Hired Guns: A brief history of the pacer


Any discussion about pacing in distance running is bound to ruffle a few feathers, so let’s start this off with a statement on which we can all agree: Steve Prefontaine was a goddamn legend.

There are few, if any, runners that have attainted status in the sport’s collective psyche quite like Pre. But whether we attribute this universal renown to his undeniable dominance in American collegiate running, or to the ways in which his life so closely interwove itself with the the early lore of Nike, the core of his legend doubtless lies in the way that Pre ran.

Pre was a front-runner, and a relentless one at that. His racing style eschewed tactical running, opting instead to go out aggressively, from the gun, stubbornly refusing to relinquish the lead. “No one will ever win a 5,000 metre by running an easy two miles,” he was quoted as saying. “Not against me.”

What makes Pre remarkable isn’t the fact of his front-running – front-runners are a dime a dozen in this sport – but the fact that he was a front-runner who was actually good. More than good, really. He could talk a big game, run a balls-out race ostensibly devoid of strategy, and still manage to win by a wide margin. There was a romance, and a purity, to his approach to distance running.

It’s easy to love Prefontaine.

But the fact is, most runners are not Prefontaine. Most runners, regardless of talent, grit, and preparation, run better when they run tactical races. They hang in the pack. They respond to the movements of their fellow runners. They draft off of each other, expending a carefully calculated level of effort, and wait patiently for the ideal moment to throw in a surge and drop the competition.

In short, most runners run best with the aid of pacers.

Pacing is a controversial practice in distance running. Heavy-hitters in the sport, individuals and institutions alike, have by turns encouraged and denounced the employment of elite pacers in road racing. This debate has grown increasingly heated in recent years, and reached a boiling point in 2011 with the IAAF’s controversial ruling that it would no longer recognize women’s marathon world records that were set in mixed-gender events.

The decision effectively nullified Paula Radcliffe’s blistering 2:15:25 world record (London Marathon, 2003) in favour of her third-fastest performance of 2:17:42 (again in London, though this run in a female elite field that started 45 minutes ahead of their male counterparts). But while the London Marathon’s separation of the male and female elite fields attempted to generate more compelling coverage of both races, the IAAF contended that their own controversial ruling was designed to address concerns that male pacesetting of female elites conferred upon the women an “unfair advantage”.

And it’s true, the benefits of pacing in distance running are substantial. Over the marathon distance, women run an average of two minutes faster when paced by men – a statistic that IAAF supporters and distance running purists made much of in the heated debate that followed.

Physiologically, it is far easier to run within or just-behind a pack of runners than it is to lead one. And though the advantages of drafting in distance running aren’t quite as pronounced as they might be in a higher-speed sport like cycling, they certainly play a role, especially at the elite level. There’s also a psychological edge to be had in running from behind; most runners would sooner chase their target than be someone else’s.

All of this adds up to a significant advantage in running with a rabbit – though just how significant varies, depending on who you ask. Distance running pop culture has been known to play fast-and-loose with the figures. In the Prefontaine biopic Without Limits, Bill Bowerman memorably explains that “it takes eight percent more energy to lead than to follow” while imploring his prodigy front-runner to modify his signature racing style. Former U.S. and world champion David Krummenacker put the figure even higher, at fifteen percent.

But in any debate over the advantages of pacing (unfair or otherwise) these figures become of critical importance – particularly when the result of said debate has the effect of writing an incontrovertibly dominant record like Paula Radcliffe’s out of the history books.

So just how much of a benefit does drafting confer on a runner? Sweat Science’s Alex Hutchison explored this question, breaking down a 1971 study by physiologist Griffith Pugh (full text can be found here) in which he examined the oxygen consumption of a solo runner in controlled conditions, versus that same runner in the same conditions, this time running one metre behind another runner.

Unsurprisingly, Pugh’s calculations suggest a measurable energy saving from drafting, one which grows progressively more substantial at the higher speeds typical of short- or middle-distance racing. In the marathon, though less palpable, the benefit is certainly still there. Hutchison puts the ballpark figure as running about one second faster per 400m at 2:48/kilometre pace with the same oxygen consumption. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a big energy saving from drafting,” Hutchison concludes.

