Canada’s marathon standards elicit a broad range of emotions

October 23, 2016 0

© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

“The standard set by the IAAF (2:19 and 2:45) is not an internationally competitive standard and we are selecting athletes to perform internationally and our intent is not just to fill the quota in major Championships – we have the same expectation for all events,” shared Eriksson.

A broad range of emotions from rage to apathy and varied perspectives have rippled through the Canadian long-distance running community about the recently released marathon qualification standards for the 2017 London World Track and Field Championships.

The numbers are 2:12:50 as the men’s “A” standard, while the “B” standard is 2:14:10. For women the marks are 2:29:50 and 2:31:20. Apparently four days before the 2016 Toronto Marathon, Athletics Canada released the standards.

When asked for his opinion on the standards Alan Brookes, Race Director for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and Canada Running Series responded strongly with, “I think the marathon standards for London 2017 are very disappointing and disrespectful, both from a timing and content point of view. They also show a profound lack of understanding of the marathon event. They are discouraging and de-motivational — exactly the opposite of how we should be treating our athletes to develop the quality and depth in Canadian marathoning. I hope that Athletics Canada will re-visit the situation and give the standards the time and thoughtful consideration the athletes deserve.”

According to Canadian Running Magazine there is, “outrage” in Canada in regards to the standards and the timing of their release, siting Leslie Sexton a 2:33 performer, who told them, “I’ve been really disappointed with the process and what the numbers are.”

But not everyone has the same perspective, for example, Trent Stellingwerff, a top Canadian sport scientist told Athletics Illustrated, “Our marathoners already have the easiest standards compared to any event group.  (if using IAAF point comparisons, I will stress, IAAF points are not perfect, but at least get you in the right ballpark).

The fact is, the IAAF dictates field sizes, and makes standards harder or easier accordingly.  It is relatively much, much more difficult to make an IAAF field event standard than any of the marathon standards – way more difficult.  The women’s 1500m (an event I know well) is especially difficult, and with an associated 2016 Olympic point of 1158 points (for a 4:06.00 1500m) equals 2:10:13 and 2:27:29 for men’s and women’s marathon, respectfully.”

Reid Coolsaet of Guelph is one of Canada’s all-time great marathon runners. He is the most consistent and has come close to taking the national record. His best is 2:10:28. The record is 2:10:09.

Coolsaet told Athletics Illustrated, “I don’t have a problem with AC setting the standard tougher than the IAAF standard, but I think it should reflect the nature of the marathon. With a nine month window to qualify, athletes are realistically looking at taking two shots at qualifying. I think something in the 2:17 and 2:36 range would give room for bad weather while still sending capable athletes.”

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon that takes place in early October is seen as the major marathon in Canada for athletes to compete in to hit these standards and the event doubled this year as the national championships. Over the past decade many of the nation’s top runners have raced Toronto including Coolsaet, Gillis, Dylan Wykes, Rob Watson, Krista DuChene, Lanni Marchant, Sexton, Rachel Hannah and several others.

It is a well organised event, with an excellent international field offering a fast course, but the 2016 edition was windy.

During the 2016 Toronto marathon, Gillis (pb: 2:11:21) of Antigonish bettered the B standard with his finish time of 2:13:42 to finish as first Canadian and seventh overall. For Gillis, even though he competed in the Rio Olympics, he has to qualify for the upcoming world championships just as everyone else does. So from the start date of the qualification window of September 1st, Gillis is the first male to meet one of the two qualification standards. No Canadian woman managed to better the 2:31:20 B-standard benchmark.

In the women’s race DuChene was the first Canadian finishing in 2:33:59, while Toronto’s Hannah crossed the line in 2:34:34. They finished fifth and seventh, respectively.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – the worldwide governing body set the standards at 2:19:00 for men and 2:45:00 for women. They do not have separate A and B standards. The three fastest athletes can represent their country, when they have run under those respective times.

Why does Canada’s governing body want tougher standards, when the country has just a few marathon runners who have surpassed the A-standard benchmarks?

