You can comfortably name Irvette van Zyl among South Africa’s favourite household names in running in South Africa, and this past weekend the many-times champion really cemented that who’s-who status.
Van Zyl won her fourth Soweto Marathon in a time of 2:34:16 on Sunday, and reading between the lines of her post-race comments on TV, she’s really missed the two years since she last ran in the event since her hat-trick of wins between 2017 and 2019.
“I am so happy I could be here and be part of the action and not sitting on the couch because that was way worse, I rather be in the action. If it doesn’t give me a win. I’d just rather be here and try my best.”2023 Soweto Marathon champion, Irvette van Zyl
The popular South Africa runner finished ahead of Ethopia’s Selam Gebere, who came in a time of 2:36:04, and Kenya’s Faith Chepkoech in third, running in a time of 2:37:26. Van Zyl was also the only South African in the top 10, with Zinhle Shabba was the next local, finishing in 11th position.
Van Zyl who set the record in a time of 2hr 33min 43sec back in 2018 and, prior to the race, there was talk that the record was under pressure.
As it turned out on Sunday, she narrowly missed out on setting a new the record this year, saying that she experienced concerns at the 30 kilometre mark, when she started cramping.
Not wanting to risk a win at that point, Van Zyl told gsport: “I actually wrote the record split on my arm, coming through 30 I saw we were already off, and my one hamstring was cramping a bit. I knew with all those hills coming, if I pushed the pace, the cramping can get worse, and then I could lose the win, I’d rather stay comfortable and let the record go and go for the win.
“I knew at 30 kilometres making that decision the record was off and I checked again at 40, so I knew it’s impossible to run that fast and make 30 seconds up in that last 2km’s.”
The race though is one that is close to Van Zyl’s heart, and she says it’s always special taking part in ‘The People’s Race’.
“I think it’s the atmosphere, it’s such a special race, the young kids in the townships run with you and that’s so special, you have to be someone who they (the kids) can look up to, who want to be like you and run with you. It’s so inspiring for me to run through all the historic monuments and just go through the history of Soweto, that’s so special. I don’t think there is any race like the Soweto Marathon.”
2023 has had it fair share of ups and downs for the 36-year-old runner, who sustained a foot injury (a stress fracture to her navicular bone) in the beginning part of the year, and where she wasn’t able to train at all in order for her foot to heal.
Van Zyl says having to just sit on the couch for those six weeks was very difficult, being someone who likes to be active. But she realised that resting is also an important part of making sure she recovers, and stays at her optimal fitness.
“In there beginning we didn’t know the severity of the injury. After I had an CT scan it showed that it was worse in the previous MRI scan, so the recovery time went from 3 months to five months, and after the five months I could only start walking, then walking/running, and then only running. It was hugely frustrating for me, especially in those five months.”2023 Soweto Marathon champion, Irvette van Zyl
“Usually when I am injured, I cross-train, but it got so severe I got told: “You have to do nothing, just sit on the couch and relax!” That is really hard for an athlete to do. For six weeks they told me to do nothing on my foot, not evening cycling or swimming. I couldn’t do nothing! So I did a bit of aqua jogging but that was super frustrating.”
After what was a rather trying year, Van Zyl feels that things are looking up, given the fact she managed to win the Soweto Marathon, which will help her as she looks start 2024 with positivity.
“It was really frustrating time in my running career and I though I was never going to come back. In May I could start running but then I got swine flu, so for another three weeks I couldn’t run. So this year was quite a struggle. The year didn’t start well but winning the Soweto Marathon, I feel like the table have turned a bit but I knew I only need a consistent four months of training or more to be myself again. The new club that I am at (The Hollywoods Athletic Club) were really patient were giving me the time to heal, they weren’t rushing me back, so that helped.”
With the Paris Olympics just over six months away, Van Zyl already has a qualifier from last year’s but says she is keen to improve her marathon time before the event in July next year.
“I really want improve my time before the qualifier ends. I really want to try win run a 2hrs 26mins marathon, so that will be the next goal now. It’s about recovering as quickly as I can and seeing if my body has completely recovered, and I will be going full force for that.
“Next year is also the Two Oceans Marathon, which I have never won, and that will be nice to win. The Two Oceans is also as special as the Soweto Marathon. You just get certain races that you want to go back and try your best on it. The Two Oceans is also a route that like with, with all the hills.
“My main goal is stay healthy and injury free, so I have made a lot of changes to my programme and it seems to be working and in the past I didn’t like rest days, but now I force my rest days and I feel like that has been my advantage currently, that my body can heal up.”
Given Van Zyl’s marathon pedigree in marathon running in South Africa, she is set to have a big 2024.
Main Photo Caption: Irvette van Zyl appears to be regaining her top form after overcoming a significant injury setback. Her performance at the 2023 Soweto Marathon over the weekend suggests a reversal of fortunes for this well-liked South African long-distance specialist. Photo: Screengrab of Supersport’s coverage of the race’s finale on Facebook
Photo 2 Caption: She’s Number One – Four times over! “No race like Soweto” says 4-Time Marathon champion Irvette van Zyl after comfortably win the iconic race in hot conditions in Johannesburg on Sunday morning. Photo: African Bank on X