Irvette van Zyl keeps fighting for Olympic marathon success
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CAPE TOWN - RUNNERS are often seen on the road listening to music playing through earphones, but for Irvette van Zyl, that’s not the case.
She believes it is dangerous to do so, and an accident in 2011 made her even more aware of training on the road.
“I don’t listen to music while running. It is dangerous. I was once hit by a car in 2011! He tried to overtake another car and hit me from behind. Luckily he didn’t drag me – I just fell over like a tree,” Van Zyl told Independent Media.
“I just had concussion, and didn’t break anything as I was wearing long-sleeve clothing. A few scratches and concussion, and a deep cut on my forehead – when I hit the road. Luckily it wasn’t too serious and I didn’t need to go to hospital.”
She dusted herself off from that incident, just like she did in Grade 11 following a scooter accident, to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics in the marathon, having been a top-class 10km and half-marathon runner for most of her career up to that point.
Van Zyl made it to the 2016 Rio Olympics as well, and is now about to participate in her third Games in Japan . The women’s marathon will take place on Saturday morning (Friday midnight SA time) in Sapporo, some 830km away from Tokyo, due to supposed cooler weather conditions in the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
It has been extremely hot and humid thus week for the race walking events, though.
But the mere fact that the 34-year-old Van Zyl is back for more is reason enough to celebrate her fighting spirit. She had a tough time at London 2012 – where she was unable to finish – and Rio 2016, where she didn’t make it to the starting line.
“We did these recovery runs on gravel, which was a bit slippery, and I had never run on gravel as I always run on the road. So the Achilles (niggle she had) got worse as you slip more on gravel, and there is more friction on your Achilles,” Van Zyl said about the London experience.
“I thought I was fine, but when we got going that day (of the race), it was so cold and it was raining, and the Achilles just decided that it was not going to work with me. The further I ran, the worse it became. I just couldn’t put my foot down, and I decided to pull off and pull out.
“It was a very emotional day, and you feel so disappointed…You are just gutted, as all the training was now basically for nothing.”
She married LJ van Zyl, the 400m hurdles star, soon after that. LJ also took part in three Olympics. He finished fifth in the 2008 Beijing final, didn’t get through the heats in London in 2012, and made the semi-finals in Rio in 2016.
Irvette van Zyl worked hard to get ready for Rio again, saying she was on a mission to make up for London 2012.
“I was so driven to do better and make up for what happened in 2012… But you sleep less. You’ve just become a mother, and maybe put too much pressure on myself. You don’t recover as well as you should, and you try to train too hard and get more out of your body,” she said.
“It became so bad that I got a stress fracture in my foot. I could still run, but in some way with all the travel, my foot started to swell and the pressure got worse in my foot.
“When I got to Rio, I felt that I couldn’t even put my foot down again. I went for a scan and they told me it was a stress fracture.
“So, because I wanted to just fly in and run the race, there wasn’t enough time to recover from the stress fracture before the race.
“I didn’t even see LJ running. I was there on Thursday, and on Saturday I was on my way home again. It just ended in such a nightmare.”
So, how will the Tokyo Olympics be different? Well, she is in the form of her life at the moment. Van Zyl set a new personal best of 2:28.40 in Siena, Italy in April to qualify for the Olympics – with Gerda Steyn setting a new South African record of 2:25.28 at the same event.
Van Zyl followed that up with an outstanding effort in Gqeberha in May by breaking the 50km world record with a time of 3:04.23, which still has to be ratified.
And this time, her training has gone much smoother than before the previous two Olympics.
“I made a change in coaching and started training with Nick Bester. He understands better about how to recover – I’m not saying the other coaches don’t understand. I’m just saying that I must be managed differently to other athletes,” Van Zyl said.
“It’s more of a controlled environment, and you recover sufficiently to be able to run again. It’s been a big factor in how my running has improved. I don’t run on my reserves anymore – there is always petrol in the tank.
“I am sharper now than I was even before the Italy race, and I am so excited about this year. I know in my mind that I will have a better Olympic Games this year.
“I definitely think a tactical race will help us. And the more difficult conditions, the more tactical it will be.
“I also think Gerda’s whole vibe while running will be positive, and I’m not saying that I am not positive. But she just… she has something special, and she is my lucky charm. She is as tough as they come, and if I can work with her and just hold on with her as long as possible, then I will run well.
“With us being on the same programme, it gives me a lot of hope because if I just do what I must do, then I will also finish quicker.”