It’s 13 786 km from Durban, South Africa, to Sapporo, Japan, but Gerda Steyn will attempt to bridge the distance between the Comrades and the Olympics marathons with a few strides next Saturday, 7 August, as she goes to the start line of the women’s marathon of the 32nd Olympiad.
The majority of her rivals would likely have grown their athletics careers from a track and cross-country background at school before switching to short road races. Finally, and often towards the latter stages of their career, they would have increased their racing distance to the 42,2km of the standard marathon.
Steyn, much like another South African ultra-distance prodigy, Frith van der Merwe, chose to do it the other way around. She started with the 90km Comrades Marathon before finding the necessary shorter-distance speed to break the South African marathon record and gain a place on her country’s team for the Tokyo Olympics.
Van der Merwe stumbled into ultra-marathon excellence almost by chance after a background of tennis at school and some recreational running at Wits University. She ran her first 90km Comrades Marathon just for the fun of it in 1987 before becoming serious and winning three times between 1988 and 1991, re-writing the record books both at Comrades and at the 56km Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town and winning national titles at the marathon and shorter-distance events.
Steyn’s introduction to athletics was remarkably similar, although starting out from a different province, having grown up on a her parent’s farm in the Free State. She studied Quantity Surveying at Free State University, an establishment which has produced many top South African track and cross-country athletes. But Steyn was not one of them, indulging in little more than recreational running while on campus.
After graduating, Steyn travelled to the United Arab Emirates to take up a position in quantity surveying in 2014, where she sought out the local running club, Dubai Road Runners, for social as much as running reasons. Within months she had met her future husband and agreed to join some of her new club-mates on a trip to South Africa to take part in the 90km Comrades Marathon. Just seven months after joining the club, Steyn had completed her first race and her first ultra-marathon.
While few would have taken much notice of the runner in the colours of Dubai Road Runners in 56th position in the women’s race, perhaps they should have. Her time of 8 hrs 19 min 08 sec was impressive for such a novice and more than fast enough to finish ahead of all of her stunned Dubai teammates.
As with Van der Merwe thirty years earlier, Steyn was smitten by the Comrades bug and began to train more seriously when she returned to Dubai, but her path to success was not as precipitous as that of Van der Merwe.
It was two years before she struck gold at Comrades, placing 4th in 2017, and four years before she posted a victory. But what a victory it was, as Steyn became the first woman to run faster than 6 hours for the ‘up’ run, clocking 5:58:53., just two months after she came within 52 seconds of Frith’s “unbeatable” Two Oceans record of 3:30:36.
Van der Merwe’s success, as remarkable as it was, was relatively short-lived, with injury limiting her career as an elite distance runner to just four years. Steyn’s rise has been steady and consistent and six years after starting out in her first Comrades Marathon she will be representing her country for the first time and at the highest level, something to which she has looked forward for some time.
“There were a few potential opportunities (to run for South Africa), notably at the World 100km Championships, but somehow they never worked out. So I’m really excited about this one – it has always been my dream to run for South Africa one day,” said Steyn.
Steyn’s improvement in the standard marathon is a model of consistency and progression over time and represents the rewards of her serious commitment as a professional athlete. Since 2016, Steyn has improved her marathon time by several minutes each year at a number of ‘big city marathons’ around the world.
A 2:51:31 in Dublin in 2016 was eclipsed by her 2:37:22 in Valencia the following year before a 2:31:04 at her first New York City Marathon in 2018 moved her firmly into elite territory. 2019 saw her return to New York, where she posted a superb 2:27:48 to emulate Van der Merwe’s best marathon time. Stormy weather at London last October could not prevent her improving still further to 2:26:51, just 16 seconds outside Colleen de Reuck’s national marathon record.
With Steyn’s times over shorter distances also plummeting – only five South Africans have ever run faster than her 32 min 24 sec 10km she ran in Dubai in January last year – it was only a matter of time before De Reuck’s 2:26:35 record, set in Berlin in 1996, fell to Steyn. And it happened on 1st May this year at Steyn’s Olympic ‘warm-up’ marathon in Siena, Italy. A superb 2:25:28 on a multi-lap course in on the local airfield elevated Steyn to new status, with only Elana Meyer’s 2:25:15 in the 1994 Boston Marathon (on a non-accredited course) quicker.
