While most of her opponents have spent decades preparing themselves for the rigours of the professional road running circuit, Gerda Steyn stumbled onto the sport in her mid-20s.
Having since found her feet, however, her fledgling career has risen to spectacular heights in just a few years, with the 29-year-old athlete quickly cementing her place as the country’s top women’s ultra-distance runner.
Born and raised near the small town of Bothaville in the Free State, Steyn spread her wings in 2014 when she took up an employment opportunity as a quantity surveyor in Dubai.
Starting a new life in a new country, she decided to join an amateur running group in order to expand her social reach, and though it may not have seemed a particularly important decision at the time, it would ultimately change her life.
One of the members of the group, British pilot Duncan Ross, would later become her husband, and the activity which brought them together would ultimately unearth Steyn’s remarkable hidden talent.
While her bond with her future spouse may have been immediately evident, however, the true magnitude of her athletic ability was not, and Steyn finished her maiden attempt at the 87km Comrades Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal in 2015 in an unremarkable time of 8:19:08.
Returning the following year, she covered the gruelling course more than an hour quicker in 7:08:23, and in 2017 she displayed her full potential for the first time, stunning the elite women’s field to take fourth position on the Comrades ‘up’ run.
Improving further last season, Steyn won the popular 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town and was tipped to secure her maiden Comrades victory, but she settled for second place behind compatriot Ann Ashworth.
Since that narrow defeat, however, Steyn has been nothing short of spectacular, and her performances over a wide range of distances have seen her evolving into one of the country’s best road runners.
She set a personal best of 33:36 to finish fifth at the FNB CitySurfRun 10km race in Durban in October last year, and the following month she was 13th at the New York Marathon, crossing the line in 2:31:04 and securing top spot in the 2018 national rankings over the classic 42.2km distance.
But it was at the Two Oceans in April where Steyn catapulted her career into a new realm, outclassing a strong field to retain her title in 3:31:29.
Completing the race just 53 seconds outside the 30-year-old record held by local ultra-distance icon Frith van der Merwe, she proved that the long-standing mark could be broken.
And last week she made no mistakes, storming to a commanding victory to secure her first Comrades title in 5:58:53, ripping more than 10 minutes off the 13-year-old ‘up’ run record held by Russian athlete Elena Nurgalieva and making history as the first woman to dip under six hours on the ‘up’ run.
“I had never won this race before, so that was my first goal,” Steyn said.
“Breaking the record was just a big bonus on top of the win.”
Though she admits the lure of fulfilling an Olympic dream is enticing, after sticking up her hand among the early contenders for the national marathon team at next year’s Tokyo Games, Steyn will head back to the drawing board with coach Nick Bester and consider a multitude of options available to her over the next 18 months.
While she seems adamant that shorter distance races are a big part of her plans, lucrative prize purses are up for grabs in ultra-distance events on home soil, as well as Van der Merwe’s Two Oceans and Comrades ‘down’ run records, which are both within her reach.
“We will have to reassess my goals for the future,” Steyn said after her Comrades win.
“This was a big goal for me and it’s a dream come true, so it’ll be hard to top this, but I have a lot of goals.”
Her full potential over 42km remains unclear, but it seems whichever path Steyn chooses will be promising, and she may attempt to capitalise on her sublime form by continuing to juggle races over various distances.
“After having such an incredible run at the Comrades Marathon, I don’t know how I will turn away from this race,” Steyn admits, contemplating when she may return to the prestigious annual contest.
Regardless of whatever targets she sets herself down the line, however, there is no doubt she will be back.
“Comrades is part of me, part of who I am and part of who I want to be in the future, and I think there is more I can put into this race, so it’s a very exciting time for me.”