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Women’s marathon and ultramarathon record-breaker Ger...

DM168

RACE TO THE TOP

Record-breaker Gerda Steyn’s historic Two Oceans Marathon run in her own words

Gerda Steyn wins the Two Oceans Marathon in a new record time at UCT Rugby Fields on 17 April 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

Gerda Steyn’s blow-by-blow tale of her historic run – including ‘rumblers’ during training.

Gerda Steyn is perhaps the greatest women’s marathon and ultramarathon runner South Africa has produced. Her record speaks for itself. In 2019, she broke the Comrades up-run record with a time of 5:58:53, becoming the first woman to complete the up-run in under six hours.

She currently holds the women’s national marathon record, achieved in Italy last year, with a time of 2:25:28. More recently, on 17 April this year, she broke another record. Steyn set a new women’s record in the Two Oceans Marathon, over 56km, with a time of 3:29:42 and became the first athlete in 22 years to win three consecutive titles.

Her success is remarkable and built mainly on a meticulous training routine and diet. A peek into her Saturday routine is a testament to this.

“These friends of mine have this tradition, on a Saturday they run, they have a rumbler and a coffee; that’s why they call themselves RRC. Everyone thinks [RRC] is ‘something running club’ but it’s actually: run, rumbler, coffee,” says Steyn, laughing. “A rumbler is a rum inside a Castle [beer],” she explains.

Because the Two Oceans Marathon was on a Sunday, she had to move her Saturday RRC tradition up a day.

“Normally, I’m such a lightweight. I go with them and run with them because they’re good runners. They all ran silver at the Two Oceans, but they are very serious about their drinking as well. Normally, I can’t even start to keep up with them but on Saturday I promised them after the race I’ll have the celebrations,” she said. 

Shaky preparation

Steyn’s training for the Two Oceans went better than expected — until she fell ill in the final build-up.

“Two weeks before the race I ended up with a cold. It was not serious, it was just a head cold but it knocked me out for quite a bit,” she said.

This meant she missed her integral training sessions and forced her to “cram a little bit in the last week” before the race.

Steyn (32), who is based in Johannesburg, was put on antibiotic medication for the cold and only had a week to get back into her running routine.

“I got better when I got to Cape Town on Tuesday because it was sunny and Joburg was so cold and rainy.

“I think even my mood improved when I arrived,” said Steyn. “When I got [to Cape Town] I started really rapidly improving.

“I had no more symptoms so I was fine. But you don’t know until you are pushing your body to the limit if something is still wrong. I can’t say that I felt anything in the race or on the start line or anything.”

The tantalising smell of fermenting yeast at SA Breweries was at the starting point of the Two Oceans ultramarathon; the finished product she would enjoy in the form of a rumbler a mere three hours, 29 minutes and 42 seconds later. 

Gerda Steyn shortly after winning the Two Oceans Marathon in a record time at UCT Rugby Fields on 17 April 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

The start

Steyn has a degree in quantity surveying from the University of the Free State. She only started running seriously in 2014, after studying. Her eye for detail, precision and planning, acquired through her studies, has followed in her running pursuits.

“I like to plan my race to perfection. I look at what I did in the previous years. I look at the course; I’ve got it all printed, I put it there a week before the race. I’ve got it all planned. My pacing, I’ve got it planned.

“The first half of the race was so bang on to what I planned. It was, to the second, what I wanted to be at the halfway mark. It was literally exactly how I planned it. But the one thing I did not expect was to be in a group of ladies, let alone a group of five to be with me, so that was not expected,” said Steyn.

The fact that she was in a competitive group, running side-by-side and making surges for the lead, surprised and slightly confused her.

“It was really strange, I wasn’t sure if they planned it or it was their strategy or whether I should go with them or not.”

She decided not to go with them and to trust her methodical planning to guide her race, although not without doubt.

“It’s happened to me in the past, after the race, where I regret not going with the lead pack. A lot of the time before a race I’ve said to myself, ‘Just don’t lose contact.’ It’s happened before and I was scared of making that mistake again. It’s a gamble but I’m hanging back.”

Her decision paid off soon as she passed the first runner ahead of her at Chapman’s Peak. “That to me was a sign that it’s not going to work out well for them,” she said. 

Gerda Steyn, the  winner of the Two Oceans Marathon, at UCT Rugby Fields on 17 April 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

‘Darkest patch’

With things looking up for Steyn in the race, the downward slope of Chapman’s Peak brought one more downhill.

“Then, when I got to the bottom of Chapman’s Peak, I just didn’t feel good, I don’t know why. I just couldn’t gather myself.”

Steyn refers to the section of Chapman’s Peak known as The Graveyard as one of the “darkest patches” of her running career.

“I couldn’t see, which was very strange for me. My eyes were blurry. I’ve had it before, at the end of a marathon and I know normally it’s a glucose sort of thing, I know that happens to ultra runners.”

This lasted for about six kilometres, through Hout Bay and all the way to Constantia Nek. At this stage, Steyn was still behind three other competitors.

“It improved. When I felt like that I thought it must be a glucose problem, there must be a reason for it. So I tried to just take energy. I had a gel with me in my crop top … I just tried to get in as much as I could and I did improve,” she explained.

At this point, Steyn was worried the rough patch might bring about her downfall. “Two Oceans, you mustn’t underestimate it. It’s three and a half hours on the route, it’s not that long, it’s not a whole day’s race. You must be careful, you can’t bargain on going through a bad patch and recovering again because it’s still shortish.” 

The record line

Irvette van Zyl, Steyn’s long-time competitor and runner-up at the Two Oceans, was slightly ahead as they wound up the race towards the UCT rugby fields.

“I just said, ‘Well done, Irve.’ That’s what I said when I ran past her.”

Van Zyl could not believe Steyn had passed her, considering how far back her opponent had been at one stage. But she knew the race was over when she saw the black-clad figure  motoring away.

Steyn broke the record set by Frith van der Merwe in 1989 by almost a minute. She hit the winner’s ribbon, marked “Conquer the Current”, with right hand raised aloft and a broad smile on her face.

Van Zyl, 34, finished in 3:30:31, also bettering Van der Merwe’s 3:30:36.

“We both agree that, without each other … it’s not to say either one of us would have gotten it because we really pushed each other so hard. I mean you can’t do that without competition like that,” reflected Steyn.

“No one knew who was going to win at such a late stage of the race. If it wasn’t for Irvette being there, I wouldn’t have surged in the way that I did, from the top of Constantia. I would have been happy to be in the lead and make sure I got to the finish in one piece.

“We both sort of thanked each other for pushing us because that is how you get to it.

“This record just replicates what’s going on in the rest of the world. Women’s running is improving, it’s gonna improve.

“This record will be broken again, I know that. It won’t take long. It will get broken. It’s what we’re seeing across the board in women’s running, which is amazing and great to be a part of.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • RRC – what a Saturday morning routine! PS DM – I think you will find Gerda is actually based in Dubai at the moment, not JHB.

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