The Comrades and Two Oceans marathon champion, Gerda Steyn, shattered the South African women’s marathon record with a powerful run to finish ninth at the Xiamen Marathon and Tuscany Camp Global Elite race in Italy on Sunday.
Steyn, who had already qualified for the Olympics, was targeting the national record and must feel elated with her time of 2:25:28, having beaten the previous record held by Colleen de Reuck (2:26:35), set at the Berlin Marathon in 1996, by more than a minute.
It was a brilliant day for South African women marathon runners. Irvette van Zyl set a new personal best, dipping under 2:30:00 for the first time, as she qualified for the Olympics. She finished in 13th position, in a time of 2:28:40, and Steyn in ninth position.
Both athletes were to have participated in the NN Mission Hamburg Marathon this weekend but the event was postponed to April 18 in the Netherlands because of Covid-19 restrictions. Luck was on their side when they got an entry into the special marathon, which was set up with the assistance of World Athletics, to give as many non-Olympic qualifiers the opportunity to qualify by running a sub-2:29:30 finishing time.
For Van Zyl, the road leading to Italy was not an easy one. South African citizens in the country are the world’s most restricted travellers, because of the pandemic.
“I literally got my visa this morning,” said Van Zyl at the OR Tambo International airport as she waited for her flight. “It was touch and go, but I am just glad that everything has worked out.”
Van Zyl hopes this will be her third Olympics; she is looking to make amends for the previous two — she did not finish in London 2012 and an unfortunate injury in Rio 2016 resulted in her not starting the race.
Van Zyl and Steyn are coached by Nick Bester, a former Comrades Marathon winner and the national team manager of the Nedbank Running Club.
Speaking ahead of the race in Italy, Bester said: “Both Gerda and Irvette’s training went well, and they are looking for some good times.”
“Gerda just missed out on the South African marathon record last year in London, when the conditions were not great. I expect her to run a lot faster this time round, so that is the goal, and for Irvette, it’s to get under the Olympic qualifying time.”
With both speed and endurance in the legs of Van Zyl and Steyn, one would not want to bet against the two achieving what they set out for. Besides narrowly missing the South African marathon record last year, Steyn made history when she became the first woman to finish the Comrades up run (from Durban to Pietermaritzburg) in under six hours.
Van Zyl last raced a marathon in 2019, scoring a third consecutive victory in the tough Soweto Marathon, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and led to the cancellation of races worldwide.
Selected leading results of the European Olympic Marathon Qualification Race at the Ampugnano Airport in Italy, on Sunday, 11 April 2021:
1. Angela Jemesunde Tanui (Kenya) 2:20:08
2. Purity Jebichii Changwony (Kenya) 2:22:4
3. Gebiyanesh Ayele Gedamu (Ethiopia) 2:23:23
4. Haven Hailu Desse (Ethiopia) 2:23:52
5. Antonina Kwambai (Kenya) 2:24:20
6. Delvine Relin Meringor (Kenya) 2:24:3
7. Rahma Tusa (Ethiopia) 2:25:09
8. Kuftu Tahir Dadiso (Ethiopia) 2:25:21
9. Steyn Gerda (South Africa) 2:25:28
10. Gladys Chepkirui (Kenya) 2:26:33