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by Michelle Carnegie
06 November 2018

She has always been a notch above the rest, but what South African marathon runner Irvette van Zyl has managed to achieve in the last five months is absolutely phenomenal and inspiring. Barely five months after the birth of her second child she has just won the highly competitive Soweto Marathon, and in the process set a new record on a very tough course. This all shortly after she has won the one race after the other in her build up to the Soweto Marathon. And to top this all off, Van Zyl is one of the nicest and most down to earth elite distance runners on the road. She is never too busy to chat to supporters, the media, or encourage fellow runners.
Sunday’s win at the Soweto Marathon was the cherry on top for Van Zyl, who has worked hard to get back in top form after the birth of her second son Gideon on June 9. So when she broke the tape in a time of 2:33.43, smashing the previous course record of 2:36:02, it was a well-deserved win for someone who is known for her great training and work ethic.
Building up to the Soweto Marathon Van Zyl set the racing scene ablaze: her most remarkable wins the Cape Town Marathon and the FNB Joburg 10K CITYRUN which she both won barely 24 hours apart. Other great performances came at the SPAR Grand Prix Series, in which she finished in 5th overall position despite missing some races and being pregnant whilst running others.
Race Day
The Soweto Marathon has always been close to Van Zyl’s heart. In fact, she was actually pregnant last year when winning it, but only found out after the race that another little boy was on the way. “The atmosphere at the Soweto Marathon is great and I love being part of the hype. The supporters cheer me on as if I am from Soweto. And I love that. And of course all the different landmarks we pass by are always special,” says Van Zyl.
She knew she was in good shape, but wasn’t sure she was ready yet to tackle a marathon. “What gave me confidence is the two 10km races I ran 5 weeks ago and only 24 hours apart. I just kept reminding myself of those two races to help ease the nerves. On Wednesday I actually started to get a light cold and by Friday I already had a sore throat so I was a bit hesitant to run the marathon. But I just tried sleeping more and luckily hubby L.J. looked after the kids so that I could rest and feel better.” 
The night before the race Van Zyl checked her splits and thought she could perhaps clock a 2:38 marathon. “The course record came to mind but I really thought it was out of reach.”
When the gun went off on race morning Van Zyl was more than ready. “Our first few kays were fast on the clock, but it felt like we were jogging. I then knew the ladies would struggle to beat me. My worst moment on course was when we passed Orlando Stadium and the tough hills started. That’s when your focus shifts from time splits to just making each hill to the top and running on how you feel, all to hold back energy and stay as comfortable as possible. But I also knew I am strong on hills and that I would make my move on the hills.” And that is exactly what happened.
At the 40km mark Van Zyl realized she could set a course record but actually thought her watch was wrong! The previous course record was 2:36:02. Van Zyl not only beat this by clocking 2:33:43, but also beat the second lady by roughly 4 minutes.
And her best moment of the race? “When I crossed the finish line, not because I won but mostly because I am always so proud of myself for completing the whole distance.”

Balancing Act
What makes Van Zyl’s recent achievements even more remarkable is the fact that she has managed to bounce back to such top form only five months after the birth of her second son. She admits that having two children under the age of 3 and trying to train at an elite level is very hard work. “I try and make it work for my husband and the kids. My children are my first priority. So I work my day around them. Most mornings I get up between 4am-5am depending on my training session for that particular morning. I make sure that I’m back at 7am when the kids wake up. I get them ready, fed and sorted and then L.J. takes our eldest to crèche at 8am before he leaves for work. I then clean the house, do washing, play with Gideon, feed him again before I go to gym for just over an hour. Then it’s home time to feed Gideon and myself, play with him, do admin, fold up washing, go buy groceries and fetch Louis.”
When L.J. gets home from work she fits in another training session before starting dinner so the family can eat by 6:30. Then it’s bath and bedtime for the little ones. A full day indeed!
Training smarter
These days Van Zyl admits to having to train smarter as she only has so many hours in a day to fit it all in. She is self-coached and finds it works best for her.
“Self-coaching just works better for me, especially with two kids. On days where I get little sleep or there is just too much on my plate I will cut back completely on training and just let my body guide me on what it is, and isn’t capable of. I think this has helped me to get stronger because I can consistently train without having setbacks or injuries. I also think my excitement to run races again helps as well.”
Super husband
Van Zyl describes her Olympic hurdler husband as a super Daddy and husband. He rarely misses a race his wife competes in and is always at the finish line to support. “L.J. has been a real super daddy since Gideon has been born. He helps taking over the night duty so I can get more sleep, and keeps the kids busy while I do my afternoon runs. And he always supports, motivates and guides me. He really is helping me to be the best I can be.”  
Since retiring from athletics L.J. works at The University of Pretoria’s Higher Education Faculty. He is also an ambassador for Bestmed and helps with some of their events. On top of this he is involved in coaching clinics and is a motivational speaker. “L.J. is really busy since his retirement. But he loves what he is doing now,” says Van Zyl.
Looking ahead
For the next couple of days Van Zyl takes a complete rest before she will start jogging lightly from Friday. She will continue to do so for two weeks before hard training starts again. “For now I am just grateful for how the year has turned out. I feel blessed to have done so well in a short amount of time. I am taking it all in and enjoying the moment. The only plan for now is to improve on my times and to be a better athlete.”
And apart from winning a hefty R250 000 for her victory at the Soweto Marathon, how did she celebrate after the race? Pizza and ice-cream of course! And after 42.2km she still had the energy to play with her little ones. Phenomenal super woman indeed.

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