Haile_Gebrselassie_beim_Berlin-Marathon_2008Numbers aside, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to persuade a distance runner to tuck in behind a rabbit for the early miles of the marathon. When Haile Gebrselassie shattered his own world record at the Berlin Marathon in 2008, he did so with the help of no fewer than four pacers, running behind a veritable wall of marathon talent to bring home a blistering 2:03:59. (Since Geb was over 35 at the time, his now-bested mark still stands as the masters marathon world record.)

But it was Mary Keitany’s 2011 half-marathon performance at the Ras Al Khaimah half-marathon in United Arab Emirates that is rumoured to have raised eyebrows at the IAAF, eventually leading to their controversial women-only ruling. Keitany became the first woman to clock a time under 66 minutes in the half, and set a new world record of 1:05:50, running from gun-to-tape behind a male pacemaker.

The crucial distinction between the use of pacers by Keitany and Gebrselassie, according to the IAAF, is that any of Gebrselassie’s four pacemakers could have decided at any point to stop pacing, and start racing. By virtue of the fact that they are all male, and therefore all in contention for the same placing or records, they are by definition competitors.

The notion of an assigned pacer blazing ahead to victory is unusual, yes, but not entirely unheard of. Paul Pilkington entered the 1994 LA Marathon as a rabbit, only to find the elite field incapable holding his blistering pace. “I did my job by getting out fast, nobody came after me,” Pilkington said in a post-race interview with the LA Times. “I figured as long as I was out there and feeling good, why stop?”

Rather than dropping out at the 25K-mark as planned, Pilkington decided to go for the win, forfeiting his $3,000 payout as a pacer-for-hire, but ultimately pocketing a winner’s purse of more than $15,000. His decision was not well-received by his fellow competitors, but Pilkington insisted that the move was legal. “In every race, the rabbit always has the option of staying in the race,” he explained. Race officials agreed with him.

Mary Keitany’s pacemaker, on the other hand, had no such option. Men and women, though they may compete alongside one another, are not actually racing each other. Keitany’s pacer need not drop out at any point to insure she crosses the finish line first, because he is in contention for neither her placing nor her record. Therefore, Keitany – or any woman running the entirety of a race tucked comfortably behind a male pacer – is given an unfair advantage.

Under the IAAF’s new regulation, women’s times would no longer be eligible for world record consideration if they were run in mixed-gender events. While this precludes the use of assigned male pacemakers, it also removes from consideration any event in which the men’s and women’s elite fields start together, even in cases when female elites only use assigned female pacesetters.

While the ruling places the IAAF squarely in the camp of the distance running purists, who regard elite pacemaking as fundamentally unsportsmanlike, other major institutions have stood in staunch opposition. The ruling was contested by both the World Marathon Majors, as well as the Association of International Marathons. Together they issued a joint statement calling the IAAF regulations confusing, unfair, and not representative of the history of the sport.

paula-radcliffe-london-skyline-history-stands-t-shirt_3397933The ensuing controversy extended far beyond the ire of the World Marathon Majors, igniting a social media firestorm, and garnering public criticism from marathon heavy-hitters like Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher. Radcliffe, for her part, appealed to the IAAF to revisit their decision, while her sponsor Nike mounted an advertising campaign imploring the federation to “let history stand”.

Following a council meeting in November of 2011, it appeared that the IAAF was prepared to kowtow, at least in part, to mounting external pressure. It issued a clarification stating that the new regulation would not be applied retroactively, but only to those records set going forward. Radcliffe’s 2:15 mark would be allowed to stand.

Although the World Marathon Majors disputed the ruling as it relates to world record consideration, race organizers for the Majors remain divided on the use of pacers in their own races. Both the Boston and New York City marathons do not allow elites to run with assigned pacers, a rule that the Chicago Marathon also adopted this past year. The Berlin Marathon, on the other hand, is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for using teams of pacesetters to pull the elite field along to breakneck finish times. And not without reason; out of the last ten marathon world records, seven have been set at the Berlin Marathon.

For all its attendant controversy, elite pacemaking is hardly anything new. The annals of athletic history are littered with stories of these mercenaries of distance running. In fact, pacemaking played a pivotal role in what is arguably the most mythologized moment in distance running history – Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

Sir Christopher Chataway dies aged 82When Bannister clocked the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road Stadium in 1954, he did so with the help of not one but two pacemakers, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. Bannister’s use of pacers to break the elusive four-minute barrier reportedly miffed his long-time rival, Australian John Landy, who regarded the use of pacers as contrary to the spirit of competition. But Bannister’s world record ultimately failed to ruffle feathers in the athletics community the way that Mary Keitany’s half-marathon record did some 57 years later, in part due to the fact that Landy managed to better Bannister’s mark less than two months later.

