/ 21 February 2020

Gerda Steyn: From the Comrades to the Olympics

Onwards and upwards: Gerda Steyn has been running professionally for only five years, but she won the Comrades Marathon in 2019. This year, her sights are set on the Olympic marathon. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

There are many hopeful South African athletes who believe they have a genuine chance of a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But if the World Athletics World Championships in Doha was anything to judge by, we might as well watch the aquatics and sevens rugby and then switch our TVs off … until the marathon.

This is where South Africa’s 2019 Comrades Marathon winner Gerda Steyn enters the fray. She does not have an international track record to prove she can stand on the podium, but the distance she has travelled in the past year alone makes it hard to stay away from the cliché that “anything is possible”.

Steyn ran for recreational purposes while she was at the University of the Free State, but never considered running as a profession until she met her moment of inspiration at the end of 2015.

“I was watching videos on the Comrades Marathon and I saw how Caroline Wöstmann destroyed the field in 2015. The Russian twins were still there and she flew past them,” she told the Mail & Guardian.

“It felt to me like she was such an inspiration, because our paths followed similar patterns. We both started running late and I just thought: ‘If she can do it, I can too.’ This made me realise that I had potential as an athlete.”

Steyn emulated Wöstmann in winning the Comrades Marathon, but did it by breaking the record in the uphill race and becoming the first woman to run that race in less than six hours. This served as a platform for her to take a complete leap into the world of athletics.

“After I won the Comrades, there has not only been a change in my career, but in my life as well,” Steyn said.

“If I look back on that day, crossing the finish line and breaking the record, suddenly, doors began opening for me and I had the privilege of now getting to work with South Africa’s great athletes of the past.”

However, to board the flight to Tokyo, she faced a fresh challenge. Steyn, an ultramarathon runner, had to now adapt to running shorter distances in an attempt to make the Olympic qualifying time. Having just smashed the record at the Comrades, she felt invincible.

“I was very motivated, and I see myself as an athlete, not just an ultramarathon runner; I wanted to improve on my time,” she said.

“The Comrades Marathon was a very specific event and now I had to change the preparation to run shorter races.”

“I wanted to prove to myself that I can compete with international athletes at their standard,” she added.

Steyn took part in the New York Marathon in November 2019 and this is where she embodied her statement. Despite narrowly missing out on a top 10 finish, she was always in control of her run and eased past the Olympic qualifying time. She ran a time of 2:27:48, which meant that she improved on her personal best time by almost six minutes.

Since then, she has been preparing for the Olympic marathon, but it is still a long shot to believe that she can stick with the likes of Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, who is tipped to win the event.

However, Steyn is hopeful that the weather will play a part in Tokyo, just as it did in Qatar last year. This prospect also excites her because it will not be a “flat, fast, normal city marathon”.

“I think what will make the marathon at the Olympics very different compared to a normal city marathon will be the heat. I think the day of the marathon will very much determine the outcome of it,” she said.

“We saw last year at the World Championships in Doha, what happened to the favourites. So, it’s not always the fastest or the most favourite who comes into contention, but it’s the strong runners. So, I will definitely keep that in mind when I prepare for the marathon.”

For now, however, Steyn admits that she is not placing any expectations on herself for the Olympics as she feels that to do so would be premature. But she believes she is still experiencing an upward career trajectory and is confident that she will be in the best shape of her life come August 7 when she runs through the streets of Tokyo.