LONDON — When Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis line up Sunday for the Olympic marathon, an event long owned by Africans, they’ll be chasing two Canadians who aren’t even competing.
The first is Jerome Drayton, whose shadow hangs large over the pair from Guelph’s Speed River Track and Field Club. Almost 37 years ago, he ran the marathon in two hours, 10 minutes and eight seconds on a rainy day in Fukuoka, Japan — a Canadian record Coolsaet and Gillis hope to finally break.
If they do that, and their coach is confident they can, they’ll likely also pass another Canadian, Pete Fonseca, whose 21st place in the Olympic marathon in 1996 hasn’t been topped by another Canuck since.
“I think it would be fair to say we’d be disappointed if we didn’t do that,” said the pair’s longtime coach, Dave Scott-Thomas. “We’d be disappointed if we don’t come out of here feeling like we established ourselves in the top 20.”
There are 109 entrants in the men’s marathon Sunday, but most of Canada will be focused on just three — Coolsaet, 33, Gillis, 32, and Dylan Wykes, a 29-year-old from Kingston. It’s the first time since Sydney that Canada has qualified anyone in the marathon, and the first time since 1996 Canada has sent a full men’s marathon team.
So far, Coolsaet and Gillis have been spectators to these Olympics, only arriving Wednesday in London after a training camp in Germany. Finally, on the last day of the Games, they’ll get their chance to compete.
“They’re ready to rock,” Scott-Thomas said. “We’ve ended up exactly where we want to be.”
They’ve put in the work and their fitness is even better than it was last fall when they both qualified for the Olympics at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, he said.
“I couldn’t script it any better. They’re in the best shape of their lives. They’re significantly more fit than they were going into Toronto last fall. They’re in a terrific head space. They feel good,” Scott-Thomas said.
He predicts a sub two-hour, 10-minute performance from both men, despite the marathon course’s many twists and turns. It ends the same way it starts — with a nice, flat run along The Mall, London’s iconic ceremonial road, connecting Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square.
Coolsaet, the third-ranked marathoner in North America, is thought to be capable of cracking the top 10 across the finish line Sunday. The Hamilton-raised runner has spent 10 weeks in the past two years training in the marathon’s mecca — Kenya — learning first-hand about the African attitude that there’s nothing wrong with leading the pack, when conventional marathon thinking often suggests conserving energy.
“The crazy part is, everybody wants to be toward the front,” Coolsaet recently told the Toronto Star. “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.”
Kenyans know a thing or two about the marathon. Last year, Kenyan men won all six world marathon major titles, sweeping the medals in three, and setting course records in London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York.
World marathon champion Abel Kirui has already made waves here saying he thinks on Sunday he could break the Olympic record of two hours, six minutes and 32 seconds, set four years ago by Sammy Wanjiru, his fellow Kenyan.
The marathon route’s twisting, winding course through central London has drawn criticism in marathon circles. But both Gillis and Coolsaet are accomplished cross-country runners, so a few turns aren’t going to throw them off, their coach said.
The weather for Sunday’s 42.195-kilometre race is expected to be about 25 C with a few showers, a little warmer than most marathoners would like, but not oppressive.
Coolsaet and Gillis should be used to the heat as they’ve been training in southern Ontario through one of the hottest summers on record. But Sunday’s weather will probably be the warmest they’ve ever raced in.
Both men, former university cross-country rivals who have been training partners for 10 years, know no Canadian has ever won a medal in the marathon. To get here, they’ve pounded out the equivalent of five marathons a week, often training side by side with Speed River’s tight-knit group of elite middle- and long-distance runners.
Gillis, the pride of Antigonish, N.S., has said a personal best — anything faster than two hours, 11 minutes and 28 seconds — is the bare minimum goal. It’s his second Olympics, after competing in the 10,000-metre race in Beijing.
“This is the Olympics my whole career has been leading up to,” Gillis said. “Going to the Olympics in 2008 was just a lead-up to this. This is the Olympics I’ve always thought I had the best shot at.”
Coolsaet, known as a risk taker, may try to push the pace outside of his comfort zone on Sunday. If that happens, and he can sustain it to the finish line, you can bet Drayton’s record set way back in 1975 will finally fall.
But Coolsaet insists he’s not focused on records or times. He just wants to run the best race he possibly can and, with the world watching, he’ll take whatever results that produces.
“I’m going to want to beat certain guys. I’m going to want to put down a certain time. But when it comes down to it, the effort I put forth is going to be the most important thing,” Coolsaet said.
“This is one of those things you dream about your entire life. It’s been a big goal, with a lot of hard work to get there. When it all comes together, that’s when it’s really worth it.”