Malindi Elmore’s run in Houston on Sunday changed the outlook of the 2020 Canadian Olympic squad, our understanding of perhaps how we develop distance running talent, and the future of marathoning in Canada.
Her new national record of 2:24:50 demolished the previous time, which stood for just 10 months. Until recently, Canadian marathon records were frustratingly resilient. Silvia Reugger held the mark from 1985 (when she ran 2:28:36, also at the Houston Marathon) until 2013. Twenty-eight years is a long time for a marathon to stand, and although it initially signalled the quality of Reugger’s performance, eventually its empiricism only highlighted the lack of true talent, interest and level of investment in marathon running in this country during that period.
Then, Lanni Marchant and Krista DuChene seemingly took things into their own hands in 2013, pushing each other and a new generation of road runners. Marchant came out on top with a 2:28-flat, and sat on the Canadian marathoning throne for a little more than eight years, before Rachel Cliff came along and took the crown with a 2:26:56 last March in Japan. Cliff seemed the natural heir apparent, and maybe unbeatable in this country. Until last Sunday, of course.
Elmore is an interesting record holder. At 39, she’s been in the sport for a long time, and went to the Olympics as a middle-distance track runner way back in 2004—seemingly a lifetime ago. Elmore never made another Olympic squad, but importantly hung around endurance sports, dabbling in triathlon for a while and having success as a coach in B.C., where she lives. Maintaining that immersion and fitness may have helped take our country to a new plateau at the distance.
In her late 30s, Elmore decided to explore how she would respond to the demands of marathon training and racing. It turns out she’s clearly pretty resilient, and also has the brain and leg speed to close out those challenging final kilometres with panache (in Kipchogeseque-fashion, her final few kilometres in Houston were her fastest in the race).
As a former 4:02 1,500m runner, Elmore became one of the few world-class Canadian track runners to parley their speed and pedigree into an equally impressive marathon. In one race, she’s changed the narrative that track talent doesn’t easily translate to the marathon. Based on the Daniel’s VDOT calculator (a fairly reliable race prediction tool) Elmore delivered on her potential nearly to the second—the calculator suggests a 4:02 1,500m should be able to run a 2:23:59. Given that Elmore’s track times are well over a decade old, it’s fair to say that she maximized her ability in Houston.
And in the process she disrupted the entire running community in this country.
Cliff’s former record seemed like a promising step forward, but Elmore’s two-minute jump, less than a year later, is a rude awakening for the rest of the current crop of distance runners in Canada. A singular performance such as this is either going to be an aberration or it will trigger yet another sea change for women’s distance running in this country. Elmore has effectively said with her feet that the next generation of runners must hold themselves at an even higher standard, and race the distance very aggressively. Perhaps this will motivate some of our most talented young track athletes to jump up to the marathon sooner, and take bigger initial risks. And, of course, this new standard will no doubt further motivate Rachel Cliff to do something great, yet again.
There is also a dangerous possibility that Elmore’s record is just too far out of reach, and that we may enter another 28-year winter in Canadian women’s marathon running. Let’s hope that yet another incredible performance by a Canadian woman in Houston doesn’t loom too large over a generation of athletes, but instead motivates them to continue breaking through.
The Olympic Marathon Picture Shifts
The roster spots on the Olympic team have changed hands. Elmore’s Canadian record was a significant blow for those still seeking the qualifying standard, and Lyndsay Tessier got bumped from her place. Here’s the makeup of the team, for now, along with those on the outside looking in with a shot at making it:
Pidhoresky is the only guaranteed lock for a spot, as she won the Olympic trials last October in Toronto. Athletics Canada, the organization that picks the teams, has said they are preferencing the trials winner above all else. Pidhoresky also ran under the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:29:30 during her trials win, so she’s a sure thing.
She ran the fastest time ever by a Canadian woman, so she’s going to qualify by easily making the time standard. She could also become the best all-time Canadian performer in the Olympic marathon if she can replicate her performance this summer. Her Houston time would have placed sixth back in Rio. She’s all but a lock, as her qualifying time is currently more than two minutes faster than anyone else.
Cliff is holding down the last spot by virtue of her now-former national record run in March 2019. In a sense, she controls her own destiny here. She could opt out of a spring marathon, gambling that no other Canadian woman can match that time from now until the qualification window closes at the end of May. Or, she could take essentially a free shot at a marathon, seeing if she can take the record back, and reestablish her dominance over the distance. Trying to fit in a spring race and the Olympics would be risky, as the turnaround time to recover is tight, unless she were to run an early race, such as Tokyo.
On the Outside
Lyndsay Tessier (Qualified, but needs a faster time)
There are two ways to qualify for the Olympics: run a sub-2:29:30 or place extremely well at a world class marathon, within the qualification window. Tessier accomplished the latter when she finished an astonishing ninth overall at the World Championships last September in Doha. She held down the third Team Canada slot until Elmore came along. Tessier is capable of putting up a world-class time (her marathon PB is 2:30:47), but would have to run a sub-2:26:56 (assuming Cliff won’t run a faster marathon this spring). Tessier hasn’t run a spring marathon in years, and although she’s made massive improvements in consecutive marathons, this may be too far outside of her comfort zone.
Emily Setlack (not yet qualified)
Setlack ran one of the most self-assured and dramatic marathons by a Canadian in 2019. She came within seconds of hitting the qualifying standard last fall in Toronto, finishing just behind Pidhoresky at the Canadian Trials. She will be looking to take a big risk as well this spring. Like Tessier, she must run faster than Rachel Cliff’s now former national record just to make the team.
It might be worth it for both Setlack and Tessier to put in marathon times this spring, even if it seems unlikely that either could take a spot from the three incumbents. Training for a marathon can take its toll, and it’s sadly never guaranteed that the initially selected athletes will make it to the start healthy. Both would still need to run under 2:29:30, of course.