“A lot has happened since I won the Soweto Marathon,” says Irvette van Zyl with a smirk at the launch of the 25th Soweto Marathon at FNB Stadium, southern Johannesburg, on Thursday. A year ago, the long-distance runner became the first South African woman in nine years to win the People’s Race and end the foreign dominance over it. But that’s not the most remarkable part of her story. Van Zyl won the marathon while she was pregnant with her second child, Gideon, who is now five months old.
Van Zyl was competitive late into her pregnancy, running 10km in 35:07 to finish third at the Spar Women’s Challenge in Cape Town in March. On 9 June, a day before the Comrades Marathon, she gave birth to Gideon. But just more than three months after giving birth, the 33-year-old won two 10km races in two days, in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She clocked the fastest time of her career to win the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon (32:48) on 23 September and then went on to win the FNB Joburg 10km CITYRUN the following day with a time of 33:41.
“Winning those races meant that I can come and run Soweto,” says Van Zyl. “I think that gave me the confidence to come and run the marathon because if I can do two hard 10km races in 24 hours, that’s a sign that I am fit enough to do a marathon. I don’t know if opting to do Soweto [as my first marathon since giving birth] is the smartest decision because it’s so hard and the route is hilly.
“But I’ll be good on the hills on race day and hopefully I can maintain my pace for the last 10km, which is brutal. It’s been quite a journey. I didn’t expect to come back this soon after the pregnancy. With my first pregnancy my return was quick, but not this quick. Everything has been in fast-forward with this one. I am just happy to be here and be competitive on race day.”
Van Zyl speaks like she runs – fast, assertive and purposeful. At some point, she even trips over her words and resorts to her native Afrikaans. Home comforts are important to the Nedbank Running Club athlete. “When it gets tough, I always think of my children and my husband LJ [Van Zyl, a South African record holder in the 400m hurdles]. I think of the effort and the opofferinge [sacrifices] that I had to make, with all the time that I gave up to go running, spending it away from my children. I think of that and that motivates me to go faster and be the best that I can be,” she says.
While Irvette returns to conquer the road once again, her husband, now retired from athletics, takes care of their children. “It definitely helps that LJ has now retired from running. He is very supportive of my running. It’s much easier when there is one runner in the house instead of two, because two is difficult with the sleep patterns and how little sleep we get because of the little ones. It helps me get more sleep because he does the night shift and I do the day shift,” she says, laughing loudly.
“It’s nice that he understands running. Running is tough but without him it would be even tougher. He isn’t putting any pressure on me, that helps as well. We just go with the flow, what happens, happens.”
It’s remarkable that Van Zyl will line up at FNB Stadium on Sunday morning just five months after giving birth. The fact that she has a good chance to retain the crown she won last year speaks volumes of her athleticism, commitment and drive. She speaks fondly of the marathon in which runners pass a number of heritage sites including Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Walter Sisulu Square, Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Morris Isaacson High School and Vilakazi Street.
“The people make this race special,” says Van Zyl. “I am not from Soweto but the crowd makes me feel like I am from Soweto. The cheers are what helps you, so do the children spraying you with hosepipes to cool you off. In the first 32km, the crowd is there and you really feel Soweto every step of the way, and then there’s the last 10km, which is brutal.
“They [the organisers] can work on that to ensure that there are more people standing towards the finish because that’s the hardest part of the course. You really start to struggle with the people not there. The crowd is really amazing in the first 32km. You feel at home. It’s nice being a part of this race. It’s hot but the crowd makes it all worth it when you run past them and the kids are so excited, you high-five them sometimes. It’s really close to my heart.”
Hills, hills and more hills
Sowetans might be friendly to the runners but the route isn’t. It’s a gruelling course filled with hills so steep that even the bus that did a recce of the route with journalists struggled. Half of the Soweto Marathon’s course is made up of hills. If you take that, and factor in the Johannesburg heat this time of the year, you have the ingredients of one of the toughest marathons in the country. It tests both the physical and mental strength of runners. 32 000 runners, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, will line up on Sunday for the race. The marathon (42.20km) starts at 6am, followed by the half-marathon (21.10km) at 6.30am, then the 10km at 7am.
Van Zyl’s experience of running the Soweto Marathon is a mixed bag. “The first time I ran it, I fell at the start and it took me a few years to come back,” she says. “That was in 2011. It took me five years to come back. I opted to come back and I finished third. Winning it last year was special because it was on my bucket list of races that I would love to win. I didn’t expect to win it. It was a surprise. Hopefully, it can also be a surprise this year and I win it again. But as long as I cross the finish line and I better my time of last year [2:41.06], I would be happy with that.”
LJ will be waiting for her at the finish line at FNB Stadium, while her children will watch the race on TV. Van Zyl is yet to decide who she’ll dedicate her medal to if she wins the People’s Race again. “Last year, I gave my medal to my oldest son and he chucked it to the dustbin,” says Van Zyl with a chuckle. “Maybe I will give it to Gideon, the youngest one, but he won’t understand what I am giving him. They don’t really like the medals. Louis [her older son] likes standing on the podium because I stood with him once after winning a race. But I must get off the podium. He wants the podium all to himself. I don’t think that I am going to dedicate the medal to anyone.”
If Van Zyl wins and still hasn’t decided who to dedicate her medal to, her tenacity would make a worthy recipient of that honour. “I told my coach that I am not an elite athlete any more because my life revolves around my children,” she says. “The training and everything I do is done with the children in mind. It’s a game-changer to have children but it’s not a stop sign to your career. You can still have a career and have children. They light up your day. It’s good to have that side of our lives. I cherish every moment I spend with them.”