When we start out, the Hatta hills are barely visible - just blue-black mounds limned against the pre-dawn sky. I am running alongside Gerda Steyn, a South African ultramarathoner based in Dubai who has become a friend and occasional training partner. It is 5 AM and we are a two-hours drive from the city. We left for Hatta in the dead of night to run its well-known hills and to escape Dubai’s September heat and humidity. We were coming off the Great North Run two weeks before, which I had run along with Gerda and her partner Duncan, and we were now in the process of stretching out our long runs to prepare for Dublin Marathon in late October. Today’s outing would be our first three-hour effort in the build up to Dublin.
As the kilometers clip by and the sky lightens, I remark to Gerda how smart we were to start early and avoid the heat. I have somehow managed to ignore the sweat slicking my brow as we ascend the morning’s first rise. We crest it quickly and Gerda starts descending fast off the back - it is Gerda’s signature style to smash the downhills and let everyone else try to catch up. As someone very susceptible to delayed-onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) triggered by downhill running, I proceed with caution, but still quick. We nudge the pace on the flat, enjoying the chance to stretch our legs now that they are fully warmed and loosened after the early morning drive. The pace feels good and the air still cool as the sun breaks the horizon. The day seems promising.
My body is telling a different story, however. It is a cautionary tale that suggests I should pay more attention to the conditions. Since starting up Generator Hill, the third and steepest climb on the 'out' route, sweat has been running down my back and arms in rivulets. The pace feels quite manageable, but I am emitting water like a squeezed sponge. I begin to consider that the relative humidity must be quite high this morning - as in above-80-percent high. I feel too good, too comfortable to let it affect our plans. We are clipping along well now, and Gerda is a perfectly matched training partner for this session. Let’s not waste this one, I think. As we begin the next ascent, I reassure myself that the humidity will lift as the day wears on.
It is not going to lift - and though we do not know it yet, Gerda and I are headed into a spectacularly brutal morning.
At twenty-six years old, Gerda Steyn’s rise in the sport of competitive ultrarunning has been notable for its speed. Well known around the Dubai running scene for her epic training sessions and hard-as-nails approach to racing, it can be easy to forget that Gerda has only been at the running game for two years. When Gerda arrived in Dubai from South Africa in the fall of 2014, she had done some occasional jogging for general fitness, but she had never run in a structured program of any kind. In Dubai, she decided to join a local running club, the Desert Road Runners, to make friends and keep fit in her new city. She thought running would be a nice complement to her day job as a quantity surveyor.
Fast forward to February 2017. Gerda has run a 2:51 marathon personal best (Dublin Marathon, 2016). It was South Africa’s 11th fastest female marathon time last year. She won the premier trail ultra in the UAE (Wadi Bih 72km Solo, 2016). She has racked up wins in countless club races in Dubai and overseas, covering distances from 5K to 32K. In May 2016, she finished fourteenth in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the 89 kilometer road-ultra monster that alternates directions between Durban and Pietermaritzburg each year. Her finish time of 7 hours 8 minutes in last year’s ‘Down Run’ won her a coveted silver medal, which is a gender neutral prize for all finishers under 7 hours 30 minutes.
There is no doubt that this last accomplishment - her 2016 Comrades finish - is the one Gerda is most proud of. There is good reason for it: Comrades has renown around the world. First run in 1921, it is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon race. But for a South African ultramarathoner like Gerda, Comrades looms particularly large - in fact, it would be hard to exaggerate its place of prominence in the country’s running scene. To an American marathoner, it would be like the Boston, New York, and Chicago marathons all wrapped into one, except it is even bigger than that. So great is the prestige of winning Comrades for a South African that many of the country’s elite distance runners train exclusively for Comrades, sometimes forgoing opportunities to run abroad or to compete at the elite level in other distances.
Gerda has not yet given up on international racing and still likes to dip down to shorter distances. (She even jumps into the occasional 5K to test her speed, despite her less than optimal training for shorter races - to her credit, she does not let her ego interfere with her desire to test herself on these shorter efforts.) But when you speak to Gerda about her goals, it is clear that Comrades is her number one priority. She says she dreams of a podium finish at Comrades some day, and possibly even a win. Then with her characteristic modesty, she notes how recently she began running and how much work it will take to get on that Comrades podium. Fortunately for Gerda, she has found someone to help her get her there.
After running her first Comrades in 2015, Gerda had the chance to meet Nick Bester, the manager of South Africa’s NEDBank Running Club. With a 1991 Comrades win and nine Comrades gold medals to his name, Bester is a fixture of the South African running scene. When he was not dueling with the likes of Alberto Salazar at Comrades, Bester competed in Ironman triathlons and every other type of multi-sport ultra-endurance race imaginable. Like Gerda, he came to running relatively late in life, starting to run seriously at twenty-four. He quickly realized that he had a talent for running that when combined with a natural work ethic and relentless approach to training (one of his nicknames is “Yster Bester” - Afrikaans for “Iron Bester”) made ultramarathons a good fit. Incredible results soon followed. It is perhaps not surprising then that Bester took an interest in Gerda, another late-comer to running with a gritty work ethic.
