Long-distance runner Irvette van Zyl, 31, stepped into FNB Stadium on Sunday for the start of the Soweto Marathon with a conservative target. It was her first marathon since giving birth to her second son, Gideon.
She hoped to better the time of 2:41:06 she clocked last year to win the marathon in the early stages of her pregnancy, thereby ending a nine-year streak of foreign runners winning the People’s Race. This year, she set a course record of 2:33:43, shaving almost three minutes off the record of 2:36:02 set by Ethiopian Meseret Mengistu in 2014.
“I didn’t think I would run in record time, because last night [Saturday] I was thinking about it, and then I told myself, ‘That’s a bit fast,’” said Van Zyl. “Having a baby five months ago and then trying to set a record is a bit [much]. I worked it out in the last 2km that I could do it, but I thought that my watch was wrong and I wasn’t thinking that I was really on that pace, because it was at altitude.
“I thought that if I ran under 2 hours and 40 minutes, it would be great for me because ... I didn’t have much time to prepare. I couldn’t build up too fast, because after having a baby, you have to come back a bit slow ... I was surprised when I saw my time when I crossed the finish line. That’s why I fist-pumped the air.”
Ahead of the pack
Van Zyl put in a dominant performance on a chilly Johannesburg morning. She ran her first 10km in 34 minutes and 32 seconds. “I thought we started off too fast. I then decided to stop looking at my watch, because as I slowed down, the ladies also slowed down,” said Van Zyl. “I realised that they weren’t going to let me sit in the pack, so I had to lead.”
Van Zyl’s win capped off what had been a good week for her family. Three days before her victory, her husband, LJ, a South African record holder in the 400m hurdles, was named the University of Pretoria’s Athlete of the Century along with Caster Semenya.
“LJ has inspired me throughout my career. He has been helping a lot with the second baby. He is Super Daddy right now. Seeing how fast he can run and being on the world stage, I have been inspired by him throughout his career. He doesn’t do long runs with me, but in the mornings, he is always there making coffee. When I come back, my recovery [drink] is there. He does the small things that really help me to be a better athlete. It’s been a really good year for the Van Zyls. But 2015 was also a good year, because that’s when we had our first son, Louis.”
‘Pregnancy has served me well’
LJ was at the finish line to celebrate his wife’s win. Lesotho’s Mamorallo Tjoka (2:37:12) and Ethiopia’s Selam Abere Alebachew (2:44:50) joined her on the podium.
“I think the pregnancy has served me well,” said Van Zyl. “Every time I come back from pregnancy, I have been better. My focus shifts and I reboot, because I can’t train that hard when I’m pregnant. It’s nine months that you have to take off. Although I didn’t look like I took time off, I wasn’t training like an elite athlete. I was training normally. That definitely helps me to come back faster. But I don’t think we are going to try for a third [child]. I am settled now with two.”
In the men’s race, the best performance from a South African was by Edward Mothibi, who finished sixth. Ethiopia’s Sintayehu Legese Yinesu, who finished second last year, claimed the title with a time of 2:19:10. He shared the podium with Lebenya Nkoka (2:20:31) of Lesotho and his countryman Daba Ifa Debele (2:21:13). Yinesu hopes to retain his title and set a course record next year. “I was a little bit disappointed by finishing second last year. I didn’t train well. This time, I prepared well because I wanted to win,” he said.