Kiplagat and Kastor triumph on the streets of Chicago

Eight years ago, while I was living on Canada’s east coast, a friend of mine dragged me to watch my first rugby game. Knowing little of the sport and how it was played, I expected to be bored, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself engrossed in the action. That’s because rugby is a spectator sport: it unfolds intuitively, accessibly, and offers entertainment value to those who might not be well versed in the finer points (or in my case, any points) of the game.

The marathon? Not so much.

Distance running in general, and road racing in particular, can be a little thankless from a spectator’s point of view. Improvements to the viewing experience from televised coverage, colourful commentary, and the recent introduction of drone footage, may have enhanced the entertainment value, but the sport remains one of subtlety. At its best, it’s nuanced; at its worst, dead boring.

This morning marked the first time in 26 years that the Chicago Marathon has been run without elite pacers, resulting in a slower field than previous years, but one characterized by the sort of cautious, tactical strategy typically reserved for championship racing. Instead of an optimized time trial, viewers were treated to an old-school foot race, with elites vying for place instead of time.

The great appeal of the marathon is in those transcendental moments it occasionally offers up – moments in which we witness the power of human tenacity in rising to a challenge which can at times appear insurmountable. On the streets of Chicago this morning, the elite women’s race offered no shortage of such moments.

67531c39-069c-4872-8144-294d1d1e908dKenyan Florence Kiplagat ran to a cautious but strategically impressive victory, crossing the line in 2:23:33. The 28-year-old dropped to the ground after finishing, giving an exuberant thumbs up to press and spectators.

Kiplagat ran to a third-place finish in Chicago last year, but was later upgraded to second following then-champion Rita Jeptoo testing positive for EPO.

AT&T USA Outdoor Track And Field Championships - Day 1American record holder Deena Kastor, who won the Chicago Marathon in 2005, bettered her own winning time from ten years prior, running 2:27:47 for a seventh-place overall finish. At 44 years old, Kastor is now the new American masters record holder as well, smashing Colleen De Reuck’s previous record of 2:28:40. Master or not, Kastor’s 2:27:47 is one hell of a world-class run.

Kiplagat and Kastor’s transcendent performances this morning were electrifying to watch. To see Deena Kastor continue to nail out world-class times as a master only reaffirms the prominence of women’s distance racing.

So thanks, ladies – your hard work, dedication, and grit are inspiring a generation of running women, and redefining what it means to run like a girl.

Chase big dreams.

Rob Watson versus the Chicago Marathon


Sunday, October 11th will mark the 38th running of the Chicago Marathon. Founded in 1977 as a rival to the New York City Marathon, the race has swelled from its original 4,200 runners to a field of more than 40,000.

To say that the Chicago course is fast would be an understatement. World records in both the women’s and men’s marathon have been broken at Chicago four times. The course records holders – Dennis Kimetto and Paula Radcliffe – happen to be the respective world record holders as well.

If you’re looking for a course that will allow you to run your fastest time, you could do worse than Chicago.

“Chicago’s probably the fastest North American marathon, course-wise,” explains Canadian elite marathoner Rob Watson. “If you go out there, and the weather works out on the day, and you’re fit, there’s nowhere else in North America you’re gonna run any faster.”

Which is precisely why Watson selected this year’s Chicago Marathon for his run at the 2016 Olympic standard.

“It’s a great course,” says Watson.  “It’s got lots of history… That’s where Steve Jones did some really cool things. It’s a marathon I’ve always wanted to do.”


Like marathon legend Jones, Watson is a notoriously gutsy but sometimes inconsistent runner; his fade-from-the-front approach to the marathon, which has contributed to some of his more spectacular blow-ups, has also fueled many of his most daring and inspiring performances.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who would question his ability to put himself in the hurt box,” says Watson’s former coach, Speed River’s Dave Scott-Thomas. “He can run himself almost comatose.”

This is precisely what Watson did four years earlier, while chasing the London Olympic standard in the Rotterdam Marathon. He collapsed over the finish line in 2:13:37 – a huge personal best for the runner, but still more than two minutes slower than the qualifying standard. “I was upset,” he says. “But when I think about it now, I ended up in a hospital bed on an IV and I couldn’t stop throwing up. What more could I do?”

