With her trademark wide smile and long blonde hair she had the whole of South Africa at her feet when she crossed the finish line as winner of the 2018 Two Oceans Marathon. Now the time has come to take on the biggest race of them all, the Comrades Marathon. There is no doubt that Gerda Steyn has what it takes.
There are few long distance runners who look as content as Steyn does when running. It truly seems as if she finds the greatest pleasure in each step she takes. With her relaxed style of running and meteoric rise over the last four years, Steyn has – at the tender age of 28 - truly made her mark on the women’s long distance field in South Africa.
Known for her strong work ethic, a mental attitude second to none and a very high pain threshold Steyn’s chances of winning this year’s race is high. But with that of course comes pressure, something it seems Steyn is also handling in her stride.
Steyn, who trains under the experienced and watchful eye of Nick Bester, National Manager of the Nedbank Running Club (NRC) and himself a former Comrades winner, has recently proved that her training for the Big C is on track. Much like the legendary 9 times Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce, Steyn has gradually improved year after year. At her very first Comrades in 2015 she finished 56th in a time of 8:19. A year later she improved to 14th position in 7:08. Last year - after having battled an injury - she only decided three weeks before to go ahead and run Comrades. Just as well. She took 4th place in 6:45. And that’s when all eyes started turning to SA’s newest running sensation.
Many are predicting she has what it takes to beat one of the strongest women’s fields in years. Looking at her recent performances she is definitely on track. Just as Fordyce tested his speed over shorter 10km races in the 2-3 weeks leading up to Comrades, so has Steyn. She recently clocked a 35:38 at the RAC 10km in Randburg before clocking another 35:26 at another 10km race in Pretoria. All great indications that come 10 June, this girl is going to shine.
Life after Two Oceans
Winning the Two Oceans Marathon was a dream come true, says Steyn. Though she went into the race as one of the favourites, her performance still stunned her competitors and spectators when just on the 3-hour mark she passed Poland’s Dominika Stelmach. Steyn calmly exchanged a few words before leading all the way home, never looking back even once. Even this performance reminded of Fordyce who back in the days shook the hands of his competitors before passing them with ease, also never looking back.
After Oceans celebrations were plenty, but Steyn soon said she was ready to get back to her routine and focus on the Ultimate Human Race. “A top priority for me after Oceans was to make sure that my body recovered well. I raced hard and that takes a lot out of your system, both physically and mentally.” Steyn feels she had a long enough break after Oceans and started her serious Comrades preparation on relatively fresh legs. Her training up to now has been faultless and she describes her build up as “going really well”.
Training for the Big One
A very important part of her training entailed a training camp in Graskop, Mpumalanga, followed by another one in Lesotho where the altitude is over 3000m above sea level. “I believe it has been a superb addition to my preparation as well as a lot of fun. Duncan (Steyn’s fiancé) and I stayed at Afriski Mountain Resort in Lesotho. We did plenty of hiking and were lucky to have the last bit of the sunny weather during the time that we were there. “It has been a great two months and I can’t wait to line up next Sunday”.
A different mindset
Steyn is known for her slight diversion from the traditional very high mileage followed by most long distance athletes. “My training consists of all different types of exercises. I follow a strict running program but love to mix it up with other types of training. It had worked for me for Two Oceans and therefore I decided to stick to that.”
She believes that cross training is often worth more than just trying to run as many kilometres as possible. “Being still fairly new to running I think it is important to make sure my body gets strong enough to handle the big increase in mileage, and therefore I try to do as much cross training as possible. It works and most important, it’s a lot of fun.”
The hardest part of her training program up to now has been tapering! And the most enjoyable? Having her pilot fiancé Duncan Ross by her side every step of the way. “Duncan took some time off at work for my entire Comrades preparation. It has been a real treat to be able to share every training session with him. Most of the time he either ran with me, otherwise he supported on the bike.”
She has placed a lot of emphasis on speed as she sees this as area to improve on. “Comrades is a fast race and it is very important to keep your legs sharp, even though it is an ultra. I feel like strength and endurance come more natural for me but speed is where I have lots of room for improvement. Nick has helped in making sure that I keep doing speed training to achieve the optimal speed/endurance combination for race day.”
