Irvette van Zyl’s talent and tenacity give her a chance at Soweto Marathon
Hollywood Athletics Club star is eyeing a fourth victory on Sunday
It has been four years since Irvette van Zyl last won the Soweto Marathon, but nobody should write off the veteran who is running pain-free again after struggling with injuries.
The Hollywood Athletics Club star is eyeing a fourth victory on Sunday, though she will have to contend with 2022’s winner, Chaltu Bedo Negashu of Ethiopia, and her third-placed compatriot Tinebebe Nebiyu Ali. Both are with the strong Nedbank running club.
But Van Zyl, the winner from 2017-19, brings a resilience and natural talent that has been overshadowed at times on the local road by phenomenal Gerda Steyn.
She finished second behind Steyn at the 2022 Two Oceans 56km, both of them inside the women’s best time. Van Zyl briefly held the women’s 50km world record and she has been to three Olympics.
But injuries, especially stress fractures and reactions, have plagued the
In 2022 Van Zyl, tired of breaking down, decided to coach herself.
She rested up for four weeks, doing no roadwork though she did cross-training, such as swimming and cycling.
On her first day back she went out for a light 30-minute jog and that evening husband LJ, SA’s former 400m hurdles star who still holds the national record, told her she had been invited to compete in the Valencia Marathon.
The problem is that it was just four weeks away, but she decided to go for it.
“My first week was just getting back,” she said. “I did two weeks training and then one week of taper before the race.”
I’ve been really enjoying this last six weeks of training and just seeing the progress that I’ve been making and without even trying so hard.
And then she flew to Spain and flew around the course in 2hr 26min 11sec, inside the 2:26.50 qualifying time for the Paris Olympics.
Even more impressive was that this time made her the second-fastest SA woman over 42.2km ever.
Only Steyn has been faster, going 2:25:28 in Siena in 2021. Elana Meyer’s 2:25:15 in Boston in 1994 is not official because the course was not deemed legal by World Athletics.
Yet Van Zyl doesn’t think her time is fast enough to book her spot in the SA team. Countries can enter a maximum of three athletes per event, and so far she is the only South African to have beaten the qualifying mark.
But US-based Dominique Scott is in the hunt for the Games and if Steyn decides to give Paris a twirl there could be two runners ahead of her.
And then if someone such as Glenrose Xaba decides to move up to the marathon with success, Van Zyl could be squeezed out.
It might sound far-fetched, but she has every reason to be cautious.
Her husband went to three Olympics, in 2008, 2012 and 2016, but he actually qualified for four Games. He achieved the required time for Athens 2004, only to be the fourth-quickest in the country and omitted from the team.
Van Zyl, who wants to improve her marathon time to make sure she gets to Paris, was upbeat with the quality of her training.
“I’m running pain free again and the fitness is improving and everything is clicking together again. So that has been really nice.
“I’ve been really enjoying this past six weeks of training and just seeing the progress that I’ve been making and without even trying so hard.”
Van Zyl has also taught herself to back off in training. “I like crushing it in every session, but I’m learning that I don’t have to. If I don’t feel great I have a rest day. There’s nothing wrong with a rest day.”
And to top it all, training isn’t a picnic for the mother of two, who arranges her schedule around sons Louis, 8, and Gideon, 5, as well as LJ.
She runs in the mornings and often has to do her gym work or cycle in the evenings after putting the boys to bed.
“When I’ve been putting Gideon down he asks, ‘are you going to gym now?’. And the other night I didn’t need to go and he was: “Are you not going to gym tonight'?”
Sunday’s run is no last hurrah for Van Zyl, who sees herself competing for another four years or so.
“I’m just taking it all in and really trying to enjoy these last few years I have left.”
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