Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich celebrates his gold medal win in the men's marathon Sunday. Getty Images
LONDON – Eric Gillis and Reid Coolsaet battled oppressive heat on the last day of the Olympics to pound out 22nd and 27th place finishes in a grueling men’s marathon.
The men had to set aside any hopes of breaking Jerome Drayton’s long-standing Canadian marathon record, and settle on finishing as fast as they could in a sweltering race that knocked out more than 20 runners before it was over.
The pair, training partners with Guelph’s Speed River Track & Field Club, steadily climbed their way through the throng of runners in a race won by Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich, who crossed the line at 2:08:01 waving his country’s flag.
Gillis had enough left in him for a closing sprint that passed ten runners in the race’s last three kilometers, finishing 22nd with a time of 2:16:00.
“I’ve waited a long time for this. I kept telling myself, this is my moment to do what I want to do, and run hard and run smart,” an elated Gillis said. “It’s a good race for me.”
Coolsaet, who was lifted by an “absolutely amazing crowd” that lined the 42.195-km course, didn’t feel nearly as good after his race. The last stretch was a painful, stomach-turning experience, he said, finishing in 2:16:29.
“I bonked. I hit the wall. I had problems keeping my drinks down. I don’t think I got enough carbs in. The last three miles were something else,” he said. "I need to go throw up."
A third Canadian, Dylan Wykes of Kingston, came 20th in the marathon with a time of 2:15:26. That’s the best finish for a Canadian marathoner at the Olympics since Drayton came sixth at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
Coolsaet and Gillis came into Sunday’s road race with hopes of cracking the top 20. But the conditions weren’t conducive to record times or fast finishes. The temperature was a humid 21 C when the runners began, and climbed several degrees by the end of the race.
Tens of thousands of flag-waving fans didn’t mind the heat, however, and lined 20 people deep along the narrow course that ran past some of London’s most iconic landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“It was so loud, it was awesome. My ears were ringing,” said Gillis, who lives and trains in Guelph. “I really told myself to take it in, because I know I’ll never get a crowd like that again.”
Canuck flags dotted the crowd, which was witnessing the first Canadians to compete in the Olympic marathon since the 2000 Games in Sydney. To get here, Coolsaet, Gillis and Wykes have put in years of work, running the equivalent of five marathons a week.
“For three of us to qualify, it really took the pressure off me. It was a team out there. Canada got to cheer for Canada, not just one runner,” Gillis said.
Coolsaet, whose coach thought he could pull off a top-ten finish, left his fellow Canadians behind early on in the race and set a faster pace. He passed the five kilometer mark at 15:35, in 61st position, about 12 seconds behind the leading Kenyans.
Wykes and Coolsaet were running side-by-side at the 35 km mark, but Wykes steadily pulled away. He climbed 11 positions in the race’s last 10 kilometres, staggering as he crossed the finish line, looking absolutely exhausted.
Coolsaet was running in 23rd place with just over two kilometers to go when his body gave out on him. He grinded out the rest of the race, crossing the finish line in obvious pain.
Gillis, meanwhile, stuck to his plan of running a conservative race in the heat, steadily passing runners as the race progressed. He was in 73rd place at the 10-kilometre mark, 57th place at the half, and 35th place with about seven kilometers to go.
“I ran quite a bit slower in the second half, but I still moved up, and I caught a lot of guys,” Gillis said. “My strategy was ‘it’s hot out, and don’t go too fast.’ I was really feeling strong towards the end.”
Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich set a furious pace for most of the race, leading the pack until the 30-kilometre mark. He and his fellow Kenyans had built up such a gap at the front of the race they were basically running on their own for most of the marathon.
Kiportich’s strategy was to take a large lead and try to burn out the rest of the runners, but he was unable to maintain his front-running pace, finishing third in 2:09:37.
The heat was a huge factor for the Canadians, who prefer temperatures in the 5 C to 15 C zone for a marathon. Gillis said he drank about a liter and a half of water during the race, and said it would take about four hours to be fully rehydrated afterward.
Sunday wasn’t the day to break Drayton’s 37-year-old record of 2:10:08, but with the kind of marathon talent Canada has right now, it’s bound to happen “in the next year or two,” Gillis said.
“I think with the depth we have now, it’s in jeopardy. But it’s been fun to chase,” he said. “That is one that would be a real feather in the cap if it were to happen.”
It’s been a long time since Canadians showed this level of interest in the Olympic marathon. Gillis said he’s hoping to ride that excitement for his sport to bigger things down the road.
“I’m so thankful for all the support back home. I’m definitely feeling the enthusiasm for Canadian athletics and Canadian marathoning, and it’s exciting,” he said.