The problem with pacing is that, at it’s very core, the practice is impossible to fully regulate. One might object to the employment of formal, assigned pacemakers, but in their absence, the line between tactical racing and informal pacemaking – one teammate pacing another to within striking distance of a goal time, the sacrificial lamb on the altar of calculated splits – begins to blur.

Athletic performance will always depend, at least in part on the performance of one’s competitors – on the pace of the pack, and the variable willingness of one runner or another to take the lead. And yes, there will always be the staunch purists who, like Prefontaine, regard tactical drafting as something akin to a less-than-honest race effort.

But like it or not, pacing – both the physiological advantage of drafting and the psychological relief of mentally “checking out” for a few miles – is a part of distance running. The question that the IAAF, and the athletics community more broadly, is trying to answer with attempts to regulate pacesetting is – how much should it be?

Interestingly, there is an argument to be made that mixed-gender pacing actually confers a slight disadvantage on female elites, compared to their male counterparts. Male rabbits pacing male elites typically run directly ahead of their charges – see Gebrselassie’s 2008 performance in Berlin – cutting the headwinds and allowing the athletes to mentally “check out” for large parts of the race.

But pacesetter contracts for female elites often prohibit male rabbits from running out in front, to avoid their appearing in televised coverage of the women’s race – effectively negating any of the benefits of cutting the wind. Which throws into question the notion, so central to the IAAF’s regulations on pacing, of whether female elites paced by men really do have an unfair advantage at all. Does the benefit of side-by-side accompaniment over 25 miles really outweigh that of ducking behind a wind barrier for 20?

This off-to-the-side pacer stipulation may not be characteristic of all pacing contracts, but it has certainly been a salient factor where the women’s world record is concerned. It was certainly the case for pacer Weldon Johnson, who escorted Paula Radcliffe through 25 miles of the Chicago Marathon in 2002, where Radcliffe set her first world record. Rather than leading Radcliffe, Johnson ran alongside her, following her lead as she knocked off splits far quicker than the pre-race agreed-upon pace. “I very consciously ran alongside (him) rather than ever behind,” Radcliffe later recalled.

With Radcliffe fighting wind resistance and hitting her splits relatively unaided, one is tempted to ask what, exactly, was the benefit of running with a pacer at all? Johnson puts it down to camaraderie. “Twenty-six miles by yourself can be very hard,” he says.

And therein lies the critical challenge posed by the IAAF mixed-gender pacing rule; women in the marathon – and especially at the elite level – are relatively thin on the ground. The depth of field for women’s marathon running pales in comparison to the men’s, and the resulting dearth of both female pacers and competitors means that any woman wishing to chase after Radcliffe’s mark must either run with the boys, or go it alone.

The arrangement, disadvantageous though it might be, is not entirely unwelcome among leaders in the women’s running community. Kathrine Switzer, who famously outran the ire of race director Jock Semple in 1967 as the first woman to officially compete in the Boston Marathon, likens the situation to the subsequent struggle to establish a women’s Olympic marathon. Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, Switzer helped to organize women’s-only marathons in response to the IOC’s refusal to recognize performances by women in mixed-gender competition.

“I felt very strongly, and I still do, that women need the challenge and the forum to accept the responsibility to run a race on their own,” she explained.

Just how swiftly the reigning women’s marathon elite will rise to this new challenge remains to be seen.

Chase big dreams.

The War of Attrition: One marathon of a race recap

slides15_congratsrunnersSix months ago, partly by fluke and partly due to my ever-growing social media addiction, I had the good fortune of being selected for the Digital Champions team for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I had been on the fence about running another marathon; my debut marathon (at Scotia, the year before) could more accurately be referred to as a death march. I didn’t run my first marathon in 2014; I survived it.

I love long runs. I can lace up my shoes and get lost out there for hours. In training, the miles never wear me down – they just melt away. As a result, I had always thought the marathon was going to be my distance. But at Scotia 2014, it gutted me, and the idea of lining up for a redemption marathon became terrifying.

When I applied to be a Digital Champion for Canada Running Series, I thought I was letting fate decide. I reasoned that if they picked me, it was a sign. If they pick me, I’ll run.

