My name is Leslie Sexton and I am a Canadian elite marathoner.
At the 2015 Toronto Waterfront I ran 2:33:23, which was faster than the Olympic standard of 2:45, but slower than Canada’s Olympic standard of 2:29:50. At the time, I didn’t think of it as failing to meet Canada’s Olympic standard; I celebrated my performance because I believed it was the fastest I could have possibly run on the day. With Athletics Canada setting their Olympic standard under 2:30, the Olympics were an unrealistic dream for me. I still had hopes of representing Canada at the IAAF World Championships in 2017 or 2019, since Athletics Canada had set a women’s standard of 2:35 for the last two editions of the event.
In October of last year, a few days before the Canadian Marathon Championships at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Athletics Canada announced tough standards (2:29:50 for automatic selection and 2:31:30 to be selected at the discretion of the head coach) and a shortened qualifying window for the 2017 World Championship marathon. This news was incredibly disheartening, and reflected a defeatist attitude towards developing long distance talent in Canada. The message was clear: Canadian marathoners would once again have to perform at a higher standard (ie. show the potential to place top-16 in London) to qualify for national teams, leaving little room for developing athletes to represent their country and benefit from the experience of competing at an international championship. For me, it meant possibly letting go of my dreams of racing a marathon in a Team Canada singlet. I love distance running and I have no doubt that I will continue to train for and compete in the marathon whether I make a World team or not. And yet Athletics Canada’s tough standards made it very difficult to justify what I was doing. I can only control how fast I run and it was frustrating that someone else could put more barriers between me and qualifying for a national team.
With Friday’s announcement that Athletics Canada will be using the minimum IAAF standards of 2:19:00 for men and 2:45:00 for women in their selection criteria for the 2017 IAAF World Championships, my hope that I will one day represent Canada at a world championship has been renewed. According to the Athletics Canada rankings, seven women achieved the 2017 World Championship standard within the qualifying window, and twelve have run under 2:45 in the last two years. For Canadian women, simply running the standard will not be enough; only three athletes per country can compete in the marathon at the World Championships. Thus, qualification is still a tough goal for people like me who have run in the mid-2:30s, but one that is achievable and worth chasing. With fewer barriers in front of athletes for national team qualification, marathoners can now feel like the power is back in our hands. It is now up to us to not only better the standard, but also to compete amongst each other for a top-three ranking and national team selection.
A realistic marathon qualification standard will enable more of Canada’s next great marathoners to race at the World Championships and gain valuable championship experience. In 2009, Athletics Canada (with the help of funding from the Ottawa Marathon and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon) sent a team to the IAAF World Championships in Berlin using the minimum marathon standards, which included Reid Coolsaet and Dylan Wykes. Coolsaet later qualified for the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games in marathon, and has credited his experience at the World Championships in 2009 as important to his development.
I believe that using the minimum IAAF standards for the marathon will improve the quality and depth of the event in Canada over the long term. Distance running is a low-paying sport and most of us are working part-time or full-time to fund our dreams of representing Canada at a major championship. Great marathoners aren’t born, they are made though a decade or longer of consistent, tough training. The old Athletics Canada attitude of “if you can’t medal or place top twelve, we won’t send you to a championship” discourages up-and-coming distance runners from continuing to pursue the sport at an elite level. To develop the next group of men and women to represent Canada at future Olympic Games in the marathon, we need to provide them with opportunities to get experience racing at a major championship. Doing so will keep more elite and sub-elite distance runners in the sport for longer, and could lead to more talented runners attempting the marathon. The standards for the 2017 World Championships are a step in the right direction, and I am excited to see Canadian marathoners rise to the occasion with this new opportunity.