Gordon Christie Interview

November 25, 2014 0

© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated

Gordon Christie is a former elite distance runner who competed in the NCAA for Princeton University. While there he specialised in the 5,000mChristie_Flash and 10,000m distances. He later represented Canada in the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games in the marathon.

He won the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa, Ontario three consecutive times from 1988 to 1990, running the event as fast as 2:14:33, which is his personal best at the distance and the course record in 1987.

In addition to Princeton, Christie also attended the University of Victoria and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Currently he is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is married to wife Juliette Christie, a competitive runner in her own right. Together they have one daughter, Eliza.

Christopher Kelsall: Tell me about growing up in Inuvik, where you there until you left for university?

Gordon Christie: My mom’s family is from the North Slope of Alaska, east to what is now the northwestern corner of Canada – Inupiat and Inuvialuit. I only lived in Inuvik ‘til I was around 12 or so, at which point the family moved south (pretty much everything is south from there), to a small town in northern Ontario (which was actually much smaller than Inuvik, and more remote in some ways). If we’d stayed in Inuvik I can’t see how I could have become a runner, though some of Canada’s top cross-country skiers at that time were coming from the local club up there (the Firth sisters were consistently in the mix internationally).

CK: Are you familiar with the northern marathon runner named Eddie Ahyakak?

GC: No, I haven’t heard of him. I used to follow the running of Wally Rabbitskin, from the James Bay area. It must be hard to train for a marathon in that part of the world!

CK: It appears that he ran around 2:36. What sort of physical activity or sport could you get into up there?

GC: As you likely know, there are lots of kids dreaming of the NHL up in the far north, with a few making it (Tootoo being the big name at the moment). Then there’s curling – big in some communities – and a growing sport up north at the moment is short-track speed skating. I was online for a few hours last weekend watching short-track races at the Richmond Olympic oval – my nephew from Inuvik had some good races! (and a crash – that seems like an almost inevitable part of that sport). Cross-country skiing doesn’t seem as prominent as it was a few decades ago in the NWT, but now many of Canada’s better skiers are from the Yukon, so the north is still well-represented.

CK: And did you participate in any of those sports?

MasterChampsGC: No, I was just a brat growing up there. Until I was going into grade 10 in northern Ontario I did no real organized sports. Of course in every small Canadian town I ever lived in hockey was what a young boy was supposed to dream about, but for the most part it seemed to be played as an acceptable way for the bigger, tougher kids to make life difficult and dangerous for the smaller, slower ones (like me).

CK: How did you come to discover running?

GC: I ran a bit in Beardmore, the first small town north of Thunder Bay we originally moved to from Inuvik, but really only picked running up seriously when we moved to Elk Lake, in northeastern Ontario, when I was in grade 10. As I imagine is the case with many others, it was having a good high school/club coach that pulled me in. I was pretty poor runner that first year or so, but it was a good group atmosphere (again, largely the result of good coaching), the coach himself was super-enthusiastic, and I found early on that even with little natural talent running is a great sport, since the more work you put into it the faster you become. By the end of high school I could at least keep the top Ontario runners in sight by the end of the 8K cross-country races. That was sufficient to be a pretty good prospect at American schools (though I didn’t know this – I just applied to good schools down there, mentioned my running ability, and then was quite surprised when I got home from school one day and my mom said some strange guy from a university in the states had actually called earlier, trying to talk to me).

CK: Apparently the fishing is outstanding in Beardmore; did you become a fisher while living there?

GC: Odd you ask – yes, it was in Beardmore that I became a very serious fisher. I did it mostly, though, just to get out on the land – that area north of Superior is incredibly beautiful. I enjoyed going out very early in the morning and spending the day slowly walking down a creek or small river, chasing rainbow and brook trout.

CK: Was your father a miner?

GC: No, the Canadian military. No mines (yet) in the Mackenzie river delta! Starting as far back as the 50’s Canada joined with the US in listening in on the Soviets, and in building an early-warning system in case of attack by nuclear missiles. When we moved to northern Ontario my dad began working in LCBO outlets (Liquor Control Board of Ontario).

CK: So who did that strange guy turn out to be and what was the offering?

GC: He was a very good and decent man, Larry Ellis, who became my coach at Princeton. I had the great luck that while I only had two coaches in my running career they were both good, enthusiastic, committed individuals. Those first few phone calls were odd – I didn’t know the rules around recruitment in those pre-internet days, and so his oblique remarks about closest airport and such went over my head. If I had requested a visit he could have obliged, but by the rules in place he could not initiate things with an offer to have me travel to the school. I accepted blind (of course, I knew it was a good school, as I was hoping to go into the sciences and knew Princeton’s reputation in that regard). I still recall flying into Newark for the first time, in late August, looking down at that industrial wasteland, wondering how big the mistake was that I had made. Luckily, Princeton itself turned out to be a small, quiet town with lots of good running routes around.

CK: And did you start in the sciences? How did you end up deciding on law and philosophy?

