How Dubai champion runner Gerda Steyn is preparing for the Tokyo Olympics

The South African national will be running a full marathon at the games, which are scheduled to begin in July 2021

Gerda Steyn set the Comrades Marathon record in 2019, becoming the first woman to complete it in under six hours. Courtesy Tobias Ginsberg 
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UAE resident Gerda Steyn, who is one of the world's fastest runners, is preparing hard for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. The South African national has run the qualifying standard of 2:29:30 for the Olympics twice: first at the 2019 New York City Marathon (2:27) and again in London (2:26:51).

I love running through small villages and feeling close to nature while pushing my body and mind

"I am excited about competing in the Tokyo Olympics this year," Steyn, who recently won the 94th Comrades Marathon, tells The National. "I am looking forward to running for my country and having the Olympic experience, which would be a real dream come true."

Most of the Olympics Games will take place in Tokyo from July 23 to  August 8, while some events will also be held in other parts of Japan. The athletics, marathons and race walks will take place in Sapporo to avoid high summer temperatures in the capital.

Giving us a sneak peek into her regime, Steyn says her schedule varies, and she follows a specific training plan of six to eight weeks leading up to a target race. Though her coach, Nick Bester, believes in less mileage and more cross-training, she runs at least once every day.

The athlete loves running in Hatta and on other off-the-beaten-track routes in the UAE.

“I also do regular gym workouts and cycling. Closer to races, I cut down on the amount of training to allow my body to recover and prepare for the race ahead,” says Steyn, who is running a full marathon at the Olympics. Her weekly mileage can vary from 80 kilometres to 160km.

In 2020, Steyn marked her best time for the marathon when she finished seventh in London, in 2:26:51. She says she knew the London Marathon would be her only chance to run a marathon in 2020, so she worked hard and did everything she could to get to the start line, prepared.

The UAE will always have a special place in my heart for running; this is where I found my love for the sport

"I was very grateful for the opportunity to run the London Marathon last year. The race experience was quite a lot different last year. Instead of having thousands of supporters lining the streets of London and cheering on runners from around the world, they held the race in a Covid-secure space in St James's Park with only a handful of elite athletes on the start line," she recalls.

Steyn believes the most challenging part of her career was right in the beginning, in 2014, when she had to decide whether she was going to give up her office job as a quantity surveyor in Dubai to pursue running. After joining a local club, she immediately beat its fastest runners. Emboldened by her success, she started training with coach Bester, who propelled her to international success.

Steyn says the UAE has many facilities for professional athletes.

“I was driven towards becoming a full-time athlete, but the uncertainty of not knowing if I will have what it takes was the hardest part. I can’t be more delighted with the fact that I took that first step, because it changed my entire life,” she says.

“The UAE will always have a special place in my heart for running, because this is where I found my love for the sport. We are fortunate here to have incredible facilities and traffic-free running routes around town.”

Although Steyn often travels around the world for professional and personal commitments, Dubai remains her base for training. The Jumeirah Beach Running Track is her go-to running spot, but her all-time favourite is in Hatta.

“I have so many significant memories of running up and down the hills and then going for breakfast at the JA Hatta Fort Hotel afterwards. I love running through small villages and feeling close to nature while pushing my body and mind.”

With lockdowns still in place in some parts of Europe and the UK, many British and European national and Olympic teams have chosen the UAE as their training base for the Summer Games. Does Steyn think it might become a training ground for many full-time athletes from around the world for future events, too?

I want to improve on my current marathon time and break the long-standing South Africa record

“Absolutely, yes. Dubai has a lot of potential for professional sports. I would love to see the city put together elite races for athletes to compete in. We already know Dubai for its world-class facilities. It is very difficult for athletes to train outside during winter months in Europe. And Dubai is a short flight away from most European countries.”

Though the record-breaking runner still has a lot of personal goals to achieve, her long-term aspirations are to host training camps and teach other athletes about running performance. “I also want to improve on my current marathon time and break the long-standing South Africa record, which I narrowly missed last year,” she says. “There is still a lot of unfinished business there for me."