The Greatness Of Gerda Steyn
It’s hard to imagine what could be if Gerda Steyn got a chance to run the Comrades Marathon ‘Down’ run this year. Unfortunately, the race was cancelled for 2020 due to the Coronavirus outbreak; and 30-year-old Steyn was holed up in strict quarantine in Dubai, where she lives with her airline-pilot husband Duncan. Last year Steyn obliterated Russian Elena Nurgalieva’s ‘Up’-run record of 6:09.24, to finish 17th overall in 5:58.53 – a time that a few years back, many would have viewed as impossible.
She was a doubtful starter for this year’s race, as she was focusing on her Olympic marathon aspirations. But with the Games postponed to 2021, Steyn was hoping to still get a crack at the Big C this year. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. In between her high-rise stair workouts, indoor bike sessions and rare trips to the shops, RW ‘Zoomed’ Steyn for a catch-up.
What’s the lockdown like in Dubai?
The rules are strict here. You have to apply for a permit online every time you go to the shops or the pharmacy. Those are the only places you can go, and only one person from the household can go. So Duncan and I get to go out every second day. Today is my turn to ‘leave’ the apartment for a while.
How have you been managing to train?
I have an indoor bike, but not a treadmill. I also have the usual gym stuff.
It’s a bit mind-numbing, but I live in a 30-story apartment block and I’ve been using the stairs to train. Sometimes I pack weights in a backpack and hike up, other times I time-trial up. It’s a really tough workout.
I count my hours of training rather than the kind of training that I do. And I think I’m still managing to maintain my fitness, but not necessarily gaining any.
It must be tough not knowing when or where you’ll race again.
Yeah, true. Everything’s been cancelled. And the Olympics was obviously a big goal this year.
But as soon as I realised the Games were under threat of being postponed, I started to think I could run Comrades this year, but unfortunately that was cancelled recently.
You seem to have taken the opposite path to most top runners; you started out as an ultra runner, and then turned to the marathon.
Running a good marathon has always been on my mind, even though I started my career running ultras. Since I started running in 2014 I’ve run a marathon at the end of each year, and have always improved my personal best.
But if you’d asked me two or three years ago whether I would go to the Olympics, I would have said, “Only if they include a 100km race!”
It wasn’t something even in my frame, and I never honestly thought I could make it. But when I ran 2:27 last year in New York, I started to believe that maybe it was possible.
I’d only gone into that race trying to achieve my own personal goal of 2:29, and luckily it was in line with Olympic qualifying. So even though the Olympics were postponed, I feel very fortunate to have been included in the team.
I certainly don’t ever want to limit myself to ultra marathons. Comrades and Oceans are always there, but I probably see myself now more as a marathon runner, with the exception of those two races.
Tell us about your childhood and your schooldays.
I was born and brought up in Bothaville, in the Free State. I grew up on a farm that did all types of farming, from sheep to chickens and other agriculture. I had a very active childhood, living on a farm.
But I was certainly never a runner at school; and I tried all sorts of other sports, including hockey and netball.
Even when I went to the small Bothaville High School, I didn’t stand out in running. In fact, I didn’t even make the cross-country team, because I wasn’t fast enough.
It was only when I went to university in Bloemfontein that I started running a bit, with a friend. But it was only 5km, and very amateur. I even remember doing a 10km race once, and thinking how hard it was!
So when did running start to become more serious?
Only after I started working in Dubai, at the end of 2014. I’d taken a job as a quantity surveyor, and I decided to join a local running club to meet people.
There were a lot of South African ex-pats who went to Comrades each year, and I started training with them. And I started falling in love with the sport.
And then? Did you start to realise you had some talent?
I think Duncan realised way before I did!
In October 2014 we all decided to run the Dubai Marathon, and I finished in 3:11. When I started the run I didn’t know what pace to run, and Duncan just told me to run with one of the more experienced runners, who was aiming for 3:30. But after halfway I felt really good, and decided to push a bit harder. When everyone saw my time they were flabbergasted, they couldn’t believe it.
For me… I was so naive. I just thought that if you train, you improve; and that was the result. I didn’t realise the significance of the time I had run.
So you carried on to run your first Comrades Marathon in 2015? Not bad for a newbie.
Yes! I did a lot more distance running, and didn’t find it too difficult. I was aiming for a sub-9-hour finish, and I finished in 8:19.
But it was very, very hard. I could barely walk after the race, and my body was in total shock. I got a bit ill after the race, too.
But I recovered pretty quickly. I think I have a genetic advantage when it comes to recovery. Even when I think back to growing up… I never really got ill, had no childhood sicknesses, never broke any bones. In fact, I only got chickenpox last year.
I think it’s something that has really helped me be a good athlete.
So in 2015, you broke the three-hour mark for the marathon in Nice (2:59), and then started training with [former Comrades champion] Nick Bester for Comrades 2016?
Yes, I saw massive jumps in my performance. I was still working full-time, and doing two sessions a day. I didn’t have enough reason to leave my job; but there was something in me that knew I could improve if I went full-time as an athlete.
But it’s a very difficult decision; and I think that time was probably the toughest, balancing both. But it made me stronger.