They did.

11324212_914700058592827_335736508_nTerrified, but feeling I was in no position to argue with the whims of fate, I enlisted the coaching of the best runner I know: my dad. Vince Friel has been a dedicated distance runner for the better part of my life. He’s represented Canada in the World Masters Track and Field Championships, clocked a 4:02 1500m, and run under three hours in the marathon.

But more importantly, he raised me, and is intimately acquainted with the fact that I am (to put it bluntly) a massive wuss. I have a fragile little ego that doesn’t respond well to “tough love” coaching. I can’t be pushed to face a challenge; I need coaxing, encouragement, and positive vibes. And my dad is one of the most ridiculously positive people I know.

Armed with the Coach Vince training plan, I’ve spent the last six months preparing for October 18th. My easy runs became easier, my long runs longer, and my speed work… existent. Apparently if you want to run fast, you have to practice running fast. Who knew?

With Coach Vince adding structure and accountability to my training, the workouts began to feel increasingly comfortable. In the final few weeks leading up to the race, he had me running tempo runs at marathon pace, and to my surprise, they rolled right off my back.

1743748_377331395768072_6768686855622296579_nBut I hadn’t survived the marathon death march of 2014 without learning a thing or two. It wasn’t enough to be well-trained: I knew I would need a racing plan. For that, Vince reached out to one of Canada’s best marathon coaches, Timo Uuksulainen. Timo is one of the founding members of the Longboat Roadrunners, and used to run with my Grandpa Jack Friel back in Jack’s marathon glory days.

“The marathon is a race about attrition,” says Uuksulainen. “It’s not about who speeds up the most, but who slows down the least. So I would try and run the first 10-15 km with the least amount of effort, while remaining close to the time you want. You can work your way to that pace. You want to be on pace no later than 15 km, and then lock in and just try and stay relaxed and focused while knocking off those splits. As the race progresses, the effort to hold that pace will start to increase incrementally over the final 45 minutes, so be prepared to dig in and work.”

My strategy was simple: I was going out there to run three consecutive 10K tempo runs. I was going to stay on pace until 30K, after which point I had permission to race as I pleased.

I will tell you this much: staying locked into my planned 4:42/km pace from the gun was not easy. In the first two kilometers, it felt as though the entire red corral passed me. I felt like I was going way too slow – until I ran through the 1K marker and caught my first split: 4:21. Way too fast. I resolved to tuck in and run easy, clearing the next few K-markers right on pace.

When I hit the 10K mark, I stopped my watch, re-set it, and started again from zero. This idea came from an interview I had read with Canadian record holder Lanni Marchant, when she talked about taking the marathon 10K at a time. After the pain of last year, I couldn’t face up to running the full 42.2K distance, and in my mind, I wasn’t; this was just another 10K tempo run. Just like in training.

The first 20K breezed by; between the neighborhood cheering squads out there on the course and the excitement of watching the elites blow by at the turn-around points, I was able to stay on pace and keep my mind off of the miles to go. When we reached the bottom of Bay Street, and the half-marathoners split off to run for their finish line, something incredible was waiting for us: the Parkdale Roadrunners cheer squad.

12120268_125027967854344_949006577_n(1)There’s a special place in my heart for the people who come out to watch marathons. It’s a thankless spectator sport, and yet there they are, lining the streets in the freezing cold, shouting encouragement at a stranger. The cheering stations on the Toronto course are always amazing, but let me tell you, that Parkdale Roadrunners cheer squad was something to behold. Running through a vortex of screaming, cheering, cow-bell-ringing crazies, holding hilarious signs and throwing confetti, I felt like I was an elite running in a World Marathon Major. It was some serious, next-level awesomeness.

I had expected to come through the halfway mark just north of 1:39; a small PB for me, but not entirely unexpected, given how infrequent and under-prepared my half-marathon attempts have been this year. I ended up clearing it in 1:37:53. I was excited (especially since, thanks to the Real Time Run Tracker, I knew my family at home would catch my split), but also vaguely worried.

In the marathon, you can bank effort, but you can’t bank time; running faster than your goal pace early in the game is only going to cost you twofold on the back end. I learned this the hard way last year, and was not about to make the same mistake again. So I tucked in and resolved to run easy up and down the “pretzel” section of the course on Bayview Drive.