Peter Eriksson, Canada’s Head Coach at Athletics Canada told Athletics Illustrated, “The reason we have the standard we have, is that we want to ensure that our athletes are globally competitive.”

In comparison to the 2016 Rio Olympic standards, Eriksson added that “it is an easier standard or equal to what it was in 2016 (depending if you look at the A or B standard).”

In fairness 2:14:10 and 2:31:30, the B standards, are soft times in comparison to top finishers in the Olympics and World Championships.

But back in 2011 and 2012, did the tough 2:11:29 and 2:29:55 standards push some athletes to run faster, therefore raising the standard of performance?

Don’t underestimate the will of a competitive distance runner, when they are faced with a significant hurdle.

The first time that Athletics Canada dropped the standards in dramatic fashion was before Eriksson’s time. The previous administration had created outrage by setting the times for the 2008 Beijing Olympics with three different standards.

Men’s: 2:11:31 – 2:12:38 – 2:14:00

Women’s: 2:27:35 – 2:29:08 – 2:31:00

For Rio, the numbers were 2:12:50 and 2:29:50. The IAAF had set them at 2:19:00 and 2:45:00, like they have for the current Worlds.

London’s Lanni Marchant, who has gone on to become Canada’s marathon record holder with her 2:28:00 performance and Brantford’s Krista DuChene, who has run nearly as fast at 2:28:32 – both achieved in Toronto in 2013 – had previously surpassed the IAAF benchmarks when running in the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon. Marchant ran 2:31:51, DuChene finished in 2:32:06. These were breakthrough performances for the athletes, but not fast enough to represent Canada during the London Olympics.

Athletics Canada had turned them down for Team Canada. Marchant and DuChene appealed the decision on the basis that Athletics Canada had apparently said that they would have a “B” standard or a Rising Star category, but did not follow through. The two were denied after lengthy efforts to argue their case.

They both ended up competing in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games with DuChene finishing in 2:35:29 and Marchant in 2:33:08 for 35th and 24th position, respectively. For these two athletes, those performances were solid considering the heat and the nature of the course, but Athletics Canada is looking for top-12 performances and of course medals, based on the Canadian Olympic Committee requirements and funding.

“The standard set by the IAAF (2:19 and 2:45) is not an internationally competitive standard and we are selecting athletes to perform internationally and our intent is not just to fill the quota in major Championships – we have the same expectation for all events,” shared Eriksson.

Did the previous administration force the capable athletes that were in place and on the threshold of being internationally competitive to run just that much faster?

In 2010 Gillis’ best was 2:12:08, which he ran in Toronto. One year later, he eclipsed AC’s standard by one second, finishing in the time of 2:11:28. He was the second Canadian in that race. Coolsaet was first. He improved his best time from 2:11:23 to 2:10:55, within a minute of the national record. Coolsaet’s improvement was likely motivated more by the national record than the Olympic standards.

Dylan Wykes ran his best the following spring in Rotterdam, finishing in 2:10:47. It was a late decision to compete in Rotterdam. His coach had suggested that he give it a go, as he felt Wykes was in shape to hit standard. Wykes had GI issues in an earlier marathon and dropped out; he was going to give up on his Olympic dream. After adversity, he did it. Three Canadian men – the maximum number allowed to compete per country – had eclipsed the standard.

Although too late for the London Games, in 2013 DuChene and Marchant had run Canada’s two fastest times ever. They both eclipsed Sylvia Ruegger’s national record of 2:28:36 from 1983.

In less than two years, Canada went from famine in the marathon, to feast or from zero athletes qualifying to in-effect having five in the mix and potentially more on the way.

At that time Rob Watson was moving from specialising in the 3,000-metre steeplechase to the marathon. He ended up running 2:13 twice, once each in 2012 and 2013, with a best of 2:13:29. He competed in the 2013 IAAF World Track and Field Championships.

Regina’s Simon Bairu, Canada’s former 10,000-metre record holder and cross-country juggernaut was attempting to move to the marathon. If he would have succeeded, at that time, it was suggested that Bairu was the most likely to take the Canadian record.

