SA'S SHINING STAR SETS NEW YORK ABLAZE
by Michelle Carnegie
07 November 2018
Anyone who has ever met Gerda Steyn or who has watched an interview with the Two Oceans winner and Comrades Marathon gold medallist knows what a down to earth, friendly and humorous girl she is. It is safe to say there is probably not one running picture ever taken of her where her trademark wide smile can’t be seen.
So when the 28-year-old Steyn lined up on New York’s Staten Island on Sunday morning, rubbing shoulders with the world’s greatest female marathon runners, the whole of South Africa was behind this farm girl from the Free State.
And as always she did not disappoint. Holding on to the front pack for the first 15km had South Africans on the edge of their seats. But her most phenomenal performance on the day came when she sliced more than 6 minutes off her previous marathon best, crossing the finish line in Central Park in a new PB of 2:31.04. In the process she finished 13th overall, not too shabby for someone who only started running five years ago!
Arriving in the Big Apple
Steyn, who after her Two Oceans win was invited by the New York Road Runners to be part of this year’s elite women’s field, has never been to America, and could not hide her excitement of what she describes as the “adventure of her life”.
“Ever since my arrival in NYC I have honestly been treated like royalty. The New York Road Runners picked me up from the airport together with the Kenyan athletes. We got to see the first glimpse of the magical city as we drove to the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Upon arrival I was met by Sam Grotewold and David Monti who took care of me and all the other elite athletes from that point on,” says Steyn.
She was joined by the biggest names in world road running: Shalane Flanagan, Mary Keitany, Des Linden and Molly Huddle.
“To be amongst the world’s best athletes and share breakfast with them felt surreal - an experience I will never forget. I got to meet some incredible people. Everyone was intrigued with my South African accent and the fact that I’ve never been to America before,” says Steyn.
She was especially impressed with the effort that went into taking care of the elite athletes and how the organizers left no stone unturned. “Each and every meeting was on time, there were more than enough supplies for all our needs and we were able to relax without any problems. I shared a room with Brittany Charboneau from Denver, Colorado. She was lovely and we got on well from the start!”
Steyn, who has previously told of her admiration for especially America’s Des Linden who won this year’s Boston Marathon, admits to initially being star struck. “I was a bit star struck at first, but after seeing them a few times it started to sink in. Everyone was really kind and just like with any group of people there are some who socialize and others who keep to themselves. One runner who stood out was Shalane Flanagan (the 2017 New York Marathon champ.) When she enters the room everyone knows that she is there. I think that she has a lot of respect in the USA for having such an incredible and lengthy career as an athlete,” says Steyn.
She was actually very calm the night before the race, says Steyn. Her fiancé Duncan Ross arrived in New York the day before the race, which really made her feel calm and relaxed.
Race plan was to run a personal best. “I knew that it was possible as everything showed that I was in better shape than a year ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body once I get to sea level so I decided that I would keep an eye on my heart rate rather than pace on the day, and it worked really well.”
She could write a book on her whole experience on race day, which Steyn describes as incredible. “We were bussed from the hotel to a warm up area - an indoor track - very close to the start line. On the bus ride the atmosphere changed and things got serious. No one spoke and everyone was just looking out the windows at the race route while we crossed some of the large bridges that we would be running over later. The start line was magical. The elite ladies start 40 minutes before the rest of the field. Therefore, at the start, we were the only ones lining up to take on the first and biggest climb - the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” says Steyn.
Ready, Steady, Go!
As the gun went off the elite ladies simultaneously crossed the start line. “We ran in one big pack over the bridge and into Queensborough. It felt like a moment of celebration of the fact that we all made it to the start and can now run the race we have been working for so hard in the months leading up to it. The race favourites all ran the first few miles at a very conservative pace - one that allowed each and every lady to be able to stick with the pack. It was wonderful to run with them at a comfortable pace and I was surprised at how long they kept running at that pace.”
At about 17km onto the race, a small group that included all the pre race favourites made a very prominent surge and broke the pack in two. “At that stage, I was slightly behind my planned race plan so settling into the second pack fitted in according to my planned pace.”
Amidst racing with the world’s elite’s Steyn still managed to spot South Africans in the crowds and wave to them. “I saw other South Africans along the route and waved at them when I passed. I think it must have been South Africans living in New York, but it was lovely to see some home support. Duncan waited at the finish line and followed the race on the big screens and live tracker. It was a big motivator for me to know that he is waiting at the finish line.”
Smashing her PB
Smashing a PB by more than 6 minutes on elite level is huge, and that is what makes Steyn’s New York performance even more remarkable. “My plan was to run a PB and I set out for it from the start, 25km into the race things were tough but the kilometers ticked over fast and I managed to keep my average pace through the difficult part of the route. The thousands of supporters along the route really carried me! With 10km to go I started to speed up more as I knew my legs would hold out and I told myself that in ultra marathons, I would have to keep going for many more hours,” says Steyn.
The Finish Line
Central Park was as usual lined with thousands of people cheering. “Central Park has some undulating hills which makes for a tough finish. I passed one lady at 3km to go and tried to outrun another lady but she crossed the line three seconds ahead of me,” says Steyn.
And her first thought as she crossed the finish line? “Ah no! I missed 2:30 by 4 seconds!” But the moment was very sweet as an ever so proud fiancé Duncan waited at the finish line for SA’s golden girl. “Duncan waited at the finish line and we were able to share the moment just like we did at Two Oceans and Comrades!”
The first thing she did after the race was to get some food. Then it was time for some celebrations. “We went back to the hotel for a shower and then walked back to Central Park to watch the runners come in. We then went to one of the local bars and celebrated while wearing my medal along almost everyone else there of course!”
When asked whether she at least got some photos with the other elite ladies, Steyn’s humorous personality shines through: “I was trying to look like I am used to all of this so I didn’t ask for too many pics. But it doesn’t matter - it’s a memory that it will never forget!”
Her most magical moment from the whole trip is running the first few kilometers together as one pack with all the elite women. “It will forever stay with me.”
Then of course it was the incredible support she got from South Africans at home and abroad. “It felt like I was running it for South Africa. I was overwhelmed by support and sometimes wonder how I got to be so fortunate to have such a home support base behind me. It is heart warming and humbling and I can never thank everyone enough for it. My career has been very short but I have been extremely fortunate with opportunities. 2018 feels like one big dream but I am extremely excited to see what the future holds for me.”
Steyn will arrive back in South Africa on Friday morning. And what is next for this golden girl? “A big break from running for the rest of the year. I have had three big races this year as well as smaller build up races. I won’t be doing any further races until the New Year.”
And of course the whole of South Africa can’t wait to see what 2019 holds for Gerda Steyn.
Share this article on facebook?
Tweet about this article?