GC: I went to university thinking about science and math, but was stretched too thin. I met Juliette in philosophy classes and she helped me see the light (so to speak). Classes without weekly problem-sets, grades based on final papers – I could manage all that!  Law came much later, when it came time to grow up a bit and decide how money was actually going to be made.

CK: You specialised in the 5,000m and 10,000m at Princeton, yes?

GC: Well, like many at that point in their lives, I wanted to be running the 1500. But the team had a load of solid milers, so I was naturally shifted up to the 5K and 10K. I enjoyed the 5, but was counted on to make points in the 10, which I was usually able to do. I could tell from my days doing (and enjoying) long runs in high school that eventually I’d do pretty good at the longer distances. Still, I’d always advise younger runners to try to maximize their potential at the shorter distances before moving up – it’s hard to add a real measure of base-speed once you’re deeply embedded in the longer distances. I actually got faster at the shorter races (5K and 10K) after I’d been training for the marathon for a while, but that’s a different sort of ‘speed’ – that’s reaping the benefits of attaining new levels of efficiency.

CK: What sort of weekly volume did you get up to at Princeton? How long was your weekly long run?

GC: I actually came down a bit when I transitioned from high school to university. I’d say around 120km per week (75 miles) in high school, down to an average of around 70 miles in university. I didn’t really do any long runs of any note in university. The coach was a very good and helpful man, but honestly did not know all that much about how to maximize potential in different sorts of distance runners. It was in the first few years after university, in building up to 100 miles per week, that I came to really see the benefits – for me – of significant mileage.

CK: Did you come down in volume due to having to race three seasons in a school year?

GC: As to racing a lot in university, yes, that was likely a reason for the lower weekly mileage.  I raced somewhere around 25-30 times a year in university, on three varsity teams.  I over-raced, but enjoyed the camaraderie and have always enjoyed racing, even when I knew I was doing it too much.

CK: What, at the time, did it mean to you to be a letter winner at an Ivy League school?

GC: I never ran for accolades and the like. Running from the beginning was about seeing what I could do with the physical thing – the body – I had to work with. I was always just seeing if I could go a bit faster.  Winning a race or beating someone was a secondary matter.  It’s an endless experiment – now at age 50+ it’s a different sort of experiment. What can I manage with this body that seems to be aging quickly? Basically it’s now about trying to see how slow I can make the inevitable slow-down.

CK: You once talked about an interesting training goal about average training pace over full training cycles and all running, easy jogs to your hardest workouts. Can you expand on it?

GC: I found myself on my own in training after university, with the most serious stretches while in graduate schools in California and Virginia. I knew myself fairly well by then, and I knew that the only way to compete and improve – given the low level of natural speed and such I had inherited genetically – was to continually push the line around what punishment the body could take. What worked well for me was to have a baseline pace (for easy days) as close to 6 minutes per mile (3:43/km) as possible. With workout days also being at around the same pace averaged over the entire run (easy warm-up, longer intervals – something like 12 x 800s – then a long easy warm-down) I would end up a typical week with something like 110-130 miles at right around 6 min per mile average pace. It took several years to work up to that level of mileage, though right from the get-go I was trying to keep the average pace at around that point. Key was to be at a fitness point where the easy days were actually easy, though I would do things like 6 miles in the morning in 36 minutes and 8 miles in the afternoon in 48 minutes. The important thing is to find out what sort of body you’re working with – I know runners with a natural ‘smoothness’ to their form – they don’t need to work on things this way. This pattern was what I needed, given again that my natural speed was not there, and just the act of running was not smooth or ‘natural’ for me.

CK: Your baseline resembles Michigan Miles a little. Looking back do you think that your peaking could have been sharper or do you feel you got everything out of your talent that you could?

GC: The one thing I was fairly good at but had few opportunities to practice was peaking. My serious running days were all spent in the Santa Barbara and Charlottesville, Virginia areas. The running scenes were good there, but there were very few really competitive races that I could get to. So, Juliette and I both ended up running lots of races, almost all of which were not that competitive up front. That was one reason to shift to the marathon toward the end of my career, as it was possible to get flown places (on our budget as grad students there was no way to get to other good races). I was just ramping up my marathon racing when I ran into injury problems – mostly from not having enough money to both buy good shoes and to pay for any sort of physio or medical care. If I had a time machine I might try to send some money back to the two of us in the 1980s (I wouldn’t bother sending back shoes, since I think running shoes were at least as good back then as they are now).

CK: You once beat the great Henry Rono in a half marathon. Was that your personal best time at around 61-minutes?

