Sunday 9 June 2019 will always be a day that Nedbank running club athlete Gerda Steyn will never forget. Not only did she win her first Comrades Marathon, but also smashed Elena Nurgalieva’s 2006 course record of 6:09:24 by becoming the first woman in the history of the race to run the up run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg under 6 hours with a time of 5:58:53.
After narrowly missing out on Frith Van der Merwe’s Two Oceans course record back in April, there was lots of talk of the ladies’ course record falling at Comrades this year, however many also pointed out that Steyn had run too hard at the Two Oceans race, spoiling her chance for victory at Comrades. “I know so many people were saying that I ruined my chances for Comrades but truthfully I still ran within myself and I knew deep down I hadn’t done any damage for Comrades,” said the always smiling Steyn.
Starting off in perfect conditions, last year’s down run winner Ann Ashworth took the race out as she crested the top of the hill through Sherwood, 8km into the race, 15 secs ahead of Nedbank’s defending up run champion Camille Herron with Steyn at this stage another 30 sec back. Going through Pinetown and beginning the climb up Fields Hill, Steyn moved into 2nd as Herron started to show a few difficulties. It was in Kloof, 2 hours and 10 minutes into the race where Steyn caught and passed Ashworth. It was still early days, yet Steyn found herself in the lead. “Last year I spent too much time listening to my watch and heart rates and I feel it messed my run up so this year it was all about running to how I felt and not what the watch was saying.”
Going through halfway, Steyn crossed over the mat in 3:02:13, which indicated that a course record was on. Behind her, Nedbank athletes Caitriona Jennings and Dominika Stelmach who were both running their debut Comrades came through the halfway mark in 4th and 5th, already 3 minutes down on Sten. Herron by now had dropped back to 6th and shortly after would unfortunately pull out, ending her chances of defending her up run title.
Through Camperdown and the 57km mark, Steyn started to increase her pace and was still looking very fresh. Jennings by now had moved into 2nd but now was 4mins back. The question on everyone’s minds now was not whether Steyn could hold on to win, but by how far she could smash the record as with every passing km, she was getting faster and faster, at some stages running 5:45 Comrades pace and starting to pass many of the elite males.
As she crested the top of Polly Shorts, it was evident that we were about to witness history as the projected finish time showed a sub 6-hour clocking. By now Steyn had worked her way up to 22nd overall in the field and was knocking on the door of the top 20 as she powered her way to Scottsville. With her hands in the air and that famous smile, Steyn crossed the line in an out of this world 5:58:53 and an amazing 17th position overall. “I am over the moon! I came here with a goal to win and I visualized it from the very beginning.” When asked what her goals would now be after whispers of this being her last Comrades before she attempts to run a faster marathon and a possible Tokyo Olympics next year, Steyn smiled. “After today I’m definitely going to have to rethink it all. I owe so much to this race and it’s been a dream come true today.”
Behind Steyn, Jennings held on for a brilliant 3rd place finish on her debut. The Irish Olympian showed signs of a clear struggle a long way out from home but gritted her teeth to finish on the podium. Stelmach hung on for 5th place with another debut athlete Catrin Jones from Canada finishing 9th in 6:52:44 to give the Nedbank team 4 ladies in the top 10.