Steyn primed for New York City Marathon debut

Gerda Steyn, the 2018 Two Oceans Marathon winner and Comrades Marathon runner up a few months later, will be making her New York City Marathon on 4 November Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

Gerda Steyn will be South Africa's lone representative in either of the elite fields at Sunday's New York City Marathon, but is prepared for taking on the challenge on her own.

The 28-year-old will take to the start line alongside 28 of the world's best marathon runners for the 48th running of the iconic race, which lays claim to being the largest marathon in the world due to the high number of applicants.

Steyn, who has excitedly posted on social media in the build-up, earned her entry thanks to her breakthrough Two Oceans ultra marathon victory in April. She then followed that up by finishing second to fellow South African Ann Ashworth at the 90km-long Comrades Marathon in June.

"I'm very honoured to be part of the race," Steyn told SABC Sport on Sunday before her departure for 'the Big Apple' a day later.

"I had to keep it quiet after the Two Oceans which was a bit difficult until I was finally able to announce it. It is not technically representing my country [she will be running in her Nedbank Running Club colours], but to me it will feel like it is... to go on a world stage like that, competing against the world's best marathon runners."

Dubbed the 'Smiling Assassin', Steyn is relative newcomer to professional racing. She was born in Bothaville, a maize farming town situated near the Vaal River in the Free State province, and is a qualified quantity surveyor.

In fact, after graduating from the University of the Free State in 2012 she furthered her chosen career in Dubai, UAE. That said, it was also where she took her first tentative steps as long-distance runner by joining the local running club.

There Steyn met Duncan Ross, a British pilot and Comrades Marathon finisher who encouraged her take on 'the big one' back home. She duly did so and finished an impressive 56th as a novice in 2015 in a time of in 8:19.08 ... ironically about an hour-and-a-half faster than Ross, now her fiancé.

In 2016, Steyn made her Two Oceans Marathon debut (finishing 14th) and replicated that placing with a 7:08:23 on her return to the Comrades. Then, last year she continued her phenomenal rise with a fourth-place finish in 6:45:45. It took an inspired run by Ashworth to deny her the rare Two Oceans-Comrades double as her 6:15:34 would have won her the two previous 'down run' versions of the race in 2014 and 2016.

As it happens, Steyn has only four completed 'standard' marathons under her belt, with her personal best of 2:37:22 having been set at the last of these a year ago in Valencia. It can reasonably be expected that she will improve on that time in New York considering the strength of the field and the effort she has put into her build-up.

"I'm prepared for it, my training went really well and I feel ready to race," she says.

"The tough part of the race will be that you cross big bridges because it goes through all five boroughs of New York. In a sense that makes it undulating and a little bit difficult but I feel ready for it because Johannesburg [where she lives in the summer months before heading to French Alps for winter training] is not that flat and I've been doing my preparation there. A big part of my preparation has also been to go mentally through the route... hopefully I won't find any surprises on the day."

Steyn will be one of 11 Africans in the women's field, which includes eight Ethiopians and the Kenyan duo of Vivian Cheruiyot and Mary Keitany.

Keitany, who set the world record while winning her third London Marathon in 2017, will start as favourite and looking to avenge her loss to Shalane Flanagan, who thwarted her from winning an unprecedented fourth straight New York City Marathon last year.