Oct 26, 2022

From Quantity Surveyor to Pro Athlete – How Gerda Steyn Turned a Hobby into a Winning Career

In your mid 20s and scared about a career change? Let this marathon and ultra-marathon record holder inspire you.
by Lauren Haakmanstaff

It’s never too late to chase your dreams! That’s the message from Gerda Steyn, who broke a 33-year ultra-marathon course record earlier this year, to win Cape Town’s Two Oceans 56km ultra-marathon for the third time in three successive outings!

What’s remarkable about Gerda’s result is that she only started her career as a professional athlete eight years ago at the age of 24. Up until then, she’d been working in Dubai as a quantity surveyor and purely ran socially to keep fit.

Gerda went from running casually to breaking records.Gerda went from running casually to breaking records.

“If I had started running at a younger age, I probably would’ve followed the traditional route of moving from track races to longer distances, but when I started running in 2014, everyone in my running group was training for an ultra-marathon. I was running socially at the time, and spontaneously decided to join them!”

Making her mark

From an unconventional entry into road running, Gerda has become a long distance sensation in her home country of South Africa. She currently holds three records simultaneously ranging in distance from 42km to 90km and has broken many long-standing records along the way.

  • In 2019 she competed in her fifth Comrades Marathon and won the 87km ‘up-run’ in a record time of 5:58:53, becoming the first woman to finish the race in under six hours.
  • In 2021, she broke a 25-year record to become the South African Marathon record holder (2:25:28).
  • In 2022, she broke a 33-year record on her way to a hattrick win at the 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon (3:29.42).

Gerda Steyn has since ventured onto the international stage to participate in a number of Abbott World Marathon Majors, coming 13th and 11th in the New York Marathon in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and 7th in the London Marathon in 2020; while also representing South Africa at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, finishing in 15th position.

Gerda didn’t take the traditional athlete route, so reaching the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and finishing in 15th place was a stunning achievement. ©Lintao Zhang/Getty ImagesGerda didn’t take the traditional athlete route, so reaching the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and finishing in 15th place was a stunning achievement. ©Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Follow your dreams and remember Impossible is Nothing

While Gerda’s results and records are impressive, her most endearing trait has to be her humility. This stems from the fact that she never thought she could become a professional athlete in her mid-20s, which is when people started noticing her talent in long-distance running.

“Becoming a professional athlete was certainly a dream, but not one I was actively working towards because I didn’t think it would be possible. I want people to know how amazing it is to have sport as your profession; and to know that there are people out there looking for talent, looking to support athletes, so if you’re passionate about what you do, you should pursue it. Of course, it takes a lot of hard work and commitment but it’s totally worth it. Putting in the hard work every day and seeing the results is so satisfying.”

"I want people to know how amazing it is to have sport as your profession; so if you’re passionate about what you do, you should pursue it."

GERDA STEYNMARATHON AND ULTRA-MARATHON ATHLETE

“Being a professional athlete has changed my life.”

While Gerda has achieved great success as a professional runner, she still enjoys the social side to running. “I’ve always loved the sense of community that you find amongst runners – so everywhere I travel, I join a local group to run with. It keeps me grounded and feeling connected to the sport.”

Gerda started as a social runner and has never lost the enjoyment that running communities bring.Gerda started as a social runner and has never lost the enjoyment that running communities bring.

Coming from a corporate background, Gerda Steyn also appreciates having the support of a team:

"As much as individuals win road races, running is very much a team sport. I don’t just run for myself on race day, but for my coach, my family, my sponsors and for all those who have supported me along the way."

Gerda SteynMarathon and Ultra-Marathon Athlete

Training and competing during Covid was tough, as no one was prepared for it. And as Gerda says, “Athletes pride themselves on being prepared for difficulties yet no one could anticipate the wide-reaching effects of Covid, both physically and mentally. I was able to focus on the Olympics and used the time to improve from 2020 to 2021. The whole experience has made me a stronger and more resilient athlete.” 

Doing your dream job? Make sure you moderate your passion to avoid burnout

Something Gerda has had to learn is to pace herself in terms of how many long runs she does in a year. She’d love to run as much as her body feels up to it, but has realised that in order to compete at her best, she should only compete in two long distance road races per year. “Running is my absolute passion, so I always want to be on the starting line of a big event, but I know it’s not in my best interest to do that. I’ve got to think about the longevity of my career.”

She’ll be competing in her second big race of the season, the New York City Marathon, on November 6.

“I’ve decided to focus on the marathon distance for now because I’m aware that it’ll become more physically challenging as I get older, and I don’t want to regret giving it my all while I still have the ability to go faster.”

"The beauty of starting my running career slightly later in life, is that I don’t feel I’ve reached my ceiling yet."

Gerda SteynMarathon and Ultra-Marathon Athlete

The ceiling remains high for Gerda as she continues to push through barriers to reach success.The ceiling remains high for Gerda as she continues to push through barriers to reach success.

“I don’t put restrictions on myself because I’m still improving. This gives me an advantage over competitors on race day because no one knows how much faster I can go, including me!”

So, if you’re in the NYC area on race day, keep an eye out for the pack of elite women – Gerda Steyn will be the one with the biggest smile on her face, from start to finish – enjoying her run on race day just as much as the very first time she ran socially. How does she manage to smile the entire way? “That’s what happens when you follow your passion – it can be hard work, but it brings you extreme joy.”

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