was to set no targets until the halfway point. So I did not look at the watch until then.”
Steyn flew from the onset, passing yours truly early at Cowies Hill and looking super strong.
“I was fortunate to take the lead early on [from reigning champion Ashworth] around Fields Hill and I ran all by myself [with no other women] from there. When I got to the halfway mark, I was so happy that I was within record pace and it felt like finally something I had worked for was happening.”
The sight of some of the top male runners struggling while she still felt fresh left her with a bit of a heavy heart, says Steyn.
“I respect and admire a lot of these men and I did not feel like I am any better going past them. I know Comrades well and I understand that a lot can go wrong on that route, so I had no pleasure beating them. I was just in my zone, sticking to the plan.”
That plan came together perfectly. Steyn bounced into the Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg with that trademark smile of hers, rose in one hand and the mayor’s message scroll in the other, to a resounding cheer from the crowd. The heavy carpet in the final stretch barely slowed her down as she set a record previously thought impossible.
Hugging and kissing her manager, Bester, she almost broke into tears but held them back to acknowledge the crowd’s applause with that famous, toothpaste-ad smile.
It resurfaces now as she reminisces about that day. “Yes, I have watched the race and I go back to the memories of that day.”
It was a day that changed her life but one that more importantly, Steyn hopes, made many realise that nothing is impossible.