Gerda Steyn's emphatic victory in last week’s Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon over an international field of top-class distance athletes was a highlight in a day of absorbing ultra-distance racing and pointed to the emergence of another South African long distance running prodigy
South African senior titles in Cape Town’s most important ultra-marathon are rare moments. Before Caroline Wöstmann won in 2015, the last South African winner in the women’s competition was in 2001, when Gwen van Lingen took line honours.
But it was the manner of Steyn’s victory which particularly impressed. Her perfectly-planned race was executed to perfection, running from behind to take the lead from top Polish marathoner, Dominika Stelmach-Stawczyk, near the top of Constantia Nek, before racing clear in the final 10 kilometres to win by over two minutes in 3 hrs 39 min 31 sec.
Comparisons with former South African marathon greats are inevitable. Having grown up on a Free State farm outside Bothaville on the Vals River, Steyn shares a geographical kinship with former bare-foot sensation, Zola Budd. But her running history is more evocative of the legendary Frith van der Merwe, whose Two Oceans course record remains unsurpassed after 29 years.
Budd was a child prodigy, discovering her talent as a child and setting impressive times as a junior. Only much later in life, after retirement as an elite athlete, did Budd turn her attention to running Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons.
But like Van der Merwe and Wöstmann, who employed similar tactics as Steyn to win Two Oceans in 2016, Steyn started running well beyond junior years, with a view to running the Comrades. “My siblings love to do sports but I am not from a particularly athletic family,” explained Steyn. “It came as quite a shock to them when we realised that I had a talent for running.
“I’ve always enjoyed participating and have tried to do as much as possible, but it was only recently that I discovered I could run a long, long way. I never used to be competitive in athletics, but don’t regret discovering running now, as I am still fresh and excited about it!”
Steyn qualified as a quantity surveyor from Free State University and started her professional QS career in Dubai in 2014. There she made a decision that was to transform her life – she joined a local running club, immediately finding her niche and her future husband! Club member, UK-born Emirates Airline pilot, Duncan Ross, had previously run the Comrades and encouraged Steyn to enter the 2015 race.
“She took to the idea and just seven months later had won her first Comrades medal,” said Ross, now her fiancé. “She did surprisingly well for a novice runner, finishing 56th in 8 hrs 19 min, more than an hour faster than my time!
“Back in Dubai, Gerda was more passionate about her running than ever, focusing on improving her performance the following year. And she told me early on that one day she would win Comrades! “
A year later Steyn returned to the Comrades, this time on the down run, where she excelled to finish 14th in 7:08:23, less than two years after the start of her running career. Steyn has moved back to Johannesburg, but spends several months based in a mountain village in the French Alps, where she was able to train on both mountain trails and roads.
Steyn’s dreams of a top ten position for the 2017 Comrades appeared to have evaporated when a stress fracture was diagnosed months before the race. “I did virtually no running in the months before to Comrades,” admitted Steyn. “I could only do non-impact exercises, including pool jogging, and started last year’s Comrades after just two training runs over 30km and 40km!”
Amazingly Steyn achieved her goal, placing 4th in 6:45:45, giving notice of more to come, before preparing for the Valencia Marathon in Spain in December.
She improved her best marathon time by 14 minutes to 2:37:22. Six weeks later Steyn clocked an impressive 34:35 in a 10km race in Dubai, underlining her ability to run fast in addition to far, before earning her biggest pay-cheque of R250 000 at Two Oceans.
The future looks bright for Steyn. “I would like to improve my personal records over shorter-distances – from 5km to 42.2 – and then carry that over to ultra distances,” said Steyn. “I am focusing primarily on road running but I also mix my training up on trails and incorporate a lot of cross-training to maintain all-round strength.”
Based in the European summer months near Chamonix, the venue for the world’s biggest trail race, the 170km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, Steyn’s participation in that event appears inevitable.
“It is in my head,” admitted Steyn. “But I must first fulfil my goals on the road. I might race shorter distance trails, however, and I’m hoping to race the Sierre Zinal 31km in Valais, Switzerland in August.”