Before these seven athletes were making moves in the marathon between 2010 and 2012, the fastest was Jon Brown and Bruce Deacon, who were on the tail end of their careers, while Steve Osaduik had run the fastest time in Canada in 2006 at 2:16:49 on a not-so-fast course in Victoria, was still hoping to perform well. The future of the marathon in Canada seemed bleak.

“The improvement of the IAAF suggested standard is nothing new it has been in place for many years and at several occasions it has been tougher than the present standard,” added Eriksson.

When considering the scope of the competitiveness in comparison to other events Stellingwerff added the following, “With our Canadian Olympic standards, globally, there were 51 women better than 2:29:50 and 52 men better 2:12:50 (CDN Olympic Standard). Conversely, only 30 men jumped 2.29 for HJ standard, and only 23 men jumped 5.70 in PV and only 36 women in LJ and only 27 women better 4:06.00 in the 1500m.”

The only caveat that could be considered for this argument is the fact that there are fewer opportunities to contest a marathon – to get it right – which makes Coolsaet’s comment relevant about having tougher standards, but with room for adverse conditions.

A middle-distance runner and field event athletes can return to competition weekly, marathon runners will be able to run at their best only one to three times per year. Therefore they do not have the same windows of opportunity.

Stellingwerff’s comment concludes with, “Also, every single other event group has (more or less, up to IAAF) the same standards for the Olympics and Worlds for the past few cycles. And the recently AC-announced world champs A standard for 2017 is the same as the Olympic standard (which will probably be the same for all other event groups).

The marathon A standard is already easier than some of the other event groups, and the B standard much easier (I could put all other standards in there, but I think you get the picture).

Track and field is probably the most globally demanding event in the Olympics, with 200-plus countries and 147 medals up for grabs, it is hard to compare between events. All I would hope for is a world-class team, that is at least selected on some semblance of parity (although this is difficult to do as IAAF already doesn’t do this with their standards dictating varying field sizes for each event, and each event having its own level of international depth).”

Saying this, it appears that Canada’s marathon runners are not happy with the Canadian standards. Recently 3,000m steeplechase athlete and Rio Olympian Chris Winter retired, as has Watson and Kelly Wiebe. Although Wiebe and Winter had not moved up to the marathon, that is often the next logical step. Have they been deterred by what they see as tough marathon standards?

Did the previous administration see Coolsaet, Wykes, Gillis, DuChene and Marchant as potential Olympians and therefore forced them to run faster by making the standards tougher? Does the current administration see Cameron Levins, Mohammed Ahmed, Rachel Hannah and Leslie Sexton and the next crop of Canadian distance runners in the same way?

One athlete who asked not to be named said, “I just really want to come down hard on the high performance area, specifically Peter Eriksson and the direction he is headed with team criteria and funding (i.e. all he cares about are medals). If you want to get your blood boiling, take a look at the most recent marathon criteria. We are going to lose more and more athletes from the sport if this is the direction we keep heading.”

Olympics Men Olympics Women World Champs Men World Champs Women
2017 – Canada 2:12:50 – 2:14:10 2:29:59 – 2:32:20
2017 – IAAF

2:19:00

2:45:00
2016 – Canada 2:12:50 2:29:59
2016 – IAAF 2:19:00 2:45:00
2015 – Canada

2:15:00

2:35:00

2015 – IAAF 2:18:00

2:43:00

2013 – Canada 2:11:29 – 2:15:00 2:29:59 – 2:35:00
2013 – IAAF 2:17:00

2:43:00

2012 – Canada

2:11:29

2:29:55

2012 – IAAF

2:15 – 2:18:00

2:37:00 – 2:43:00

2011 – Canada 2:11:29 2:29:55
2011 – IAAF 2:17:00 2:43:00
2009 – Canada 2:18:00 2:43:00
2009 – IAAF 2:18:00 2:43:00
2008 – Canada 2:11:31 – 2:12:38 – 2:14:00 2:27:35 – 2:29:08 – 2:31:00
2008 – IAAF 2:15:00 – 2:18:00 2:37:00 – 2:42:00

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