2013 Boston Marathon WeekendWatson’s old-school running style eschews tactical running in favor of a sort of no-holds-barred, pure-guts, balls-out foot racing. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Canadian distance runner welcomed the recent announcement by Chicago Marathon organizers that they would no longer be allowing elite pacers in the race.

“It takes it back to the purity of the foot race,” Watson says of the decision. “I don’t like how these races have become essentially time trials… I like the racing aspect of the sport, so I’m all for getting rid of these rabbits.”

Chasing the 2:12:50 standard for the 2016 Olympics in a strong elite field like Chicago should leave Watson with no shortage of competitors to run with. And while the standard would mean a personal best of nearly 40 seconds, Watson has proven before that he’s capable of running times that might otherwise appear to be out of his depth.

If Dylan Wykes, Reid Coolsaet, and Eric Gillis represent the pantheon of the current Canadian men’s marathon elite, Watson is a comparative outsider: gutsy, capable, and – in his bid for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team – just a hair’s breadth shy of the mark.

As Coolsaet proved again in Berlin last week, his place at Rio 2016 is a forgone conclusion. Gillis, who met the qualifying standard for the 2012 London Olympic team by a margin of only one second, will be chasing the Rio standard again at the Toronto Marathon later this month – exactly one week following Watson in Chicago.

A qualifying time for Watson in Chicago would electrify the Toronto Marathon, and light a fire under not only Gillis, but also up-and-coming marathon elites Matt Loiselle and Kip Kangogo. It would certainly turn the Canadian Marathon Championships into a race to be remembered.

But timing aside, it’s impossible not to root for Watson’s Olympic dream. There’s a purity to the Rob Watson style of racing, a charming blend of ego and humility, ambition and lightheartedness, competition and camaraderie.

“Long term the goal is Rio 2016,” Watson says. “That’s it man – the Olympics is everything.”

Godspeed, Robbie. Go give those Chicago streets the Steve Jones treatment!

Chase big dreams.

The short stuff

a317f1bf80493e98a61235f03c42bd0bJust over three years ago, in the sweltering heat of my first Toronto summer, I decided to take up running. I had been a runner in my high school days, but I quit completely in college. Coming back to the sport after so many years, I felt like I was starting all over again. I had none of the confidence of my former skinny sixteen-year-old self, who used to tear through hilly cross-country courses with athleticism and guts. I didn’t feel like an athlete anymore. I didn’t even own a pair of shorts.

This proved to be a bit of an obstacle in the sweaty summer of 2012, in a city that, it seemed to me, was designed to trap every bit of heat in the concrete below my feet. But thirty-plus temperatures and crippling humidity be damned – there was no way I would be caught running, in public, in shorts.

The best I could muster was a pair of black knee-length tights. To me they looked “athletic enough” without betraying the pasty-white, shamefully toneless legs hiding underneath. I spent two months of a blistering heat wave, suffering through labored three-to-five-k runs in those tights.

My roommate – a natural athlete who ran on a track and field scholarship through college, while I was eating pizza and doing keg stands – sized me up on my way out the door one afternoon.

“You’re running in that?!” she asked. “It’s like forty degrees outside!”

I knew I was being ridiculous, of course. When I look back at pictures of myself that summer, with that benefit of outside perspective that only comes with time, I can say confidently that my body looked just fine. I had no reason to be terrified of something as innocuous as wearing shorts. But I was.

I remember very vividly they day the heat finally broke me. Even hours after the sun went down, it was scorching hot outside. Something had to give; either the heat had to go, or my body image issues did.

I’ll never know for sure, but I’ll bet you my first run in shorts was a PB. I was so embarrassed, so uncomfortable, so irrationally convinced that strangers on the street were gawking at my totally normal, human-looking legs, that I all but sprinted my usual 4K loop.

I didn’t get comfortable with them overnight, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved when the fall came and I could switch back to running in yoga pants without risking heatstroke. But over time, I’ve made peace with the way that my legs look in shorts.

Over many years, and countless miles, running has made me realize that my legs don’t exist to be measured and judged by the standards of others; my legs are machines, that can carry me places and do things that others simply cannot do.

