Runner Reid Coolsaet.
Runner Reid Coolsaet
John Rennison/Torstar News Services
When members of the Speed River Track and Field Club enumerate the reasons for their success, high on the list is the benefit of group training.
In the world of elite athletics, the theory goes, speed begets speed. Two out of the three men who’ll represent Canada in the Olympic marathon in August, Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, are Speed River members who train together on the rural roads in and around Guelph. In daily training runs they’re usually supported by a coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, who trails them in a van stocked with sports drinks and various gels and bars. They’re also joined by a rotating cast of companions.
This summer, Simon Whitfield, the two-time Olympic medallist in triathlon, has been in town joining the gang runs in the lead-up to his attempt at a final five-ringed act at age 37. Ditto Whitfield’s coach, Jon Brown, the British runner who has finished fourth in two Olympic marathons.
For competition, for companionship, perhaps nothing cures the chronic loneliness of the long distance runner than a handful of top-class training partners. In a country not known for its distance-running prowess — Canada hasn’t been represented in the Olympic men’s marathon since 2000 — such centralization of slow-twitch genius is both refreshing and relatively rare.
Still, perhaps Coolsaet didn’t know the meaning of communal training until he ventured to Kenya, home of the world’s most dominant collection of distance runners. Coolsaet, a 32-year-old from Hamilton who has spent 10 weeks in the East African nation over the past two years to train and learn, said that while in Kenya, it wasn’t uncommon for him to participate in runs in which he joined as many as 200 elite athletes on hard-breathing tests of endurance down road and trail. Mushroom clouds of red dust would envelope the pack. Interesting dynamics played out amid the grit.
“The crazy part is, everybody wants to be towards the front,” Coolsaet said in a recent interview. “That’s just the Kenyan mentality, ‘Be at the front. Be at the front. Be at the front.’ And definitely be in front of the white guy.”
Coolsaet laughed a little and recalled a familiar scene from his time in the Rift Valley. He’d be running fast enough to pass the Kenyan in front of him, but as he surged to get ahead he would encounter predictable resistance. The Kenyan, shocked to catch a glimpse of a pale Canadian’s freckled complexion and red hair, would suddenly find more speed.
“We’d do these workouts where you run hard for two minutes, and then you jog slowly for one minute. During the one minute off, everybody would slow down except for the people around me,” Coolsaet said. “I’d hear it all the time, ‘Mzunga, mzunga ...’ (the Swahili word for white man). They’d be trying to get in front of me for the first two-thirds of the workout. And then once they realized I’m decent, they’d be too tired to blow past me.
“At the end of every single one of those workouts, it’d be, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen mzunga like this. You are strong ...’ “
Coolsaet, who qualified for the Olympics by running last fall’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon in a career-best 2 hours, 10 minutes, 55 seconds, is one of the faces of Canada’s current distance-running renaissance. He, Gillis and Dylan Wykes — the latter a Kingston-born 29-year-old who trains in Vancouver — are the first Canadian men to qualify for the Olympic marathon since Bruce Deacon represented the maple leaf in 2000.
When you consider the exploits of 23-year-old Cam Levins, the Vancouver Island standout who is the reigning NCAA champion in 5,000m and 10,000m and who’ll represent Canada in at least one of those distances, it suggests that, while the Kenyans may not be quaking in the racing flats at the thought of the Canadian onslaught, the future of elite running in this country is relatively bright. Certainly Jerome Drayton’s Canadian record of 2:10:08, set in 1975, looks to be teetering on the brink of obsolescence. Wykes’s Olympic-qualifying time of 2:10:47, run in Rotterdam in April, is the closest anyone’s come yet.
Just like Levins found collegiate stardom by putting in epic mileage — as much as 256 kilometres a week and three runs a day — Coolsaet and his Guelph training partners, too, have discovered the usefulness of heavy mileage. Coolsaet said his training will max out at about 240 kilometres a week. His sojourns to Kenya, he said, have solidified his belief in the Guelph group’s approach.
