Monday, April 23, 2012

Did Athletics Canada's tough standards help create Canada's marathoning resurgence?

When Rob Watson ran 2:13 at Rotterdam last weekend and missed the Canadian Olympic standard, it was obviously disappointing to him, but it put the exclamation point on Canada's marathoning resurgence. Canada is by no means a powerhouse just yet, but the first step towards becoming competitive internationally is to become competitive with the past, the past being a 2:09 national record that is decades old.

In 2007, exactly three Canadians ran faster than 2:20, with the fastest marathon being Danny Kassap's 2:17. The next year, Jon Brown ran 2:12, Kassap and Dylan Wykes both ran 2:15, and domestically a handful of Canadians ran between 2:16 and 2:18, itself a remarkable accomplishment considering how rare performances of even this calibre had become.

The next year was technically a step back, as no one ran faster then Reid Coolsaet's 2:16, matched by Andrew Smith, with Dylan Wykes running 2:18. The most important part of the revival was the decision to move to the marathon by Coolseat because the standard was so low. The soft 2:18 standard, instead of the tougher 2:11 that is usually in effect, enticed Coolsaet to run a marathon off of sub-optimal training.

Similar to how America once sent anybody who could break 2:18 to major championships, this did have the effect of bringing people into marathoning, but it's possible that without the tough 2:11 standard, Canada might just have a bunch of people running around 2:14 or 2:15. Instead, Coolsaet ran 2:11 the next year, with Wykes and Eric Gillis both running 2:12.

Then, last year, Coolsaet ran 2:10, Gillis ran 2:11, Wykes ran 2:12, Matt Loiselle and Watson ran 2:16, and Rejean Chiasson ran 2:17. This meant five people had run faster than 2:17 where almost nobody had done that for years in the past. Coolseat, Gillis and Wykes taking multiple cracks at the supposedly too tough standard has transformed marathoning in Canada. All this happened while the man who might well be Canada's most talented marathoner, Simon Bairu, has failed to finish a marathon.

If it was my decision to make, I would send anybody who could run under the standards of the event. I have to admit, though, that forcing people to chase a very tough standard has paid off nicely years down the road. On the other hand, Coolsaet and the others who went to Berlin in 2009 would never have gotten that chance if not for the opportunity offered by the low-hanging fruit of the 2:18 standard.

The next group of Canadian marathoners ought to look at sub-2:10 as the standard to chase for the 2016 Olympics, and to pray for a hot day. We've seen many times how a smart runner in even 2:07 shape can get a medal in adverse conditions, assuming that he prepared for the conditions and raced accordingly.

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