When I hit the 30K marker, I once again re-set my watch. The tempo runs were over! This was the point in the race that I had been pacing myself for – after 30K, I had given myself permission to start racing. Only now, I didn’t want to.

Timo was right: the 4:42/K pace, which had felt easy, almost pedestrian in the early kilometers, was beginning to take some effort. My body was holding up, but mentally I felt fatigued. I was no longer in the frame of mind to race. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I started my watch again and zero, and tucked in for another 10K tempo. Just like in training.

2015-05-24 | 2015 Toronto Women's Half Marathon/5kMy left foot was the first to go. My right quad started to ache; the left one quickly followed. At 34K, my core was shot. At 36, my neck sort of rolled back on my shoulders, and my head started bobbing with every step. I must have looked ridiculous. Actually, I’ve seen my race photos, so I know I looked ridiculous. With every kilometer, the effort needed to sustain my pace seemed to double.

But something incredible was happening: I was holding the pace.

I was hurting. I was fighting. I was running like some kind of demented marathon zombie, and I think at some point I might have peed a little. But I was holding on. Somewhere in all those months of training, something deep within my physiology had shifted, and I realized that this course, which had gutted me the year before, just couldn’t break me anymore.

By the time I hit 40K, I couldn’t make sense of my splits anymore. My body had given out, bit by bit, and now my mind was starting to go. I vaguely registered the 3:08-something on the clock, and knew I was within the Boston Qualifier window, but I didn’t trust my body to hold out over the next 2K. Nothing was certain until I crossed that finish line.

At the flatiron building, my sister Alex and roommate Ashley, both amazing runners in their own right, cheered me past. Ashley screamed something at me about 3:19, and I was elated. If I was at 3:19 right now, that means I’d bring it home somewhere in the low-3:20s.

The run up Bay Street in that final stretch to the finish was a vortex of screaming, cheering, electrifying loveliness. One of the coolest features of the Toronto Marathon is the slight bend in the road about fifteen feet from the finish line, which obscures the finish clock from view until right before you cross. As I rounded the bend, I realized that Ashley hadn’t been shouting my time at me – she was shouting my projected time.

12144025_983537711718495_885969964_nI crossed the line in 3:18:33 – a PB of more than 20 minutes, a Boston Qualifier, but most importantly, a race effort I could be proud of. I started to cry in the finishing chute, which seriously creeped out a lot of the race volunteers. I couldn’t help it – like I said, I’m a giant wuss.

It’s not often you get the opportunity to go back and rewrite your past mistakes, but it feels like that’s exactly what I did on Sunday. The 2014 marathon defeated me in every way possible – mentally, physically, and emotionally. In 2014, I ran out of my depth, without a plan, without proper training, and I ended up broken. In 2014, I gave up.

This year, I came prepared. I trained hard, ran a controlled race with a clear strategy, and didn’t let my ego get in the way. And more than that, I had fun. Even when I was hurting over those last few miles, I really was having the time of my life.

boston-marathon-finish-lineIt’s going to be a while before I return to the marathon. Boston 2017 is on my horizon, and until then, I’ve resolved to focus on the short stuff. But I’m happy knowing I was able to make such a positive memory with the marathon distance. I’ve always known that I was born to run the marathon. Last year made me doubt all that, but after Sunday, I feel like I’ve finally managed a passing grade in Marathon Theory 1000.

Second time lucky, I guess.

Chase big dreams.

Running down Rio: Why Lanni Marchant’s Olympic qualifier matters

ath-marathon18sp1If you were lucky enough to be in Toronto yesterday morning, then you cannot have missed the electrifying excitement that is the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The flagship event of the Canada Running Series, the marathon has distinguished itself as Canada’s biggest and most prestigious race weekend. And while the home-grown competition at Scotiabank Toronto is always of a high caliber, this year saw Canadians Eric Gillis and Lanni Marchant running for the 2016 Olympic standards on the notoriously flat and fast course.

Two-time Olympian Eric Gillis famously ran his 2012 London Olympic qualifier at Scotiabank four years earlier, squeaking under the 2:11:29 standard by a margin of just one second. He finished yesterday’s marathon in a less nail-biting fashion, with a time that was more than a minute under the more relaxed 2:12:50 standard, qualifying for his third Olympic games in Rio 2016.

