RACE OF RECORDS
Steyn and Dijana highlight a brilliant day of road running and spirit at Comrades
The Comrades Marathon ended on Sunday with beaming smiles and a history rewritten.
On a perfectly sunny winter’s day in KwaZulu-Natal, Gerda Steyn and Tete Dijana wrote themselves into Comrades Marathon folklore as they won their second titles – consecutive in Dijana’s case – while thrashing the fastest times for the Down Run in the process.
Dijana didn’t have it easy though. After a fast start to the race, he bided his time and only broke away from the leading pack with 15km to go to the finish line at Kingsmead Cricket Stadium.
“It was hard because the race was too fast … the first half was very fast,” Dijana said.
“I just decided to stay behind the guys. Later on, I decided to push it and it worked out.”
And once he arrived at the world-renowned cricket stadium and was handed a red rose by one of Durban’s favourite sporting sons, Shaun Pollock, Dijana could be excused for thinking he was home and dry.
But a young, lanky Dutchman named Piet Wiersma had other ideas. Despite having run a good portion of the 87.7km route, Wiersma found a second wind and forced the reigning champion to look over his shoulder every few steps towards breaking the black and gold Comrades Marathon banner at the finish line.
“It’s mixed feelings right now,” Wiersma said after the race.
“If I’m honest, I mostly feel a bit disappointed. It could have been more, maybe if I started speeding up a bit sooner. But, at the same time, Tete was very strong physically and mentally so he also could have seen me coming and sped up.
“We don’t know what would have happened.
“If the race was another kilometre long, I probably would have stepped on it later, so I don’t think it would have made a difference.”
Nonetheless, Dijana crossed the finish line with a broad smile on his face and R1.2-million richer — R500,000 for finishing first, R500,000 for breaking the Down Run record time and R200,000 for being the first South African to finish.
“I didn’t want to break [the record] too much because next year I want to break it again but my friend [Piet] was pushing me,” Dijana said after completing the Comrades in 5:14.01, smashing David Gatebe’s 5:18:19 set in 2016.
“It was only in the last 5km that I started thinking about the record.”
Steyn, meanwhile, thrashed the women’s race time by nearly 10 minutes after finishing in 5:44.54, smashing Frith van der Merwe’s Down Time run of 5:54:43, a record that’s stood since 1989.
“I woke up feeling good. I’ve been dreaming about this day for such a long time,” Steyn said.
“I woke up knowing that I had done the training and the weather was beautiful. I felt like it was all lined up for a good time.
“Still, I didn’t want to talk about the record too much. I didn’t want it to faze me or distract me from my main goal of winning the race. The Comrades is long, and you can’t think about these times.
“I wanted to produce the best result that I could as an athlete, and that was the record today. It went according to plan.”
With around 200m to go before the finish line, Steyn pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head and broke out her trademark ear-to-ear smile as she embraced the roaring crowd who recognised they were witnessing one of South Africa’s great athletes creating history.
Steyn now has the Comrades Marathon Up Run fastest time, which she snatched in 2019, as well as the Down Run fastest time. That’s in addition to breaking her own record in the Two Oceans Marathon back in April.
Comrades is ‘magic’
She is undoubtedly one of the top runners South Africa has produced. But the modest 33-year-old still shyly asked race officials if she could re-cross the finish line in order to thank fans who had made posters and signs for her.
“I can’t put what the support means into words,” Steyn said.
“It felt today like I had the entire country screaming my name from start to finish. I can’t describe how that made me feel.
“I wanted to run well today – not just for me – but for everyone who was watching or who was perhaps being inspired by this.
“I want people to see that running is just awesome and the fact that we’ve got Comrades here in our country is magic. I run in that way to acknowledge the crowds and I want to inspire them.”
South Africa’s problems are plentiful, but in moments like today, when the biggest ultramarathon in the world is run flawlessly and with massive smiles from a broad range of supporters and athletes, it serves as a little reminder of the spirit that endures. DM