Gerda Steyn hints at a Comrades Down Run record bid

Gerda Steyn, winner of the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town this year in a record time of 3:29:42. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

South Africa’s long-distance phenomenon Gerda Steyn opted out of the World Championships after a hectic year and a plethora of records broken. But a big target is still out there.

When Gerda Steyn recently became the first runner in 23 years to win three successive Two Oceans Marathons, she came into possession of three records unheard of for a conventional distance athlete.

By breaking Frith van der Merwe’s 33-year-old time, Steyn added the 56km Two Oceans Marathon (3:29.42) to her existing records for the South African marathon (2:25.28) and the Comrades Up Run (5:58.53).

While not quite like-for-like with Wayde van Niekerk’s sub-10, 20 and 44 second range for the 100m, 200m and 400m, respectively, Steyn holding three records, from 42km to 90km, is similarly implausible.

And she has unfinished business with the standard marathon record: she wants a crack at it in more forgiving weather than the cold and wet conditions in which she broke it last year in Siena, Italy.

There was a time in distance running when once you went ultra you never went back. Steyn, 32, has rewritten that rule by switching back and forth between ultras and standard marathons. Typical of her no-nonsense approach, she is not sure what the fuss is about.

“I think it’s more often a case of athletes only turning to the ultra marathons at a later stage in their careers, when they feel that perhaps they have already reached their limit on the marathon,” she explains.

“My story’s upside down. I only discovered my love for running and saw I might be talented at it at 24. I started training with a group who all ran the Comrades Marathon, so I ended up running the Comrades within a year of starting running.

“It was only when I discovered that to improve your longer distance running you had to improve your faster, short runs, I worked my way back to the marathon, to the point where I realised I could qualify for the Olympics.

“To be honest I see myself as a marathon runner — that is the sweet spot and where my talent lies.”

Speed and consistency

But Steyn — who famously trained by going up and down the stairs of her 30-storey block of flats in Dubai during lockdown in 2020 — says there is nothing sweet about where her record-breaking performances are coming from.

“Having a talent or natural athletic ability is a gift but many people live their entire lives without ever exploring that talent — or knowing about it — and never pursuing it. To be successful in running, you need much more than talent. A lot of hard work goes far beyond where talent can get you.”

Despite her shortest event being less than half as long as her longest, Steyn says her training doesn’t vary as much as one would imagine: “My workouts don’t differ hugely from marathon to ultra marathon, but it’s very different to preparing for 10km or half-marathons.

“I always incorporate a lot of speed workouts, even when I am preparing for an ultra marathon. Yes, the long runs are shorter when I train for the marathon but the speed sessions, which are more intense and longer, make up for that.”

Steyn admits there might be legs to the theory that her being one of distance running’s famous late bloomers may have helped her to defy the laws of distance running.

“I have wondered if my late start may have caused me to miss out on experiences like track or cross country, but I believe the benefits outweigh the losses. I am able to compete on fairly ‘new’ legs in my 30s because of that.”

No to World Championships

Despite nailing her colours to the classical marathoner mast, Steyn can’t choose between her disciplines: “I love being able to compete in the marathon and I’ve had some unbelievably special experiences at competitive marathons, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.

“On the other hand, Comrades and Two Oceans are very close to my heart and I have these races to thank, not only for making me realise how much I love running, but also for opening many doors for me to get invited to international marathons.

“I think it’s important as an athlete to also do what you are passionate about. My passion lies in finding that perfect line in competing in both, so I intend to do this for as long as I can!”

An example: after deciding to skip the World Athletics Championship marathon in Oregon in July, she has kept her options open for her last race in 2022.

“I’ve decided I’ll only compete in one more long-distance event this year. Last year was very busy with three marathons in six months [Siena, Tokyo Olympics and the Cape Town Marathon], so I want to dial back and allow myself longer training blocks to ensure that I can perform at my best.

“I’ve decided not to compete at the World Championships, but plans after that are still undecided.”

That sounds a bit like she is giving herself time to either break the remaining record in the set — the Comrades Down Run in August — or finding a standard marathon with weather that will allow her to improve her current national mark.

The fact that Steyn volunteers the information that the current Comrades Down Run course is a kilometre longer than it was when Van der Merwe set her famous mark of 5:54.43 suggests she might be thinking long and hard about it.

Van der Merwe set that mark in the year she broke the Two Oceans record Steyn has just improved upon. What are the chances? DM

This interview was courtesy of Adidas’s Run for the Oceans Challenge, a campaign to remove plastic waste from the oceans.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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