Not even former three-time champion Bongmusa Mthembu believes Gerda Steyn when she plays down her chances of breaking the Comrades Marathon women’s Down run best time on Sunday.
“No doubt Gerda Steyn will win,” Mthembu said on Friday, while stressing the ultra-marathon is a race he never sets out to win himself.
“And she will break the record.”
With the course shortened to 87.701km, Steyn is widely tipped to beat Frith van der Merwe’s 5hr 54:43 Down mark from 1989, when the course was nearly 2km longer.
But Steyn offered a more cautious approach.
“I want to focus on producing the best performance I can as an athlete. I look at my training, I look at my preparation, what I’ve done before a race, and I base my expectations on that and not so much on what the record is,” said Steyn, who smashed the Up mark in 2019 by more than 15 minutes.
She made the point that the Comrades was a long race where “a lot can happen” and leaders have been known to be halted in their tracks as their bodies revolt over the final kilometres.
“First, I will have to see where I am in the first half of the race, see where the competition is lying, see who’s looking strong and who isn’t and only in the later stages I will start focusing on a finish time.”
And that’s about when the effervescent Steyn showed her excitement at the prospect of downing the longest-standing best time in the Comrades.
“It makes me feel more relaxed thinking I haven’t just got one goal in mind, which is breaking the record, which of course would be amazing. It would be great for Comrades, it would be great for spectators.
“At the end of the day we’re putting on a show as well. For me that would be amazing, but that’s not my only focus and I think there’s a lot more to be gained from the Comrades than just wanting to break the record.”
She joked that Van der Merwe’s mark had been thrust down her throat by all and sundry.
“It’s been impossible for me not to think about the record [because] the media has been going nuts, but it doesn’t affect me.”
But Mthembu, winner of the 2017 Up run and the 2018 and 2014 Down runs, believes Steyn has done her homework perfectly for Sunday.
“Comrades is about being smart, you’ve seen how these guys like Fusi Nhlapo [the 2003 victor] did, they didn’t race any race before Comrades, then they turn to Comrades and give it their all. That’s what Gerda is doing.”
She lowered her own Two Oceans Marathon record in April, but Mthembu said that wouldn’t count against her.
“Before that she didn’t do any longer distance than 42km and last year she didn’t run Comrades. All that will count ... unless something bad happens, but if I had to bet I would bet she will win.”
Mthembu, however, laughed when asked if he would bet on himself.
The men’s race in the 2023 edition is considered to be wide open, with the strong Nedbank field expected to deliver the winner.
“What I’ve always done is to come to Comrades and do my best, I’ve never said I’m going to win Comrades.”
He insisted he was not chasing the men’s best time, saying the announcement of the route — 1.579km shorter than when David Gatebe set the men’s Down best time of 5:18:19 in 2016 — had come too late in his training cycle.
Organisers are offering a R500,000 bonus for best times as well as R500,000 for the win.
The first South African home will pocket R200,000, meaning local runners winning inside the best times on Sunday will earn R1.2m.
“If you want to prepare for a record you have to start as early as you can. They never told us earlier the race is going to end at Kingsmead [as opposed to Moses Mabhida] so we heard about three weeks before Two Oceans so most of the work had been done.
“We have to plan for that. It’s good when you see the guys promising to run well, it shows the race is going to be interesting. I believe we’re going to deliver a good race on Sunday. I can see the guys are well-prepared this year.”
The Nedbank international team includes Japanese Jo Fukuda, who has a marathon best of 2:09:52 but hasn’t ventured beyond the 42.2km mark.
“I can definitely say the winner is going to be South African,” predicted Mthembu.
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