South Africa’s Elana Meyer was a pioneer of the half marathon. Not only did she set four world records for the distance, but in 1994 she became the first African woman to win a world half marathon title.
Meyer’s deep-rooted passion for the half marathon distance began early.
Aged just 13 at the time, the enthusiastic teenager was taken by her parents to run the Foot of Africa Half Marathon in Bredasdorp. Describing herself as “unprepared”, she nonetheless ran a hugely impressive 1:27. She later focused on cross country and track during her school years, but her experience in Bredasdorp left a lasting impression.
“Somehow the half marathon remained by favourite event,” she says. “I had enough speed coming from the track to make a good half-marathoner. Compared to others, I was never a high mileage marathoner. It (the half marathon) was the distance I felt I could race better.”
Meyer emerged on the global scene at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when she became the poster-girl of a new post-apartheid era for South Africa. The image of her as the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist hand-in-hand with gold medallist Derartu Tulu remains one of the most symbolic athletics images of its time and thrust the modest woman from the Western Cape into the limelight.
Disappointingly, Meyer could not match expectations at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart when failing to finish in the 10,000m, a race won by China’s Wang Junxia.
The following year she made her marathon debut, finishing third in Boston in a national record of 2:25:15 before an iron and potassium deficiency wiped her out for much of the track campaign.
“I was in really great shape and expected to have a great season,” she recalls.
Meyer, however, under the experienced coaching of Pieter Labuschagne, returned to target the 10,000m at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.
Some way short of her best, she still managed to earn the silver medal behind Scotland’s Yvonne Murray. Just two and a half weeks later, she proved her shape by blitzing to a South African 10,000m record of 30:52:51 to win the IAAF World Cup – the forerunner to the IAAF Continental Cup – in London.
Next up loomed the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Oslo, where Meyer sensed a chance to make history.
“I saw the event as a great opportunity to become a world champion over a distance I’d enjoyed since I was really young,” she says.
In a field largely bereft of East African athletes, the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist’s main opposition was served up by the powerful Romanian team.
Yet in a demonstration of her form, fitness and ease with the half-marathon distance, she broke free a little before halfway and proved unstoppable, stopping the clock in 1:08:36 for a comprehensive win on a sunny autumn day.
“I surged at about 10 kilometres and dropped the entire field,” she recalls. “Somehow I expected them to come back but that never happened. Oslo was a race I could enjoy. I felt great all the way. Everything worked out perfectly.
“It was a great experience to not only walk away with the win but to bounce back from the disappointment of Stuttgart a year earlier. It was a special moment to be able to represent South Africa as a new democratic country.”
Four years on, Meyer returned for a second tilt at the World Half Marathon Championships, which took place in Uster, Switzerland. Using the event as preparation for the Chicago Marathon, she was also delighted to be returning to a championship event at a distance she loves. Nonetheless, she fully understood the scale of the challenge she faced in the shape of defending champion Tegla Loroupe of Kenya, who earlier that year had smashed the world marathon record in Rotterdam.
“Tegla was the favourite,” says Meyer, now aged 51. “She was at the peak of her career. Tegla broke away in the latter stages but never got too far away. I remember we had a slight uphill finish and I was closing her down over the last 400 metres, but I just ran out of distance.
“I felt satisfied but I had left my challenge too late and felt that shouldn’t have happened,” she adds of her narrow three-second defeat.
In 1999 Meyer arguably achieved the high point of her career when setting a world half marathon record of 1:06:44 in Tokyo. It was a memorable moment and even moved the then South African President and global icon Nelson Mandela to call her and extend his congratulations.
“It was a really special moment for me,” she recalls. “For a very busy president to take the time to ring up and recognise a road runner’s achievements meant a lot.”
Later that year Meyer returned once again to the World Half Marathon Championships in Palermo but, feeling a little short of her best, trailed home a more than one-and-a-half minutes to finish seventh behind Loroupe, who secured a hat-trick of titles.
In 2001 Meyer returned for a fourth crack at the event in Bristol and although performing with pride and finishing a respectable sixth in 1:08:56 – just three days shy of her 35th birthday – she fell some way short of threatening race winner Paula Radcliffe.
“By then my focus had shifted away from running championships to perhaps squeezing in another good marathon,” she says. “Yet it was a good experience and I enjoyed going back to the World Half.”
Meyer finally retired in 2004 at the age of 37. Today a mum-of-two to Christopher, 10, and Ené, 7, she can look back on a proud and accomplished endurance career which brought success on all surfaces and at a range of distances. Yet she is of little doubt which was her favourite.
“Of all the events, the half marathon was the one which came easiest to me,” says Meyer, who today works as an ambassador for an endurance academy in Stellenbosch. “It’s a pity the half marathon wasn’t an Olympic event because I never quite achieved what I thought I could over the marathon distance. However, I was very consistent in the half marathon for a long time. I enjoyed the fact race nutrition was not as important as it was for the marathon. The half marathon is such a simple race.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF
Meyer in numbers
3 – The total number of seconds which separated gold medal winner Tegla Loroupe from Elana Meyer at the 1998 World Half Marathon Championships
4 – The total number of World Half Marathon Championships Meyer competed at.
23 – The span in years between Meyer’s first half marathon, aged 13, and her last competitive outing over the 21.1km distance in 2003, aged 36
39 –Meyer’s winning margin, in seconds, at the 1994 World Half Marathon Championships