Wesley Botton
Chief sports writer
4 minute read
18 Apr 2022
6:20 pm

Top 5 all-time: Gerda Steyn joins SA’s ultra-distance greats

Wesley Botton

Steyn joins a short-list of iconic ultra-distance runners including the likes of Frith van der Merwe and Bruce Fordyce.

Gerda Steyn after winning her third straight Two Oceans title in Cape Town on Sunday. Picture: Peter Heeger/Gallo Images

With the Two Oceans ultra-marathon making a return at the weekend, after being cancelled for the last two years due to Covid, Gerda Steyn ensured it was an explosive comeback for the event by producing a spectacular record-breaking victory.

Holding off a strong challenge from Irvette van Zyl, she finished the race in 3:29:42, establishing her place among South Africa’s all-time best ultra-distance runners.

We take a closer look at how she compares to some of the other athletes on that list.

Frith van der Merwe

Though she did not enjoy the same longevity as most of the individuals listed below, for a short period in the late 1980s, Van der Merwe was virtually unbeatable.

She won the 90km Comrades Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal three times, and in 1989 she delivered one of the most memorable performances in the history of South African road running, finishing 15th overall (she was beaten by only 14 men) in 5:54:43 and ripping 52 minutes off the Comrades ‘down’ run record, setting a mark which still stands today.

Frith van der Merwe
Frith van der Merwe winning the Comrades Marathon in 1988. Picture: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images

In her only victory at the 56km Two Oceans in Cape Town, Van der Merwe set a remarkable record of 3:30:36, which stood for 33 years before it was broken by Steyn.

The popular school teacher from Benoni also had success over shorter distances, but her brief top-flight ultra-distance career ensured she remains a living legend of the sport.

Gerda Steyn

Van der Merwe’s ultra-distance records stood for so long, it seemed they might be untouchable and would perhaps never fall, but Steyn put an end to that line of thought.

In 2019 she successfully defended her Two Oceans title, and a few months later she clocked an ‘up’ run record of 5:58:53 to earn her first Comrades title, becoming only the fifth athlete to win both races in the same year.

Gerda Steyn at the 2019 Comrades Marathon
Gerda Steyn celebrates her victory at the 2019 Comrades Marathon. Picture: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images

A late starter to the sport, 32-year-old Steyn is an accomplished runner over shorter distances (she holds the SA standard marathon record) but like Van der Merwe, it is in ultras where she has shown her full potential.

On Sunday she made another statement by shattering Van der Merwe’s ‘unbreakable’ Two Oceans record, proving she is still on the rise and making it clear her list of career achievements is nowhere near complete.

Bruce Fordyce

A household name in South Africa, Fordyce is world renowned for his incredible results throughout a memorable career.

Between 1981 and 1990, he won every ultra-distance race he finished, including nine victories at the Comrades Marathon and a gold medal at the unofficial 100km World Championships held in Stellenbosch in 1989.

Bruce Fordyce
Bruce Fordyce (left) passes Mark Page on his way to victory at the 1988 Comrades Marathon. Picture: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images

Though he never won SA’s other great ultra – Fordyce felt Two Oceans was held too close to Comrades and it was risky to compete in both – he is the only man to have won Comrades more than five times, and he was completely dominant at home and abroad for an entire decade.

Wally Hayward

While most people would give the nod to the only nine-time Comrades winner, Fordyce himself believes Hayward is the greatest of all-time. And he makes a good argument.

Hayward won his debut Comrades in 1931, at the age of 21, and though he was sidelined for 20 years following a false medical diagnosis, he returned in 1950 and went on to win the race another four times.

Wally Hayward
Wally Hayward receives a trophy after breaking the 100-mile world record in London in 1953. Picture: JA Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As remarkable as this feat was, along with the world records he set in the 100-mile event on the road and the 24-hour event on the track, Hayward left his very best until the end.

Displaying his incredible longevity in 1989, he completed the 90km Comrades at the age of 80, finishing within the time limit in what is widely considered the greatest performance by any athlete at the popular annual race.

Bongmusa Mthembu

Along with Steyn, Mthembu has evoked memories of the sport’s golden era in the 1980s, and he must be considered South Africa’s best ultra-distance athlete since Fordyce.

Bongmusa Mthembu
Bongmusa Mthembu wins the 2018 Comrades Marathon. Picture: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images

The first South African in nearly three decades to win the race more than once, he has secured three victories at the Comrades Marathon, but his success has extended far beyond his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

He has earned silver and bronze medals at the 100km World Championships, as well as team gold, and he showcased his versatility in 2019 when he dropped down in distance to win the 56km Two Oceans.