And now Steyn has an opportunity which Van der Merwe was never able to enjoy – to represent her country at the very highest level in her sport – the Tokyo Olympic Games
Being married to an Emirates airline pilot has given Steyn the advantages of a variety of training bases at different times of the year. After enjoying the benefits of altitude from her Johannesburg home earlier in the year, she was able to skip the South African winter by undertaking the bulk of her training for the Olympics from their chalet in the French Alps before returning to their Dubai home base last week for heat acclimatisation training.
And Steyn also enjoys support from her substantial global fan club, from her parents on their Free State family farm (“my biggest supporters”), to her friends and clubmates in Johannesburg, a strong support base in France and her original runner friends from the Dubai Desert Runners club, all of whom will be rooting for her on race day on Saturday 7 August.
Steyn is grateful that she has been able to enjoy an injury and illness-free training block and is happy with her preparation, which has included significant variation in temperature and altitude in France and scorching conditions in Dubai, when day-time temperatures have exceeded forty degrees.
“The temperature at our home (in the French Alps) had ranged from twelve to thirty degrees,” Steyn remarked yesterday on the eve of her departure from Dubai to Japan. “Most of my training in France was on trails, off paved roads, and included substantial hill training, at times climbing over 1000 metres to 2400 metres. But although we needed a home fire to keep us warm on occasion, it was pretty hot at other times.
“Back in Dubai it’s really difficult to explain just how hard it is to run in the summer heat. What I find particularly difficult is the high humidity and the fact that temperature never drops below mid-30 degrees – even late at night/ early morning – and rises to the mid-40s during the day.
“I do however think that it is the perfect place to adapt to warm conditions which we are almost certainly going to experience in Japan. The hardest training is done now and my last few training sessions in Dubai focused on adapting to the extreme weather and less about hitting fast paces. It’s a great challenge and all about preparing myself in the best possible way for the race.”
Steyn has enjoyed training with some of the local club runners in Dubai. “We have an ‘African train’ going!” she said. “Two of my clubmates – from Kenya and Morocco – helped me prepare for the marathon in Siena a few months back, but this time was mostly on my own, with my husband Duncan in support on the bike or in the car and sometimes running with me.”
How does Steyn view her coming date with Olympic destiny? “I’m pleased with the way my training has gone – no injuries or hiccoughs,” Steyn remarked. “This is a championship race and will be very different to a big city marathon. There will be no pacers and each country is limited to just three athletes in the field.
“If everything comes together on the day, then I’ve done the best I can and will be happy with whatever outcome. It will be a high-quality field with the qualifying time having been lowered substantially to 2:29:30. Everyone will be out to win a medal. It will be hot, and the athletes will likely respect that and adopt a more cautious approach. It is exciting and unknown – everyone has a chance.
“I don’t think I will run as I did in London or Siena. There I ran my own race according to my schedule, but I became isolated and ran on my own for much of the race – that’s always harder. So I’m more likely to go with the pack, even if the pace is a bit quicker, and take my chances in the second half. But I won’t stop or give up – that is my strength and I don’t doubt that.
“Having said that, it would be silly to go out at too fast a pace and then regret it later – the key is not to be caught out by something I didn’t expect. It will be good to have Irvette (van Zyl) there – we share the same coach in Nick Bester so may adopt similar strategies. But it’s also great having Hendrick (Ramaala) as our Olympic Marathon manager and coach – he’s a great man for the job with so much experience.”
De Reuck achieved the highest position to date in an Olympic marathon by a South African female athlete with her 9th place in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Having already toppled De Reuck’s national marathon record, the chances look good for Steyn to improve De Reuck’s ‘top ten’ to a ‘top five’ position and possibly a medal. Can she do it?
Only time will tell…