The limitless Gerda Steyn and her Olympic quest

Three-time Comrades Marathon champion Gerda Steyn is already turning her attention to the Olympic marathon in Paris on August 11. Pictures: Shelley Kjonstad/Independent Newspapers

Three-time Comrades Marathon champion Gerda Steyn is already turning her attention to the Olympic marathon in Paris on August 11. Pictures: Shelley Kjonstad/Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 17, 2024


The talent of Gerda Steyn knows no bounds. That much was clear again with a record-breaking run which bagged her third Comrades Marathon women’s title last week.

Her incredible time of five hours 49 minutes and 46 seconds (5h49:56) bettered her own ‘up-run’ record by almost 10 minutes.

But as she turns her attention to the marathon event at the Paris Olympics on August 11, will the two months of recovery be enough to give her best at the quadrennial showpiece? Steyn certainly believes it’s possible, and her constantly growing list of achievements back up her beliefs.

To go with her five Two Oceans Marathon titles, the 34-year-old’s latest Comrades triumph further cemented her place as a legend of the South African road running scene.

Going against the grain

It used to be commonly accepted that in order to win or do well at Comrades, a top runner would either not run or hold something back at the Two Oceans Marathon. There is some logic to this, as the Two Oceans in April and Comrades is in early June.

There have been rare examples of runners like Caroline Wostmann claiming both titles, a feat she achieved in 2015. With Steyn though, she has done the double in three of the four years she’s attempted it. The only year she won Two Oceans and didn’t also triumph at Comrades, was in 2018. And that came before her first of three titles at ‘The Ultimate Human Race’.

Since then, Steyn has been an unstoppable force in SA road running. In fact, with a 10km Personal Best (PB) of 32:24, it means Steyn is good enough to win any local race from 10km right through to the ultramarathon distances.

It’s reasonable to also assume that Steyn’s record in Comrades could be even better were the event not cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Steyn’s rise to running success though, has been far from average.

The typical elite SA athlete starts their running career in their early teens, cutting their teeth in cross country races and countless athletics events at school.

Not Steyn though, dubbed the Smiling Assassin these days, as she only really got into road running at the age of 24 in Dubai, thousands of kilometres removed from her little-known hometown of Bothaville in the Free State.

“Growing up I was never very into athletics or running, but I always enjoyed sport and did every sport I could,” Steyn said in a Totalsports Two Oceans Marathon podcast.

Gerda Steyn during the 2024 Comrades Marathon. Picture: Se-Anne Rall/Independent Media

Beyond her wildest dreams

In fact, Steyn reveals that becoming a world-beater was not something she has ever imagined.

“Growing up I loved sports and I dreamed of being good at some sport, but when I say dreamed about it, it wasn’t exactly a goal. I didn’t really believe it would happen. As I started training with goals in mind and joining a group, I just started improving really rapidly. The improvement was so much that it got to a point I really had to make a decision about whether I wanted to pursue this new talent or passion, or whether I was going to keep doing it as a hobby.”

For example, Steyn finished 56th in her first Comrades Marathon in 2015 in a time of 8 hours 19 minutes and eight seconds (8:19.08). A year later, she cut over an hour off her time to cross the line in 7:08.23 to end 14th. In 2017, Steyn went from talented runner to title contender as she finished fourth at Comrades and she has not looked back since.

“In the beginning it was quite daunting because I didn’t have a background in athletics or fast times on the track. Everything just showed me I should be doing it. I loved the journey and everything about running.

“I don’t regret not starting earlier and today I still feel fresh and new to the sport so I can still learn a lot. I feel like the possibilities are endless for me.”

That last phrase, the “possibilities are endless” has been the theme of her career as a professional runner.

Looking at the Paris Olympics, Steyn, as the SA record holder over 42.2km with her PB 2:24:03 at the Valencia Marathon in December, could feature strongly in the race.

The world class event where she is not expected to be a medal contender, will be the perfect motivation for Steyn to show why she is the best SA runner not only of her generation, but possibly ever.