She’s only been running for three years and has improved from 56th position at her first Comrades Marathon to 4th position at this year’s race. A couple of weeks ago she surprised everyone when she placed 2nd at a gruelling trail race in the French Alps. Meet Gerda Steyn, a sure force to be reckoned with in future.
If anyone would have told her four years ago that she would finish amongst the top ten ladies at the Comrades Marathon, and that she would be signed up as an elite athlete, Gerda would have burst out laughing. Because this is a girl who enjoyed sport at school, but never really excelled at it. In later years she jogged a couple of 10km runs with friends, but usually only because she wanted to shake off a hangover. Then two things happened, Gerda moved to Dubai, and she met Nick Bester, National Manager of the Nedbank Running Clubs, and so her amazing running journey started.
In the last couple of months the relatively unknown name of Gerda Steyn kept on popping up. Firstly, when she crossed the finish line in 4th position at this year’s Comrades, not only surprising herself, but her coach and spectators alike. Then, a couple of weeks ago, she placed second at a very tough and demanding trail race at an altitude of 2700m in the French Alps. Not bad for someone who never ran.
Gerda grew up on a farm and like many South Africans she watched the Comrades Marathon on TV with her family. “It wasn’t as much the winners who inspired me the most, but rather the size of the field. I was convinced if all those thousands of South Africans could do it, I could too.” And though Comrades fascinated her year after year, she never ran consistently or even joined a running club.
Moving to Dubai
As a qualified Quantity Surveyor, Gerda got the opportunity to work in Dubai. There she joined a running club, purely to make new friends and stay fit. “At first I couldn’t keep up, but I had to run faster to keep up with the guy I liked,” says Gerda. Shortly after she was persuaded to enter a marathon, and that’s when she started realizing her talent. “I finished the marathon ahead of all my running friends and it was then that I knew I could do so much more.”
A group of runners from Dubai entered the 2015 Comrades Marathon and being South African, Gerda was in a way obliged to enter too. “I had to learn how to run a long, long way in a short time, but I discovered that I have a much better endurance engine than I ever thought.” She lined up for Comrades with a combination of every emotion possible, and finished in 08:19, placing 56th amongst the ladies.
Meeting the right people
Gerda met Nick Bester and Bruce Fordyce while asking for their autographs, just before she ran Comrades. Nick said if Gerda ever ran a sub-3-hour marathon she should give him a call. With only one marathon in her legs and most of her training done on a treadmill over the summer months in Dubai, a very determined Gerda lined up at the Nice Marathon, where she made the cut and clocked 02:59.
“I phoned Nick the next day and since then I became part of the Nedbank Running Club’s Elite team. I ran the 2016 Two Oceans Marathon as a Nedbank athlete and felt like the tortoise amongst the hares, but now I realize that it is all part of the learning curve.” Nick started coaching Gerda, which made a huge difference to her running. “My speed improved rapidly and I realized the importance of recovery.”
The coached training paid off and at her second Comrades Marathon in 2016 she finished in 07:08, placing 14th. “I was pleased but thought that I should have run a better time as I was still fairly fresh at the finish. I knew that if I wanted to compete for the top spots I would need to make changes to my work life.” So Gerda resigned from her job in Dubai to focus purely on running. “If I don’t pursue my running goals now I would just regret it later in life,” says Gerda.
Gerda had a tough build-up to Comrades 2017, having picked up a stress fracture in February. She spent 8 weeks without running, but tried to keep her fitness up with Aqua jogging and Spinning. “It was a very tough time to keep mentally strong. I had to believe in something that sounded impossible even to myself. The only long runs I did leading up to Comrades were two 30km and one 40km two weeks before the race. I was amazed to find that my fitness had not gone. In fact, my heart rate data indicated that I was in better shape than ever.”
On Comrades day she felt relaxed, as there was no pressure to perform. After the halfway mark in Drummond she started overtaking a lot of runners, but it was only with 8km to go that she overtook Switzerland’s Jasmin Nunige and hung on to fourth place. “I ended up running a negative split in a time of 06:45. In all honesty it was the first time I have ever seen my coach surprised with my performance. I was just as surprised as I would have taken another stress fracture for tenth place.”
Gerda spends more time cross-training than she spends running. “This is mostly because I am still trying to build up my cardiovascular system. Running puts a lot of strain on the body and cross-training helps prevent those dreaded injuries.” Gerda is lucky enough to split her time between South Africa and the French Alps. With an Emirates airline pilot as a boyfriend they get to travel the world and train where she feels is best at the time.
When in South Africa she focuses more on road running and speed workouts whereas in France she uses the environment as her training playground. “Trail running in the French Alps is like nothing else. It is completely safe to go out at any time of day for as long as I want to. Trail running strengthens different muscles and causes less impact on my legs.”
Gerda is known for her mental toughness and her tough tempo runs, which she runs at threshold pace for 60-90 minutes. “This is something that my coach was well-known for and it seems to have worked for him. Sessions like these are important both mentally and physically as it teaches you to keep going when it gets really hard. I do however make sure that I recover properly and often incorporate other forms of training such as cycling and steep mountain hiking.”
Gerda believes that Nick and her Nedbank sponsorship have helped shaped her into the runner she is today. “Nick has achieved so much in his own athletic career. He knows what it takes to be a winner. Being part of the Nedbank Green Dream Team has been the biggest asset to my career.”
Gerda, who will be lining up at the Valencia Marathon in November, is now working towards improving her 10km time and then her marathon personal best. She believes she can improve even more at the 2018 Comrades Marathon. Her biggest dream is to win Comrades. “I know where I currently am in my running career and I don’t expect for this to become an overnight reality, but that is what I will work towards. I have other interim goals that will break the dream up in smaller portions and I know that these milestones will have to be reached first.”
Gerda is clearly a young woman who loves running and life; she is rarely seen without a smile on her face when on the road. “There is sometimes a lot of agony behind that smile. I do however try to enjoy every moment and gain a lot of energy from crowd support. Running is so much more than one foot in front of the other. It changes you in so many ways and it becomes a part of who you are. It encourages you to be a better person, to look after your body and be the best you can possibly be. It pushes you to your very limits, but rewards you with a feeling of satisfaction that you can’t find anywhere else. There is always something new to learn and someone new who inspires you. It strips you down to your core and brings out the fighter in you. Running is the purest form of life and I hope to be a runner until the day I die.”
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