There was no missing Gerda Steyn at the 2017 Comrades Marathon.
While 40 is the common age of successful South African women in this event, 26 year old Gerda left commentators stunned when she crossed the finish line in fourth place, with a time of 6:45:45.
It’s hard to believe that she only started running two years ago.
After growing up in the Freestate, she moved to Dubai in 2014 to start her career as a quantity surveyor. With the hope of making friends in the new city, she joined a running club called the Desert Road Runners.
Just seven months later, and she was on a plane to South Africa to attempt her first Comrades! But a moment even more significant than completing the race unfolded for her that day – she happened to bump into the manager of South Africa’s Nedbank Running Club, Nick Bester.
He told her that if she could run a sub-3 hour marathon, he’d consider adding her to the club’s elite training programme. A few months later, and she was off to France to rise to the challenge. She ran 2:59 and called Bester to book her spot in the elite club. She describes this to be “the moment that her running career began.”
Some call it natural talent, but Gerda calls it hard work. She reveals her thoughts about her sudden success, and how she plans to work towards her ultimate dream of winning the Comrades… and soon.
Working towards a podium position at the Comrades has been your number one priority. How did you feel about coming so close to realising that dream this year?
I honestly didn’t expect to be so close to podium this year. I thought I’d have a chance at top 10, but I didn’t think I was in much of a better position than last year. It was just one of those days where everything felt right, I’m still trying to get my head around it now!
You finished 14th at the Comrades last year, so moving up 10 places is quite something! What made the biggest difference?
The past year has been a huge learning experience for me. After the 2016 Comrades I started to really believe in my abilities, and see myself as an athlete and not just a runner. I still have a long way to go, but I know that change in mindset really triggered my improvement.
So the average age of the women who have won the Comrades is about 40. Is this something you see yourself achieving in the next few years, or later on in life?
I realise that most Comrades competitors are a lot older than me. I find in South Africa that most runners come from a track and marathon background, and only move up to ultra marathons later on in life.
This is not the case for me. Around the world I’ve seen a lot of ultra runners that are the same age as me, so I definitely believe that winning is a possibility for me, and in the near future.
You only started taking running seriously just over two years ago, and your sudden success has been attributed to ‘natural talent’. Tell us more about the hard work that not everybody gets to see.
A lot happens when nobody’s watching! I’ve had many disappointments in my running career, in training and racing. I think that’s what’s most important. I’ve had to learn to look past the disappointments, and focus on what I want to achieve.
When times get tough, you often find yourself fighting alone. But that’s when you have to keep showing up for training, and keep working until (not if) you succeed.
How much trail running do you incorporate into your training, and how does it help you with road running?
I incorporate trail running often, especially when I’m recovering because the impact is much less. When I train in France I use steep trails for strength work.
I think it should be an important part of any runners routine, even if you’re training for a flat marathon.
What is your current approach to strength training as an elite runner?
A lot of runners neglect strength training because they don’t have enough time, but you can’t only rely on running. I’ve discovered how important it is, and it’s something that Nick Bester really believes in. I plan to include strength and cross-training even more in the years to come.
(More on this: How to balance strength and cardio for OCR.)
What role has joining the Nedbank Running Club played in your success?
A massive role! Nick Bester advises me on a daily basis, and really helps me train smarter. I honestly don’t believe I would have ever improved so much without their support.
Where are some of your favourite running routes at the moment?
Firstly, I have to say how much I love the running scene in South Africa. There’s something special about our camaraderie and strong competition. But I spend a lot of my time outside of South Africa, so I’d have to say the French Alps.
You’ve gone as far as to change your career and relocate to accommodate your training. What kind of advice do you have for younger women who hope to be successful runners?
Out of my own experience, I’d tell them not to wait for tomorrow. Have a plan and train smart, and never be scared to suddenly change your dreams.
Where to from here?
To start with, I’m going to make 100% sure that I recover from Comrades.
I’m looking to do another race at the end of the year, perhaps the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon or even another ultra marathon. But for now, I’m sticking to shorter races and building up speed.
I think winning Comrades will always be my ultimate dream. But also taking on longer distances like the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
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