“I remember my mom, the first time I raced some Kenyans in a local road race, she asked me how I thought I was going to do. I said, ‘I’m going to win this race.’ She was like, ‘But there’s Kenyans here, Reid.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to beat those guys,’” Coolsaet said.
“For every good Kenyan, there’s a lot of crappy Kenyans, too ... Like, we have a lot of good hockey players. But you can’t just show up to any pond and just get schooled by Sidney Crosby.”
He laughed again and explained his inspiration for travelling overseas.
“Obviously Kenya has so many good runners. Everybody’s always like, ‘They train so hard.’ I just wanted to see it first-hand. I’ve been running here in Guelph for so many years, doing the same thing. I thought it would be kind of neat to experience something else that I could bring back to the group. Turns out I went there and I figured out they were doing the same stuff we were always doing,” Coolsaet said. “If anything, it just kind of reinforced what we’re doing, really. The type of workouts are the same, and the group mentality. They have way more guys, but otherwise it’s very much the same.”
Scott-Thomas first encountered Coolsaet more than a decade ago at the Ontario high school cross-country championships, where the coach was attempting to land recruits to the University of Guelph’s nascent track team. Scott-Thomas had only just begun coaching. Coolsaet wasn’t a decorated prodigy. But something clicked between them.
“Reid wasn’t one of the big fish getting recruited (by NCAA schools), but he just looked tough and he moved OK,” Scott-Thomas said. “Reid was fighting for every little spot. It wasn’t about medals. He wasn’t top 10. He was 18th, I think, so he was a good athlete. And I just remember, here was a guy who was scrapping to finish 18th instead of 19th. And he was scrapping for that spot as hard as if he was in the Olympic final. Just pushing hard. I thought, ‘I think that’s the attitude. I could talk to a guy like that.’”
Coolsaet made steady progress. Around the time he was reeling off four straight national titles in the 5,000 metres, Scott-Thomas loaded up his credit card to send Coolsaet touring on the European Grand Prix track circuit. But by 2009, Coolsaet had moved up to the marathon, running 2:17:10 in his debut in the distance in Ottawa. His improvement has been impressive since.
“It’s about attitude,” said Scott-Thomas, attempting to explain the success of Coolsaet and his Guelph cohorts. “We just have always said we refuse to sit back and think we can’t do it as well as anybody else. There’s absolutely no reason Canadian muscle and spirit and intellect isn’t going to work as well as anybody’s on the planet.
“I know if you sit around whining about what you don’t have, you’re never going to get to be great . . . It’s about finding that fire, finding something in your life that makes you wake up and say, ‘I want to be great at this.’ Reid had that. And fortunately had the physical tools to do it.”
How will he do in London? He says he’s shooting for a top-10 finish, but marathoning is an unpredictable sport. On thing is certain: There’ll be Kenyans contending in the medals, and a redhead from Hamilton pushing hard no matter his standing.
“I’m expecting my best performance ever and hopefully that’ll be my fastest time,” Coolsaet said. “Ultimately I just want to finish the race knowing I gave everything.”
It’s significant to consider who will not be competing in the men’s marathon at the 2012 Olympics.
Samuel Wanjiru, who became the first Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon in Beijing in 2008, died last yearafter falling from a balcony at his home during a domestic dispute. That is a tragedy.
Ethiophia’s Heile Gebreselassie, the one-time world record holder considered by many to be the greatest distance runner in history, did not make his national team at age 39 even though his best time this year is nearly two minutes clear of the Canadian record. That is the reality of life as an East African distance runner.
Such is the depth of field that there will be no shortage of Kenyan and Ethiopian contenders for gold on the three-loop course that will see some of the world’s great runners pass by some of London’s most significant landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Big Ben.
Count Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang, the winner of the 2012 London Marathon, among the favourites. Ditto Ethiopia’s Ayele Abshero who, at age 21, has run the world’s fastest time this year, a 2:04:23 in January in Dubai.
Kenya can make a compelling case for a podium sweep in the women’s race. Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplagat, and Priscah Jeptoo finished first, second and third, respectively, in the 2012 London Marathon. But Ethiopia’s Tika Gelana has run the second-fastest time in the world this year behind Keitany.