If there’s one really powerful gift that running has given me, it’s the freedom to appreciate my body on my own terms. I don’t want a flat stomach; I want a negative split. I don’t want a thigh gap; I want a Boston qualifier. And I don’t want to look like Megan Fox, I want… Alright, that’s a lie. I would totally love to look like Megan Fox.

But I’d much rather crack three hours in the marathon.

Chase big dreams.

Coolsaet narrowly misses Canadian record in Berlin

This morning should have been a lazy Sunday morning like any other. But instead of snoozing through the sunrise like I usually do, I had my alarm set for the ungodly hour of 3:11 AM. Why?


Because, fellow dorky followers of Canadian running, our nation’s darling of the men’s marathon, Mr. Reid Coolsaet, crossed the finish line of the Berlin Marathon this morning, and I just had to know his time. Coolsaet ran a personal best of 2:10:29 – an especially impressive time, considering that’s only about 0.5 seconds/kilometer off from Jerome Drayton’s 40-year-old Canadian record.

Coolsaet’s world-class performance was enough to earn him a sixth-place finish, and he’s now officially the second-fastest marathoner in Canadian history, edging out Dylan Wykes’ previous 2:10:47 for the runner-up spot.

Any record that’s stood for as long as Drayton’s can become, for a fan like me, kind of maddening. I can’t help but think back to Lanni Marchant’s glorious finish at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon two years ago, when she smashed Sylvia Ruegger’s 28-year-old Canadian record. How amazing would it be to watch Reid have a moment like Lanni’s?

Coolsaet says he’s at once satisfied and frustrated by his performance in Berlin. As an athlete, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. But as a fan, I’m nothing but excited. It feels to me like the long quest to break Drayton’s record is gaining a new momentum. I don’t know about you, but I think Coolsaet is the man for the job.

And if the reaction on social media is any indication, it looks like I’m not alone…

Chase big dreams.

Race Recap: Canada Army Run


Last weekend I had the absolute pleasure of flying to Ottawa with my family for the Canada Army Run 5K. This was my last race in the lead-up to the Toronto Marathon next month, and was an important test of fitness to see where we’re at heading into race day. It was also the first time racing a 5K for my Mum and two of my sisters, newbies to the running scene.

The race weekend was a shining success for all of the Friel girls. My Mum spent a few arduous months this year recovering from a back injury, and for her, just finishing was the goal. As it turns out, she finished ahead of more than half the women in her age group – a huge feat for anyone, but especially impressive considering the injury she faced. Way to go, Mum!


My sister Catherine also stunned us all with a great 5K race debut time of 26:27, especially impressive considering she only started running for the first time back in April. Her dedication and consistency really paid off this weekend, and I’m super proud of the progress she’s making.

tumblr_inline_nv1bttHD3p1tthhly_540And finally, there’s me.

This race had a little more personal significance for me than a 5K normally would. See, I registered for the Army Run because a few months ago I was dating a really lovely guy who also happens to be a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Before we dated, I had never really understood the hard work and personal sacrifice that goes into serving in the Canadian Forces. I registered for this race because I loved the idea of giving back to those who serve through the sport that has given me so much.

The thing is, he and I broke up a little while ago. It’s been a tough period of adjustment, but a necessary difficulty for both of us to move towards our personal goals in life. Being on my own has allowed me to give my training the time and focus it needs.

It wasn’t easy to spend the weekend surrounded by those in uniform, where every place I looked was another reminder of someone I loved who I had to let go. But when I crossed that finish line and saw my time, I knew it had all been worth it.

tumblr_inline_nv1c0zu3y71tthhly_540Breaking the 20-minute barrier in the 5K took a lot of work, and even though I know it’s just the first step on this journey, it feels like a huge accomplishment. I finally feel like I’m on track to chase down my big, ridiculous dreams.

It’s not always easy to say goodbye – to a person, to a place, to a time in your life that made you happy. But it’s necessary. I could not have run as fast as I did on Sunday if I hadn’t suffered through that loss and heartbreak. It made me stronger, it gave me focus, it showed me my direction.

I guess it goes breakup, breakdown, breakthrough.

Chase big dreams.