Modern Athlete Magazine Issue 134, October 2020 Issue 134, October 2020 | Page 13


The 40th edition of the London Marathon , run on 4 October , will live long in the memory , for various reasons . For starters , it was an elite-only race , with limited fields of around 30 men and women each , as well as wheelchair athletes , all in separate races , after the traditional mass participation race scheduled on 26 April was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic . The route was also very much different , consisting of 19.6 laps of a 2.15km loop around St James Park , including running past Buckingham Palace and using the traditional finish line in The Mall , and no spectators were allowed , in order to create a biosecure environment for the athletes . Meanwhile , the athletes stayed in a secured hotel in the days leading up to the race , wearing ‘ bump devices ’ around their necks that would alert them if other people got too close !

The flat course was tailor-made for fast times , and the invited elites included some of the all-time fastest athletes in the world , including the two fastest men ever in the marathon , Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ( 2:01:39 ) and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele ( 2:01:41 ), as well as a further four men with sub-2:05 times . ( Bekele unfortunately had to withdraw before the race due to injury .) The women ’ s race included 2019 winner and current marathon World Record holder in a mixed gender race , Kenya ’ s Brigid Kosgei ( 2:14:04 ), 2018 winner Vivian Cheruiyot ( also of Kenya ) and another three sub-2:20 runners . ( Note : The World Record for a women-only race is 2:17:01 , run by Kenyan Mary Keitany .)

“ I knew I was in even better form than before I ran my PB in New York , so this was my chance , and I knew I had to take it .”

Gerda on her way to a massive PB in London
Images : Action Photo SA & courtesy Gerda Steyn
Also in the field was South Africa ’ s Gerda Steyn , who went into the race as the country ’ s fourth-fastest woman of all time over the marathon distance , with a PB of 2:27:48 that she ran in the 2019 New York Marathon . Only Colleen De Reuck ( 2:26:35 ), Elana Meyer ( 2:27:17 ) and Frith van der Merwe ( 2:27:36 ) had gone faster on record-legal courses , and Colleen ’ s SA Record had stood since 1996 . In the build-up to London , many local pundits said they believed Gerda would be able to finally beat Colleen ’ s time , given the favourable racing conditions , especially after her run of terrific form .
Stunning Results
In 2018 , Gerda won the Two Oceans Ultra , finished second in the Comrades Marathon , then ran a 2:31:04
PB in New York , but 2019 would be even more of a standout year . First she won Two Oceans in 3:31:28 , only missing Frith van der Merwe ’ s 1989 course record of 3:30:36 because she was deliberately holding back to save her legs for the upcoming Comrades , and then she became the first woman to break six hours on the Comrades Up Run , clocking a magnificent 5:58:53 . An 11th place in New York , with that PB 2:27:48 was next , taking a massive three minutes and 16 seconds off her previous best . In this two-year period she also shattered her best times over 5km , 10km and 21.1km , so in spite of the extended lay-off due to cancelled races during the pandemic , Gerda went into London full of confidence .
“ It has been an interesting year – it ’ s hard to describe or put in words , and one I definitely won ’ t forget in a hurry , a complete rollercoaster ,” says Gerda . “ It started so well … I was fit and in good racing in shape in January and February , and a couple of 10km and 21km races went very well . I was actually busy with my final training camp in South Africa for the Two Oceans when the news came out that it was cancelled , so Duncan and I decided to fly back to Dubai early . Two days later the borders were shut and flights cancelled , and we would both have been stuck in SA for most of the lockdown !” ( Duncan is an airline pilot with Emirates Airways .)
“ Soon after the news of Two Oceans , all the other races also got cancelled , falling like dominoes , but thankfully things finally got moving again and the London Marathon was on . I had had my eye on London since the beginning of year , and knew it would be tough to get in , but I sent in my application . I didn ’ t hear anything , so I had another , smaller race in the UK on the backburner , although I did tell them I was also
applying for London . Then , just two days before they announced the London field , about seven to eight weeks before the race , I heard I was in ,” continues Gerda .
“ I was really happy , because I knew I was in good shape and could do well , even though the whole year was so uncertain . I did the Nedbank 21km virtual run in August and it went really well , so that gave me great confidence , as did a 5km race I found in the UK . Also , I could see the difference in my fitness compared to last year , as I keep notes on all my training , and I knew I was in even better form than before I ran my PB in New York , so this was my chance , and I knew I had to take it .”
Challenging Conditions
Gerda describes the build-up to the race as an “ an experience and a half , right from day one . We underwent multiple tests , had to follow strict protocols , and we had to sign a declaration every day that we were trying to stay isolated in the hotel . We weren ’ t allowed to come within two metres of anybody , and had to wear these blue beepers around our necks to warn of proximity , so the pre-race experience in the hotel was completely different to a normal race experience . But I was just so happy to race , and I was willing to do anything needed to be involved .”
Cold and soggy conditions greeted the runners on race day , as Storm Alex brought heavy rain and a maximum temperature of 10 degrees Celsius to London . “ The weather was chucking down and the rain was crashing on the windows when we woke up ,” says Gerda . “ It was not the most exciting weather , but we were all in the same boat , and I had prepared for