Gillis now joins Speed River training partner Reid Coolsaet on the list of Canadian men with a Rio-qualifying time on the books. But while Rio represents yet another Olympic games for both Coolsaet and Gillis, the real story in yesterday’s marathon was a Rio-qualifier for Lanni Marchant.

Marchant, who shattered Sylvia Ruegger’s 28-year-old Canadian marathon record on the Scotiabank course two years earlier, ran a 2:28:09, just a few seconds shy of her own Canadian record, but comfortably under the 2:29:50 qualifying standard for the 2016 Games.

That Marchant was able to bring home a 2:28:09 marathon yesterday morning isn’t especially jaw-dropping, given her past strong performances. What is noteworthy is that both Marchant and fellow Canadian marathoner Krista Duchene are now set to become the first women to represent Canada in an Olympic marathon in two decades.

Both women had achieved the IAAF qualifying standard for the 2012 London Olympic Games, but fell short of the more rigorous “A” standard required by Athletics Canada. Marchant and Duchene petitioned to be named to the Olympic team under the Athletics Canada  “rising star” provision, but both their petition and subsequent appeal were denied.

As a result, Canada went unrepresented in the 2012 women’s Olympic Marathon; just over a year later, Marchant shattered the long-standing Canadian record with a blistering 2:28:00 finish at Scotiabank Toronto, with Duchene hot on her heels in 2:28:32.

That Marchant and Duchene are now poised to represent Canada at the Olympic level is no small thing. Though the Canadian men’s marathon elite have enjoyed representation on the world stage in decades past, the women’s marathon has been consistently brushed aside. But in the three-plus years since she was left off the London 2012 team, Marchant has proven time and again that she is a world-class athlete who belongs on the world stage. After running to a strong 4th-place finish in the 2014 Commonwealth Games marathon, the Canadian went on to win bronze on home soil in the Pan Am Games 10,000m.

Fielding a strong pair of female marathoners in the first Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996 marks a turning point for women’s distance running in this country. And with even more rising stars, including Natasha Wodak, Rachel Hannah, and Natasha LaBeaud clocking world-class marathon times, it’s beginning to look as though Marchant and Duchene have lead the charge in the resurgence of the Canadian women’s marathon.

“It was disappointing not being selected to the (London 2012) team, but it helped motivate us,” Marchant says. “Hopefully this lays the groundwork for girls who come after us, so things might be different.”

If yesterday’s result is any indication, the revolution has only just begun.

Chase big dreams.

The Ten Commandments of Race Week

It’s that time of year again, folks. The days are getting shorter, leaves are changing colour, and there’s an undeniable nip in the air, which can mean only one thing: Toronto Marathon week is here!

For the running community in this city, the week leading up to the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon feels a lot like Christmas. All around us, the city is charged with an excitement and energy no other race can match.

And while it’s easy to get swept up in the buzz of race week, it’s important to keep your excitement in check. So with that in mind, I give you my personal Ten Commandments of Race Week:

I. Thou shall not over-train.

68e86f947811fd3e4ff31066b9e543cbYou’ve been logging miles and pounding the roads for months; now it’s time to relax! There’s nothing you can do at this stage of the game to add to your fitness, but there’s a lot you can do to take away from it by working too hard. Race week means rest week. Remember, the hay’s in the barn – any big effort you put in now is just taking away from what you can do on race day.

II. Thou shall not neglect fueling.

10beeec2419db488be3a09d412f4d84dWhile it’s important to back off on hard training and let the taper do it’s magic, one thing you should not be neglecting this week is your diet.

You’re about to ask your body to do something incredible and superhuman – don’t risk pushing yourself without adequate fuel.

III. Thou shall visualize and commit to the race strategy.

8380c7970334d4c6dacc30f698a74da9The marathon is a different kind of beast than any other race, and you have to plan accordingly. This means going out at a conservative pace and holding steady through to the 30K mark before you let that racing instinct take over. And believe me, it will take over. If you’re anything like me, the only way you’ll be able to resist the urge to push your pace early is to visualize and really commit to your strategy. Know your splits. Watch your pace. And remember, in the marathon there is no such thing as “time in the bank” – going out hard in order to buy yourself wiggle room will only cost you later in the race.

IV. Thou shall not doubt thy training.

Believe Training Journal by Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-DumasThis isn’t the time to start second-guessing or wondering whether you’ve trained enough. You’re done! The best thing you can do at this stage is to lie back and trust the taper.

