Olympic dreams can take root and blossom just about anywhere, including an apartment above a 24 hour McDonald’s and a liquor store in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. That’s where Rachel Cliff (@Dangerous_Cliff), newly crowned Canadian 10K champion and World Championships qualifier, calls home along with husband and fellow athlete Chris Winter.
“Vancouver is such a great place for distance runners to train,” Rachel says, and recent results seem to support her argument. When Ms. Cliff took the Canadian 10K title at last month’s Ottawa Race Weekend, fellow Vancouverite Natasha Wodak followed just behind to rank as the second Canadian woman and on the following day Dayna Pidhoresky conquered the blistering heat to be the top Canadian woman in the marathon.
The density of distance runners, including elites, in the Vancouver area makes for lots of opportunities to train together and build a camaraderie in which athletes can support one another on their way to their best results.
“Tuesday nights at the UBC track are always busy with multiple groups, coaches, and athletes doing their big workout of the week,” Rachel says. “A lot of distance runners, including me, also live in Kitsilano so there’s no shortage of company for off day runs, even if someone trains with a different coach.” Now that husband Chris has retired from elite competition, he’s one of those companions. The pair also trade knowledge around physio, mental preparation, and nutrition.
Rachel, who trains with the BC Endurance Project, came into Ottawa knowing, “I was fit and ready to compete, possibly for the title, but also knew that I was by no means the favourite.” She stuck to a plan of going out with the top Canadians and making her move around the 5K mark provided she was feeling good. “I felt really strong until the last 2K, where the heat caught up with me,” Rachel recalls. “I wouldn’t say I thought the wheels would come off, but being alone for that long is never fun!”
Rachel followed Ottawa with a 32:07 in the 10,000m at the Portland Track Festival two weeks later, finishing second behind American legend Shalane Flanagan and meeting the standard for the 2017 World Championships in London.
The results were not the first spectacular performances Rachel has posted, but did require her to deal with the additional obstacle of maintaining focus in the aftermath of disappointment.
Prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Rachel had just missed the standard for the 10,000m by 6.45 seconds. She would subsequently meet the 5,000m standard, but was not selected for a spot on Canada’s Olympic squad. The latter proved much more devastating. In Rachel’s view, “In the 10,000m, I had no one to blame but myself for missing the time, and while that was hard, I could only dwell on it for so long. In the 5,000m, I felt the one major thing standing between me and competing at the games was my country – the one I’d dreamed about competing for as a little kid – and that was much tougher to process, as I felt let down by the system that I felt should have been supporting me.”
Rachel admits to having contemplated quitting in the aftermath of the experience, but allowing herself some time to reflect reminded Rachel that her love for the sport was stronger than that disappointment. She still experienced Rio while accompanying Chris, who competed in the 3,000m Steeplechase, and was glad she attended, however difficult viewing the Women’s 5,000m was. Rio was followed by a two and a half week family trip to Ireland where Rachel, “…drank lots of Irish beer, ate just about whatever I felt like, saw lots of cool historic sites, had quality time with my family, and was finally able to process what happened.”
“It’s been important for me to try and let the 2016 decision go,” Rachel says. “I felt that in July 2016 I was fit and ready to compete at the Olympics and deserved that chance, but the selection committee clearly felt differently.”
Time away from training isn’t always a bad thing. It often allows a runner to be away from something they love long enough to realize how much they would miss it if they walked away. Perhaps the richness that it brought to your life begins to deplete and you realize that you’d be silly to let it go. Rachel found herself eventually itching to come back stronger and put Rio behind her by switching focus from making national teams to things she felt she could control such as running personal bests and continuing to compete at an elite level. So she came back with renewed passion and “…a whole new appreciation of how much a single note to say ‘I’m thinking of you’ can mean to someone going through a tough time.”
With recent performances indicating that her best days are not behind her, Rachel has not ruled out Tokyo 2020 depending on how the coming years unfold, but it’s her future beyond 2020 that has far more clarity. “Even when I’m done competing I hope to still be a runner,” Rachel concludes. “What I like most about this sport is the challenge of pushing yourself to the next level and testing to see what you can achieve.”
- Ravi Singh (Based on Q&A conducted by Ben Kaplan)