All five races, she set new course records. She completed 1988 with a personal best of 2:43 in the Egoli Marathon run at medium altitude.
In January 1989 she again won the Benoni standard marathon in a new personal and course record time of 2:40:45; the following month she lowered her best marathon time to 2:30:25 when she won the South African Marathon Championship in a new national record time. This is the fastest marathon ever run by a woman in February, and it was the eigth fastest time in the world in 1989. In March, she won the 56-km Two Oceans Marathon in a new record time of 3:30:36, finishing in 22nd position overall. During the race she established new world best times for 30 miles (3:01:16) and 50 km (3:08:39). Six weeks later, she set the South African and All-African records for 32 km (1:53:40).
As remarkable as these performances were, they pailed somewhat when, on May 31, 1989, van der Merwe finished 15th overall in the 90-km “down”-Comrades Marathon in a time of 5:54:43. That performance may have been the greatest-ever Comrades Marathon run by any athlete. The overall downhill gradient of the course prevented her time from being considered a world record.
Her calculated time at 50 miles (5:24:37) is 52:53 faster than the recognized world record held by West German, Monika Kuno.
During the remainder of 1989, van der Merwe won a further marathon (2:38) run on a hilly course; she lowered her record time for the 50-km City-to-City Marathon to 3:04:34; and in November she ran 49:48 for 15 km at sea level. By the end of the year she had been awarded national colors for 15 km, the marathon, and the ultramarathon in the same year. On February 24, 1990, she improved her national record to 2:27:36 in the national marathon championships, and on March 18, 1990, she finished in 10th place overall in the 56-km Milo Korkie Marathon, lowering her previous record by 22 minutes to 3:32:42.
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Some of the features van der Merwe believes are important for her success are the devoted support and love she receives from her family, especially her mother who takes care of all the small but essential comforts necessary for the competitive athlete; her personal dedication and discipline; her enjoyment of running; and the fact that she was never pushed to train hard at school. She is entirely self-coached because, as she writes, she has “always been an independent, headstrong person” who “prefers doing things my own way” (F. van der Merwe, 1990, p. 38). In less public moments, she admits that she does not like being told what to do. She also writes, “I’m the best person to know how my body feels and will train accordingly” (F. van der Merwe, 1990, p. 38). She believes that by training herself, she has been able to avoid serious injuries.
Van der Merwe’s approach to ultramarathon training and racing has been strongly influenced by Bruce Fordyce, whose advice she has sought and followed since she began serious training. Her average training week is listed in Exercises 8.31. Her typical weekly training distance varies from 120 to 130 km depending on the length of the long weekend run. Prior to the Comrades Marathon she increases this to about 140 km/week in February and to 160 to 170 km/week in March, April, and the first 2 weeks of May. Her training during the last 2-1/2 weeks before the Comrades is very similar to the taper used by Bruce Fordyce for that race.
In this post, we have discussed the value of the long-distance training runs that are a feature of the training programs of most ultradistance runners. It would seem that, like Bruce Fordyce but unlike many other great ultradistance runners, van der Merwe does not believe that such runs are of great value. Prior to her record-breaking run in the 1989 Comrades Marathon, she completed only the following long training runs: Januaryone 42-km race; Februarytwo 42-km races; Marchone 56-km race; Aprilone 45-km training run; Mayone 59km training run.
Like many of the great male distance runners, van der Merwe is an excellent example of an athlete who developed her true potential only after leaving school and indeed after leaving the university. She began intensive training when she was 23, yet set world records by age 25. She again shows that the best ultramarathon runners will come from those who are fastest over 10 to 42 km.
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