Rest up, and don’t let yourself feel guilty about the time off. Trust that you’ve done the work, and don’t let that voice of self-doubt creep in.

V. Thou shall go to bed early.

bb9b40b7d832687a3de6a7e7dd4a2992If you’re a night owl like me, this can be especially tough. But it’s necessary. Falling behind on your sleep can impact everything from your mood to your immune system, and this week, you can’t afford to be at anything but your best. So set a strict bedtime, and stick to it.

Limit “screen time” for one half-hour before turning in – laptops, smartphones, and television should all be switched off to give your brain time to properly shut down before your head hits the pillow. Remember, you’ve worked hard for your fitness – you don’t need to compromise it by staying up watching one too many episodes of New Girl.

VI. Thou shall not give in to the Taper Crazies

7263db9fd8b54b4031bc262649062b09Here’s the thing about marathon training that nobody really believes is true until they experience it for themselves: the taper is hard. Really hard. Worse than Peak Week hard. When you’ve spent the better part of six months mapping routes, checking splits, foam rolling your legs, obsessing over long-run playlists, gorging on carbs, stretching, and spending an exorbitant amount of money on shoes, it can be really hard to just back off and rest. But it’s also really, really important.

Remember, you are not losing fitness during the taper. You are not becoming a giant, carb-filled balloon. What you are doing is allowing your body to rest, and a million tiny little injuries to heal, while the miles you have put in these past six months sink into your legs. So lie back, put your feet up, and trust the taper. On race day, you’ll know you made the right call.

VII. Thou shall plan ahead.

b8670e6291c1a619549c847a68b5a42bWhat are you going to wear on race day? How many gels will you carry? What will your splits look like? How will you get to the start line the morning of?

If you haven’t answered these questions yet, do it now. The rigors of running 26.2 miles is tough enough on your mind – you don’t want to needlessly tax yourself worrying about a million little details, too. So get out a pen and a pad of paper and write it all down. Figure out what you’ll be wearing in the race, and lay it all out – right down to your socks. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and keep a contingency plan for heat, cold, or rain. There’s so much in a marathon that you cannot control, so plan for what you can.

VIII. Thou shall keep a tidy home.

28fdda610d77ba3877331af4c9f43b9cRight now, your environment matters. Just like your diet, your surroundings have a huge impact on whether or not you’re functioning at 100%. So if you’re not in the habit of it normally, make sure you take the time to take care of your home. It sounds trivial, but little things like making sure the dishes are done right away, or making your bed every morning, can really help to boost your overall sense of well-being. If you’re staying in a hotel for race weekend, make sure to keep your suitcase as neat and orderly as possible. The last thing you need is to be frantically rummaging for your watch on your way out the door on race morning.

IX. Thou shall watch “Spirit of the Marathon” at least once (and thou shall probably cry while watching it).

e823a891b0737be3b217d0121c0eefacIf you’re training for a marathon, chances are you’ve watched this award-winning documentary at least once. And if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing reading my blog?! You’ve got watching to do!

What I love about this film is how it explores the many meanings that the marathon has to the many different people who run it. From elites like Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga, to seasoned recreational marathoners, to first-timers, there’s a story in here that will resonate with just about every runner. So grab some snacks, curl up under a blanket, and settle down for some serious inspiration.

X. Thou shall remember to enjoy the process.

cf263a0558e6969181810ab9cb49a429I went into my first marathon thinking that it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. And yet somehow, it was still harder than I expected it to be. But it was also incredibly rewarding. For the rest of my life, I will always be more than just a runner; I have earned the right to call myself a marathoner.

Marathons are tough – they can grind you down, injure you, and drive you to the point that you want to quit. But they’re also pretty amazing. They’re an incredible, fearless celebration of tenacity and the human spirit. When you run a marathon, no matter how fast or slow you are, you share a kinship with those who run before and after you. The marathon is a special club, a select group of the ultra-crazy and ultra-brave. And the strength that having finished a marathon fosters within you is an incredible and powerful thing.

So however your race goes on Sunday, whatever time you run, don’t forget to enjoy the process. Remember that with every step, you are building up a deep reservoir of strength in your heart, forged in the crucible of pain and self-doubt, that you will carry with you forever; you’re a marathoner.

Good luck out there, everyone!

Chase big dreams.

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.

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.