With fame inevitably comes pressure
Steyn knows too well that much is expected from her come 10 June, but says having won Two Oceans this year actually has taken some pressure off her. “I thought after winning Two Oceans this year that the pressure will be much higher, but to be honest I feel that a lot of pressure has now actually been taken off me because of my win at Oceans. I have had an amazing year and doing well at Comrades would be an incredible addition to 2018.”
Handling pressure is what elite athletes do, and Steyn believes mental strength is something you either possess or you don’t. “To compete in ultra marathons in particular takes a specific mind set, and just like having a running talent, one needs to constantly practice it. I do a lot of visualization during training but when I am resting I feel better not to overthink everything. I try to keep a healthy balance between running as a career and living an enjoyable lifestyle without any pressure.”
The big day
There is so much she is looking forward to come Comrades day. “Training for Comrades plays a huge part in any runner’s daily life. We have to make a lot of sacrifices and often our entire families have to fall in according to our training times etc. But on June 10th we get to run 90km in celebration of all the hard work that went into this and that’s what I look forward to the most!”
She is very comfortable with the route and has spent a lot of time studying and memorizing the course profile. “I would definitely recommend this to everyone, no matter how many times you have completed the race.” Her favourite part of the course is when the sun rises as runners start descending Polly Shortts. “The new finish this year will go past Kingsmead Stadium and I think that this might mentally be very challenging, but luckily by then you can almost hear the spectators at the finish line!”
And just like everybody else elites also go through tough spots and need to motivate themselves to keep going, says Steyn. She does so by thinking of all the positive things during training and just in general.
“I also remember how much effort went in to reaching the start line and I tell myself that I better make sure it was worth it!”
Her strongest attributes when it comes to running is definitely having a high pain threshold and being able to pace herself well during races.
Steyn, who comes from a close-knit family, has a supporter’s base second to none. Apart from thousands of runners who adore and admire her, her family and friends have been with her every step of the way. “I am very fortunate to have support from a lot of people. As I’ve mentioned before, Duncan was able to share the entire build up with me and he was also the first person to spot my running talent three years ago. Nick Bester has been guiding and coaching me and I feel extremely privileged to have someone of his calibre believing in me and not giving up on me. My family and friends are also very supportive and I have to say I am humbled by all the support I have received from so many South Africans since taking the Two Oceans victory.”
Her family will be out on the route cheering her on. In fact her parents have been supporting her on the route every year. “It is very special to see them occasionally on the way to Durban and especially knowing that they are waiting for me at the finish.”
This year’s women’s field has been dubbed as one of the most competitive ever. It would therefore be an incredible year for Steyn to take the win. She has great respect for her competitors and says there are so many who are in tiptop condition. “Charné Bosman is in excellent shape as well as Camille Herron. It is very exciting to see so many South African ladies going for gold and I think that we are in a fascinating era of women’s running in our country. Tanith Maxwell will be lining up for her first Comrades and Ann Ashworth ran a very good time at Two Oceans. There will be multiple other gold medallists such as Stephanie Smith, Sarah Bard, Alexandra Morozova, just to name a few. We have to remember that Comrades is arguably the most competitive ultra race in the world and that’s one of the things that make it great!”
She believes this year’s winning time will be fast and that both local and international competition will be strong. “However, I do believe that I have a chance of winning if everything goes well on the day, but like I said - it would be an incredible addition to an already successful year.”
After Comrades Steyn plans to spend some time in SA before returning with to Europe with her fiancé. It is difficult to focus on anything but Comrades right now, but Steyn does let slip that she has been invited to run in a very exciting international city marathon later this year. “I am not allowed to announce anything until they do so. The marathon is something that I would really like to test myself in and it is incredibly exciting for me.”
A message to her fellow Comrades runners
Steyn has the following message for her fellow Comrades runners:
“Remember that you have worked hard to get to the start. Now it’s time to celebrate your hard work by getting to the finish line. Best of luck, and remember to enjoy every moment of your race because we are part of something very special!”