South African ultra-distance runner Gerda Steyn not only won the Comrades for the first time this year, but broke the record previously held by Russian Elana Nurgalieva at 06:09:24 in 2006 for a whopping 5.58.53. No woman has ever before come close to running a sub-6 hour for the Up Run.
“Being The Comrades Marathon champion is the biggest achievement of my life and I am just so grateful for this,” she tells us. We chat to Gerda about how she did it, what fuels her on race day and how she stayed mentally strong enough to push through.
How Gerda beat the running record
“I think my view on ultra running and athletics is completely different to most of my competitors. I only started running in 2014 and still feel fairly new to athletics. What makes me different is the fact that I am still very fresh. My training is tough and very challenging, but I do it because I love to run and my passion for it is much deeper than just the enjoyment of a victory.”
Let’s talk about Gerda’s running shoes…
“I used Nike shoes even before signing a contract with the brand. A very important aspect of running for any runner or athlete is finding the right shoe and then sticking to what works for you.”
Training: “My favourite training kicks are Nike Epic React. They’re versatile and comfortable on any type of run.”
For speed work: “For speed workouts, I like to wear Nike Zoom Fly. The latter is a fairly newly designed shoe but gained rapid popularly among running communities worldwide. It also complements my racing shoe…”
For race day: “The Nike Vaporfly 4%.”
How many pairs of running shoes do you own? “A lot! But I always keep more than one pair at a time as I believe in alternating between different pairs, especially during periods of high mileage training.”
This is what peak Comrades running training looks like:
“Again, I think my training differs a lot from conventional running programmes. The biggest reason for this is the fact that I spend a lot of time doing cross-training. I find that it keeps training interesting and also challenging. My main focus of course is always running and I prefer getting my running workout done in the early morning. I run once a day, every day, with the exception of some days where I would do a second very easy run.
“The rest of my day would consist of a few hours of cross-training such as cycling, swimming, rowing, gym work or walking. I also try to include lots of sleeping, stretching and sports massages.”
Here’s a breakdown of Gerda’s race-day nutrition
The night before: “I like to eat my last meal at an early time the night before a race. This gives my digestive system enough time to process food before lining up at the start line.”
Breakfast: “My breakfast always consists of porridge or Futurelife with a big cup of coffee. Both of these work well for me. I don’t over-eat the morning of the race and rely on fat and glycogen stores which I’ve built up in the week leading up to the race.”
During the run: “I make sure that I hydrate adequately on races like Comrades and Two Oceans. I also use Biogen Amino Power and energy gels to keep my body fuelled from start to finish.”
Afterwards: “Champagne – and then some more! But when the celebrations are done, I just let my body tell me what it wants/needs. Recovering after a long day on the road is very important and high-protein foods are a big aid to the recovery, but I also include carbohydrates in most of my meals. My favourite meal is steak and roasted vegetables.”
What about the mental challenge on race day?
“Preparing for a race doesn’t stop at physical training. The human mind is a powerful tool and ‘training your mind’ is equally important, if not more! I would mentally rehearse the race during training sessions and prepare myself for every scenario that I can think of.”
“When the race gets hard, I remind myself that I have practised this and got through it before. It’s important to stay positive and calm when something unexpected happens. This year at the Two Oceans Marathon, organisers announced the day before the race that there would be a route change. Something like this can affect an athlete’s performance, but if you stay ‘calm and cool’ it can actually give you quite an advantage over your competitors.”
What does your recovery look like after Comrades?
“I’m planning to take at least a month off from training. I will keep a fair amount of fitness through cross-training, but I plan to give my body adequate time to recover before starting again on a strict training programme.
“Like any job, it’s very important to take time off for the body and mind to recover.”
Goals for the rest of 2019 and into 2020?
“I set some goals right at the beginning of the year and now, after ticking off Comrades, I will start focusing on the rest of the empty boxes. I want to run a marathon at the end of the year where I will try to improve my current marathon best time.”
“I will have to sit down and consider options for next year – I have my eyes on the Olympic Games in 2020, but also feel like I can attempt breaking the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon record. Comrades 2020 will be a down-run, which I feel like I still have unfinished business with.
“I’m very excited for next year and I’m positive I will make the right decision together with my team and coach. All of this is only possible if I can stay healthy and injury-free – this is my number focus at all times!”
Tips for running Comrades or OMTOM Ultra for the first time?
“Remember: all 20 000 runners lining up for these races have been in your shoes before. Nobody knew whether they would be capable of finishing as there is no guarantee… But don’t think of the race as a whole. Break it down into smaller pieces and just do your best every day to be in the best possible shape to claim your medal at the finish line!”