When Gerda Steyn crossed the line last month becoming the first woman to run the Comrades Marathon up run in under 6 hours, the first person she embraced was Nick Bester. Not only was Bester the national manager of the Nedbank running club, the team that Steyn runs for, but her coach of now 3 years.
“We met in 2015 at the Comrades marathon two days prior the event at an IAU function and immediately I liked this farm girl,” recalls Bester of his first impression of Steyn. “She asked me if I could help her with her running but I told her that she must break 3 hours in the marathon first and then we could talk.”
It was not long after that that Steyn contacted Bester after breaking 3 hours with 5 seconds to spare with her 2:59:55 at the Cannes Marathon. From there, Bester started to coach her on a day to day basis, first by building on her speed for a faster 10km and introducing her to cross training, something Bester swore on and also which took him to multiple Comrades gold medals and a win in 1991.
In their first year, Steyn finished 14th in both the Two Oceans and Comrades Marathons and then took a whopping 8 minutes off her marathon best to run 2:51:31 in Dublin. Bester saw the immense potential in Steyn and the duo targeted gold in both Two Oceans and Comrades for the first half of the following year.
“She was getting into amazing shape but unfortunately picked up a stress fracture in training for Oceans which was mainly my fault,” recalls Bester. “It was on a fartlek session linked to high pulse on the acceleration parts and she did it on a very undulating route so some of the hard parts were done on very steep downhill’s resulting in her hammering the ground too long on what was already a tough mileage week.”
Steyn had to sit that Oceans out but followed strict rehab and cross training and was then followed by a 5-week crash course through to Comrades to try and salvage some of the hard work that was already done. The result saw Steyn crossing the line in Pietermaritzburg in an outstanding 4th position. One can only imagine what Steyn could have done had the stress fracture not occurred. It was then back to the speed work and Steyn once again sliced another 14 minutes off her marathon best running a 2:37 in Valencia.
2018 came and the plan was to be the same as 2017, minus the stress fracture, and shifting the goal posts considerably. “We were now not talking about top 10, but were looking at winning.” And winning it started with Steyn taking victory in the Two Oceans Marathon convincingly. “After that race, we planned for a 6:15 Comrades which we felt was good enough to win the race, even on the longer course.” And run 6:15 is exactly what Steyn did, although she finished 5 minutes behind Ann Ashworth who had a storming run to take victory.
As with 2017, Steyn and Bester then went back to the drawing board in order to step down and focus on speed to run another marathon. With her victory from Two Oceans, Steyn was afforded the opportunity to run the New York City Marathon, one of the 6 World Marathon majors. Not a fast course, Steyn paced herself evenly and actually sped up in the tougher last section of the course through the hilly Central park to once again obliterate her marathon personal best to run 2:31.
It seemed that every time Steyn put on her running shoes, the personal bests were being knocked off one by one. Two Oceans and Comrades were only 7 weeks apart in 2019 and Bester was not too keen on Steyn running as the main goal was to win Comrades. “We then came up with a program where she did 80% of her Comrades training before Oceans as there was too little time to recover from Oceans as well as taper for Comrades.”
Steyn ended up not only defending her title but also coming with a minute of Frith Van der Merwe’s course record. “If it was not for the Two Oceans changing the route the day before the race, she would have totally obliterated that record.” Many of the top athletics pundits in the Country estimated the route change adding around 4 minutes to the elite runners finishing times than the normal route.
For Comrades 7 weeks later, it was not a case of Steyn just going for the win, but also to make history. “We knew all along the year that Gerda can break the course record so that’s what we planned for. She was to run the first half totally on feel, without looking at her watch and splits to reserve her glycogen that the body uses to run fast and keep her pulse below 160.”
Steyn found herself moving into the lead just after the 30km mark, and the plan for Steyn was to go through the halfway mark in 3:03. Without looking at her watch and running totally to feel, Steyn passed halfway in 3:02 and looked as if she had just started, with her well known smile never off her face. The rest is now history as Steyn got faster and faster over the 2nd half, resulting in her finishing in an amazing 17th overall position and crossing the line in 5:58:53.
Before the race there was talk of this being Steyn’s last Comrades for a few years, as she would look to improve on her marathon time and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. “Her desire and common sense will determine what she will do going forward and not what the rest of the World wants her to do.” With a system that has proved fruitful in both ultras as well as the marathon distance, there is no reason why Steyn cant continue to do as she has and still make the Olympic team for next year.
Whilst others are churning out super high mileage running weeks, Steyn is the complete opposite. With a program that consists of low mileage, her highest week was 140km, cross training, massage, correct nutrition and gym, Steyn is always a lot fresher and recovers much faster. “Her typical week is not so much a secret but it is not to be discussed. It is very similar to what I followed for my 9 Comrades gold’s.”
The winning recipe one can clearly see is that Bester believes in her and the feeling is mutual from Steyn, which equals to success. “We will always make a list of all the positive things before a race and eliminate the negative. We also keep it simple and won’t be doing scientific tests to measure her VO2 max and things like that because we believe that will put a limitation to her career.”
Being a coach is a very demanding position and one that Bester does not take lightly. “Athletes normally don’t listen and will always deviate from the program without telling you and then they get injured. Gerda is the complete opposite and she is committed 100% and is an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Currently there are no limitations as to what Steyn can achieve, and with Bester in her corner, continues to get faster and stronger. A wise man would not bet against Steyn defending her titles next year as well as donning the green and gold in Tokyo 2020. As Bester had already said, there is no limit to what she can do.