Seven months after joining the Desert Road Runners, Gerda ran her first Comrades in 8 hours 18 minutes - a great time for a recreational runner, but not elite quality. Still, it was promising that she could run this well on only a few months of training. Bester told Gerda to get back in touch if she could break three hours in a marathon. If she could do that, they could talk about Gerda joining NEDBank’s elite athlete program. It was the kind of challenge that tapped right into Gerda’s desire to push herself past old limits. Gerda went away and started training for a November marathon in Nice, France. A few months later, she crossed the finish line in Nice in 2:59. Challenge met, she decided to get back in touch with Bester.
Two hours into our Hatta long run, things are turning grim for me and Gerda. The sun has risen, but instead of lifting the humidity, it has turned the air around us into a sauna. Haze is shimmering off the rocks in the wadi running alongside the road. I had long stopped looking at my heart rate monitor, but it hardly matters - I am keenly aware of what is happening to my body’s systems and it is not good. Everything seems impossibly wet. Sweat is pouring off me as if from a hose and my shoes have gone from an audible squelch to leaving wet tread marks on the asphalt as liquid squeezes out of the toe box with each step. Judging by my appearance, a passerby would think I had just gone for a swim in some hidden oasis. More concerning than my perspiration is the lack of fluids to consume. The water bottles we picked up from the small shop at the 12 kilometer mark are long empty, but our return pass by the shop is still several kilometers off.
Just as the gravity of our situation starts to sink in, Gerda says, “There!” I look up and wonder what she means - I see only donkeys and rocks and the long hot road ahead. Then I spot it - a small mosque in the distance. I had missed it or forgotten about it on the way out, but I immediately feel a sense of relief on seeing it now. When you run in the desert climes of the UAE, you learn one thing quickly - mosques mean water, and water means you can continue. Almost every mosque around offers a spigot of chilled water for public consumption. A few minutes later, Gerda and I have taken in as much cool water as our stomachs can handle. With our bottles full, we know we can make it back to the shop and from the shop we can make it back to the cars. The immediate problem is solved and the run can continue. Time to start moving again.
If you ask Gerda, she will tell you that getting in touch with Nick Bester again after Nice is the moment her career as a runner truly began. Working with Bester and supported by NEDBank, Gerda has been able to bring structure to her training in a way she had not before. She now had a training plan, a race schedule, and access to a South African elite training camp at Graskop. She also joined a team of elite athletes that included some of South Africa’s best distance runners and several Comrades podium finishers. Despite living in Dubai, Gerda says she feels closely connected to and supported by her NEDBank teammates. Her training load has also increased substantially. Gerda now trains seven days per week and her weekly volume tops out somewhere between 145 and 175 kilometers, depending on the time of year.
Gerda’s dedication to ultrarunning has forced some adjustments to her non-running life. For one, her training requires extensive rest to recover between sessions. After starting her new training program with Bester, Gerda said it was not unusual for her to pass out on the sofa before 9 PM. Gerda also needs to plan her training carefully to bring hills and cooler temperatures into the mix. Long runs can become uniquely challenging when the heat index rises above 42 degrees celsius - a common occurrence during Dubai’s long hot season. To escape the scorching conditions, Gerda has relocated to Graskop, the French Alps (where Duncan keeps a chalet affectionately known as the ‘Alpine training camp’), and England for weeks at a time. Failing that, there is the two hours’ drive to Hatta. In addition to cooler temps available in these locales, they provide another significant benefit to Gerda’s training: hills. With its thousands of feet in ascent and descent, Comrades runners require serious hill training, and this can be a challenge in pancake-flat, sea-level Dubai.
Fortunately for Gerda, there is a Comrades training group in Dubai that includes Gerda’s friend and fellow Desert Road Runner Tia Jones. This group spends much of March and April logging hours in the pre-dawn darkness of Hatta. Gerda is keen for the company during this intense period of her Comrades build up. Tia is herself an accomplished ultrarunner with some 100-miler wins and several podium finishes to her name. She is practically unbeatable in her F50 age group across most ultra distances. If there was to be a ‘Queen of the Hatta Hills,’ Gerda and Tia could equally lay claim to the title based on their achievements and the hours they have logged training there.
But more than cool temps and hills and training partners, what Gerda needs most at this point in her running career is time to train and recover properly. The training time required for competitive ultrarunning can be more than twenty hours per week. When you add the recovery time on top of it, it becomes nearly impossible to manage a regular office job. Last fall Gerda changed careers, switching to a consulting role with her company so that she could have more flexibility in her training schedule. There is no doubt Gerda views these sacrifices as a price worth paying. When you speak to her, her passion for running and her competitive spirit come across in her voice and in her eyes. The hours on the roads, the exhaustion, the prolonged discomfort - Gerda welcomes these challenges as ways to test the limits of her will power.