In the build-up to Comrades, I took unpaid leave to go and train in Graskop for three weeks. I managed to finish 14th at Two Oceans and 14th in Comrades, in 7:08.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed, because I wanted to get into the top 10 at Comrades. I took more than an hour off my time though, so I shouldn’t have been.
2017 was probably your breakthrough year, finishing fourth at Comrades. Suddenly, everyone started taking notice.
Yes, Comrades in 2017 changed everything. I got a stress fracture in March, and couldn’t race Two Oceans. It really put me out of training, and I was 100% convinced I wouldn’t make it to Comrades.
I only started running again in April, and basically had a month to go from zero to being ready for Comrades. But I tried to maintain fitness and did a lot of cross-training, including the pool; and I did a lot of hiking in the Alps, where we have a house.
I ran a 32-kay a month before Comrades, and then phoned Nick to say I would run but had no idea how I would do. He then gave me a three-week crash-course training plan, including one more 42km and some track sessions.
We had nothing planned. I didn’t have fitness, but I did have freshness; and I just had a great day, finishing fourth (in 6:45). A lot of people say that fourth and 11th are the worst places to finish, but it meant the world to me. In the days after the race I could hardly sleep, I was so excited.
I started believing in myself. I started to think about what would happen if I did train well.
So in 2018, you had your first big win at Two Oceans; you officially arrived as SA’s next running star.
I ran the 2017 Valencia Marathon in 2:37, and felt that I could have gone quicker. I took a huge chunk off my personal best and had a big training block, and my confidence was up.
The last time I’d run Oceans, in 2016, I finished 14th, so only a few people tipped me as a winner. I trained on the route, and focused on improving my downhill running.
I had a race plan, and I knew that if I went over Constantia Nek in the lead, no one was going to catch me. And that’s exactly what happened. I took the lead up Constantia Nek, and I decided I wasn’t going to let anyone pass me after that.
It was the hardest 6km of my life.
I dug deeper than I’d ever done before. I was racing others, and not just myself. Winning was massive for me.
Obviously, you were a big favourite for Comrades in 2018; but you ended up second, behind Ann Ashworth. Were you disappointed?
My whole life was different after Oceans. I’ve never been exposed to so many interviews and engagements, and I had to keep on reminding myself to focus on training. When I look back, all the distractions weren’t great, and certainly affected my Comrades build-up.
We did a high-altitude training camp in Lesotho, and training went well. Nick and I had planned for a 6:15 finish, because we felt that might be the winning time. I had some stomach issues in the first half of the race and didn’t feel great, but they stopped in the second half.
In the end I did run 6:15, exactly what we had planned – but it wasn’t good enough for first.
But clearly all the training helped you in New York, where you ran that incredible 2:31 on event debut.
Lining up in New York was something very special. Being put in that environment, among the world’s best athletes, opens up a whole new world.
Sometimes, when I’m standing on that start line, I wonder how I got here. It’s very exciting and fresh. I think the novelty of doing all these things is still strong, especially since I only started running competitively when I was older.
Sometimes people from my old school ask me, “How did this happen?!” But they’re very happy for me, and proud of me. They even put a picture of me in the foyer of my old school! And they always love it when I come to visit.
And so to that incredible Comrades ‘Up’ run in 2019 – sub-6 hours, and a new record. Was it the perfect race?
I’m not sure I ran the perfect race, because then there’d be no room for improvement! But I did find myself in the perfect moment. It was incredible… you can’t top winning Comrades and breaking the record at the same time.
I wanted to win really badly. In the past, Comrades had always been about running my own race; but in 2019, I knew that I was going out to race and to win. I wanted to win so badly, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Nick and I both knew that we could run under the record, because I could see it during my training. And I knew that to be sure of a win, I would need a time close to six hours.
But we’d planned for me to run within myself in the first half, and just keep an eye on the pace. But I got to halfway in record time and already had the lead, with the hardest climbs already behind me. I got brilliant support from my seconding team with all my bottles and nutrition.
So I was in a good position, and not really feeling under pressure. Late in the race I started to catch a lot of the elite men. It wasn’t that I was chasing them; but they became goals, as I caught one after the other.
A couple of the men – when they knew I was coming up behind them – they went off the road, so no one would see me passing them! It was quite funny.
When I got to the top of Polly Shortts, I knew that I might be able to nip in under six hours.
Since that Comrades a lot of people are comparing you to the great Frith van der Merwe, who still has the ‘Down’ run record of 5:54.43 from 1989, when she finished 14th overall.
I actually got a really nice message from Frith at the finish line. She’d sent it via Sarel van der Walt, at Beeld. She told me how pleased she was for me, and that she felt that after 30 years, she could pass the mantle over to me.
Frith is my all-time hero. Not only because she broke the record and she’s a great runner, but also because of the way she ran. She always stayed the same humble person, and did it for the love of the sport.
You’ve achieved a huge amount in a relatively short running career. Looking at the next 10 years, what would you like to tick off?
There’s still a long list. I see myself running Comrades for as long as my body allows; but I also want to do an Ironman triathlon, and there are some amazing Alpine mountain races that I’d love to try. Events like UTMB, and the Jungfrau Marathon.
Any long-term plans for a family?
I think Duncan and I are open-minded. We love where we are right now, and will continue to enjoy it.