'Anything is possible' - Gerda Steyn
After coming within 16 seconds of breaking the 24-year old SA record at the London Marathon yesterday, it’s hard to believe that Gerda Steyn started running six years ago. The first woman to break 6 hours on the Comrades Marathon Up Run only took up the sport as a way to meet people when she moved to a new country. The girl from Bothaville was working in the United Arab Emirates as a quantity surveyor when she shocked her new running mates by finishing the Dubai Marathon (her first attempt at the 42,2km distance) in 3 hours and 11 minutes.
In just six short years, Steyn has gone from weekend warrior to one of the greatest South African female distance runners of all time. What makes this more remarkable is that her athletic talent lay fallow for decades. Although the now 30-year old was an active child who played netball and hockey, her running ability remained dormant until she relocated to The Gulf. Steyn laughs as she tells the story of how she failed to make the school cross country team because she was too slow.
But all of that changed after that first marathon experience. Gerda continued improve as she threw herself into training and a few months later completed her maiden Comrades (the 2015 Up Run) in 8 hours and 15 minutes. The improvements after that were astronomical. Steyn broke the hallowed 3 hour marathon barrier at the end of that year and by 2017 she was the owner of a 2:37 personal best, which became 2:31 when she took 13th place at the New York Marathon in November 2018.
Yesterday’s 2:26:51 in London means that in since running her first marathon in January 2015, Steyn has improved her personal best by a whopping 45 minutes! All of this while winning the Two Oceans and Comrades ultra marathons. What is the secret to her prodigious improvement? “Gerda has never been on an ultra distance training programme. We concentrate on speed. She doesn’t do high milage. Everything else she does by cross training,” said her coach and mentor Nick Bester when we interviewed him in November, 2019.
Her cross-training consists of anything from hiking and mountain climbing to cycling and swimming. “So we save her legs and that’s why she’s so fast,” explains Bester. And it looks like she’s set to get vine faster because now that she has qualified for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo there’s no stopping Steyn. She says running has changed her life. “A few years ago I started running but only in a social way. It has changed my life completely. I could have only dreamed of this. It’s also just a message for everyone out there that anything is possible. Sport is just an amazing thing. It can really transform your life.”