This gets to another of Gerda’s qualities: there is something distinctly old school about her approach to running. She believes that humility and hard work are the keys to long-term success. She often speaks about how much she still has to learn about her sport, and she credits her recent improvements to Nick Bester’s program and the moral support of the Dubai running community. She seems to have patience beyond her relatively young age and speaks about improving over years rather than months. For those who know her, Gerda is remarkably quiet about her achievements and prefers to let her results do the talking. She speaks instead about her enthusiasm for the sport of running and her love of the Dubai running community that introduced her to it.
Another thing Gerda does not speak about often is natural talent - particularly her own natural talent in terms of innate physiological gifts. The topic does not seem to sit easily with her view of herself, as first and foremost, a hard worker. “Sometimes I think I can just suffer a bit better than other people in a race, even if they have more talent than I do,” she once told me. While it is unlikely that someone without significant physiological gifts could advance so far so quickly in the world of ultrarunning, it is entirely consistent with Gerda’s approach to ignore the talent question. Gerda would prefer to focus on something she can control, like effort, than something innate and largely uncontrollable like talent.
Toughness and hard work are recurring themes with Gerda. Anyone who has witnessed her epic track workouts or tempo runs can attest to it. Her weekly tempo run is a notorious suffer-fest. Unrecognizable as a tempo run by conventional standards, it is a sixty to eighty minute continuous run at threshold pace that is as much about toughening the mind as the body. When I asked Gerda what in her early life prepared her for the grueling side of her sport, she paused, and then spoke about her family and her upbringing in Bothaville: “I grew up on a farm. I saw what hard work looked like. I learned from my mum and dad that the only way to succeed is hard work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see it’s not something everyone learns growing up. I think I was lucky.”
I had the opportunity to witness Gerda’s toughness in a new form when I paced her during last month’s Dubai marathon. Despite a good build up in training, it was a hot, sticky morning by the time the gun went off and the race was not going Gerda’s way. She was targeting a sub-2:50 finish, but by halfway the race was shaping up to be a grinding affair with little hope of Gerda hitting her target time. By the 30 kilometer mark, the always unflappable Gerda was strangely and uncharacteristically fatigued. I had been in a similar state the year before and was well aware of the temptation at such points to shorten your stride and start the pity party inside your own head as you wait for the finish line to deliver a mercy killing. It is an indescribably hard thing to blow early in a marathon. I was concerned I had just taken a front row seat to Gerda’s turn at it.
Instead, what I saw was an hour of the gutsiest fighting I have witnessed in sport. Gerda fought again and again to return to goal pace only to be knocked off of it by her fatigue. All the while she showed a special kind of fierceness, almost recklessness, in refusing to slow down to a pace that she could easily maintain to the finish. In the final stages of the race, as I glanced over to check that she was okay to keep pushing, I could see the fight and defiance in her eyes, and her frustration that her body was not cooperating. By the last two kilometers, she had done everything but whip herself to keep her legs turning over, and she nearly collapsed as she crossed the line. In the end, she finished in 2:57 and fourteenth female in the field, not the time she wanted nor what she is capable of. I have run or raced with Gerda over two hundred times and seen her complete workouts that would make you shake your head, but this performance was the one, above all others, that convinced me Gerda has the heart and mind of a world-class ultrarunner.
We have passed the 2:30 mark in Hatta and as the sun continues to bake the road under our feet, we can feel the effects of our earlier dehydration. Those fast early kilometers and the eccentric contractions on the quick downhills have taken their toll on the legs. As we silently run-walk the long ascent back up Generator Hill, our longest climb of the day, we do whatever it takes to keep moving. Form goes out the window for me as I tuck my chin into my chest and let my upper body slump in the last portion of the climb. All my energy is focused on turning my legs over. I feel a level of depletion that would have been comical but for the five kilometers we still had to cover to get from the top of Generator Hill to the cars. I wonder to myself if this is what ultrarunning is fundamentally about - it’s not running at all really, it’s finding the mental strength to will the body forward when the body can no longer function and the finish line is absurdly far off.
We reach the top of Generator Hill. We both sit down. Then we lie down for a few minutes in stunned silence, unable to say much of anything. I do not think I can move again, at least not soon. I take stock and consider my options - our friend was on a shorter run and is back at the cars by now. Perhaps he could come fetch us, I think to myself. But Gerda starts to rise off the asphalt. She is on her feet now and looking strangely revived. She smiles and says, “Oh man, that was tough.” Then after a pause, “Alright, shall we carry on?” I indicate that she should take off and I will follow, but her renewed energy is contagious. And so is the morbid satisfaction she seems to have taken in the morning’s proceedings. I get to my feet and shuffle across the crest of the hill. As I start to open my stride, I can see Gerda ahead of me, bombing down the hill as usual. Her legs do not seem to mind it. “Tough indeed,” I think to myself. I start after her.