CAPE TOWN – At 32, Irvette van Zyl is looking for new challenges while still improving on the old, and the Pretoria-based athlete tackles her first ultra-marathon at Saturday’s Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon.
Less than a year after the birth of her second child and fully engaged as a working mother, Van Zyl is still at the top of her game as one of South Africa’s best distance athletes, scarcely pausing for breath on her path to achieving her athletics and life goals.
Van Zyl has an enviable Two Oceans record over the half-marathon distance, second only to three times winner, Rene Kalmer. Her first four attempts at the race yielded four second positions, twice behind Kalmer, before she was able to clinch victory in 2016, defending her title the following year.
Van Zyl is a role-model of a professional athlete, who has worked long and hard to achieve her success. Rather than emerging as an overnight sensation, she has improved gradually over the years until now, when she should be regarded as one of the best distance athletes in the country.
But just as Van Zyl appears a shoe-in to represent her country in the marathon at this year’s World Championships in Doha and next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, she has chosen to race beyond the standard marathon distance for the first time in her career. Why run the ultra now?
@irv87 will be making her ultra debut @2oceansmarathon this year. In November last year she smashed the course record @SowetoMarathon, Van Zyl will come into the race as a force to be reckoned with. PB times: 10km 32:06, Half Marathon 1:11:00, Marathon 2:31:26 #greendreamteam pic.twitter.com/2E50rFGWD0
— Nedbank Running Club (@Nedbank_RC) March 27, 2019
“I think it’s a nice to do something else for a change,” Van Zyl joked. “But more seriously, I’ve wanted to run an ultra for some time. I had hoped to do the Two Oceans 56 last year, and then I found myself 7 months pregnant at the time!
“I had set myself a goal to run a faster marathon, and if I was unable to do so before Two Oceans this year, I would do the ultra. So I went to test the route a few weeks back and enjoyed it. I like the race profile with its climbs. it’s just the distance which scares me!
“I’m getting excited now! In the past I think I’ve over-trained for races. While I’ve trained quite hard for Oceans, I think it is more strategic to be injury-free than trying to push too much. I’ve learnt that you need to train smarter rather than harder to beat your rivals.”
Van Zyl is one of the most competitive athletes on the planet – she gained a podium position in the Cape Town leg of the SPAR 10km challenge last year at six months pregnant – and would not be running the 56km to enjoy the social occasion.
“I’d like to finish on the podium,” Van Zyl admitted. “But my main aim is to just finish in one piece – to get to the finish and still be healthy and uninjured. Regarding the world champs and the Olympics – I don’t know if that’s for me. I’m still not over the heartbreak of the 2016 Olympics (Van Zyl was forced to withdraw before the race with a stress fracture) and they’re already talking of 2020! But if it works out that could be good too.
“I came to Cape Town five weeks ago to train on the route, but experienced terrible weather! The first day in training on the route it was windy, the second was pouring with rain and the third a howling gale! LJ (her husband – former Olympic hurdler) was supporting me in the car, but when we headed out at 4am in the pouring rain, he just said ‘you’re nuts’!
“It’s certainly a challenge being a mother of two and an athlete, although LJ’s a great help, now he’s retired from athletics. Last week the kids were sick, so it became a terrible, hectic week without having a chance to even think of the race.”
Inevitably the question arose on whether Frith van der Merwe’s incredible 31 year-old course record of 3 hr 30 min 37 sec can ever be broken.
“I’d like to go for Frith’s record, but it’s my first time over the distance and I think I’m going to be running scared. You get to Hout Bay with a marathon in your legs and you’ve still got another 14km and the climb up Constantia Nek! Perhaps next year I’ll go for the record and this time just focus on finishing.
“But you never know… Before the Soweto Marathon I never thought that Meseret Mengistu’s record of 2:36:02 could be broken. But then I just had a good run and managed to get the record (Van Zyl ran 2:33:43 to win the Soweto Marathon last November).
So although it seems that Frith’s record might never be broken, anything can happen on the day!”