GC: That was a memorable race, but (a) this was toward the very end of my serious ‘career’, so I was already coming down off my heights of fitness, so to speak, (b) Henry was at that point attempting a come-back – his only really serious attempt in his later 30’s, and (c ) the course was not particularly fast (this was in Vegas, but not on the lightning fast course they sometimes use in that city, but one that rolls along the edge of the bowl the city sits in).  There were whispers before the race that Henry Rono was there, but no one around me spotted him so we all just got off the line and forgot about that as we headed off into the race. About 8 miles in I was running beside the top local guy, a 2:12 marathoner, Frank Plasso. We both sensed Henry go by us before we heard anything – he went flying by at what must have been some ridiculous pace. This is a typical Kenyan road tactic, so I calmed Frank down and said he’ll come back to us in a few minutes if we’re patient. He did, and the three of us spent the next few miles surging and testing each other. I didn’t know that the last stretch, after we made a right hand turn and went into downtown Henderson, Nevada, was up a pretty steep hill. Sometimes not knowing the course works to your advantage – I threw everything I had into one last surge with less than a mile to go, and got some space between me and Frank and Henry (I really didn’t want to be duking it out with a 13:06 5K guy over the last 400). Going around the turn I recall looking up – way up – to where the finish line crossed the road a good half-mile away. I kept thinking I could hear footsteps or breathing behind me every step of the way up that damn hill, but I managed to get to the line in 1:04:30, with Henry 10 seconds back and Frank another 10 further in arrears.

As to the idea I ran 61 minutes, no, not on a legit course. I ran 1:00:22 and 1:00:24 on two separate occasions at the Fontana ½. That race, though, descends from mountains around San Bernardino onto the flats. It’s either sharply downhill or flat all the way. As with nearly all the races Juliette and I ran in those days, the idea was to get some prize money – as grad students we were always dirt-poor.  The price for those two $300 purses, though, was pretty high – going up and down stairs would be nearly impossible for 4-5 days afterward.

The last time I ran that race it turned out to be more helpful, in the long run. I was coming off a long winter of really challenging injuries, culminating in a really sad performance at the Commonwealth Games. I ran Fontana in April and then wound up in Ottawa for the National Capital Marathon in May. I started that marathon feeling particularly tired and out of shape – I’d only been relatively injury-free for maybe 8 weeks, not enough time for me to get into marathon shape! So, I figured I’d need any help I could get. In the first mile there was some chatter amongst the dozen or so of us up front settling into the race. I let it drop that I’d run 1:01:54 the previous month in a ½. I didn’t mention this was in a silly race – my hope was that it would scare everyone else into paying me much more respect than I was due at that point. It seemed to work, as the pace dawdled along and I ended up in a position to kick the last 400 and pick up the much-needed grad-school financing.

CK: Is that where you ran 2:14?

GC: No, that was the year before at the National Capital. That was the one marathon I was able to run in good form before the injuries kicked in. In the race in 1990, when I was just trying to get back into shape after the injuries, I ran 2:18.

CK: You have particular interest in aboriginal law. As a Professor at UBC, I believe you teach it. Do you get a chance to help shape law? There can’t be too many Canadians with your specific educational background. Does the federal Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development consult with you?

GC:  I don’t know if I’ve had any impact on the development of law in Canada. Obviously I’ve taught a fair number of students over the years and that likely has had an effect (since many of them go on to work with clients and help to make the changes that are possible within the common law system, and others go into policy roles or public office, which can also lead to real changes). But my research is not into the nuts and bolts of Canadian law, as my take on the Canadian system is that it is the source of most of the problems we see around us today – and so my research tends to be too critical for anyone working within the system to make use of it. The system as a whole is fairly conservative and regressive, and my analysis doesn’t lend itself to efforts at reform from the inside.

CK: If you could, what are some key changes that you would make to the current conservative system to make it less regressive?

GC: The basic requirement is for something that is incredibly difficult, if not impossible at this point, to put into place – and that is for the people in positions of power, at both federal and provincial levels, to come to see and accept the fundamental constitutional problem that lies at the base of the Canadian state, that it formed as a result of racist and colonial mentalities (and so is, at heart, illegitimate). Actual acceptance of that fact (and not rhetoric around it, as we see on occasion) would lay the groundwork for the sorts of discussions that need to take place.

CK: Can you identify what is that fundamental constitutional issue with the Canadian state?

GC: The problem is that the country was never founded on any sort of consensual basis. Some see the treaties in central Canada in that way, but really they also were not reached on the basis of any real ‘meeting of the minds’. The Crown saw Aboriginal peoples in those days as ‘lower’ on some ill-defined social scales (the racist part of the whole business) and it was principally concerned about maximizing the taking of land and enabling others to make profits (and the question then is, have things really changed from those colonial times?).

CK: When competing for Canada at an international event, were you were emotionally detached from the concept of Canada and were simply competing at a high level, regardless of the uniform?

GC: No, I always wanted to compete for Canada and enjoyed the experiences I had. I am not a strong nationalist – strong nationalism is clearly a dangerous thing. But I can separate out the good people of Canada – of which there are many – from the horrendous laws and policies put in place by Canadian governments. I can think that if Canadians could somehow put in place governments that reflected their general beliefs and principles we might have a truly great place to live. I would never have been a ‘rah-rah’ athlete on the world stage, but that’s a reflection of my belief in ‘everything in moderation’ (and the fact I’m a pretty serious introvert). Canada is a good country (especially in comparison to so many others) – if only it could live up to its potential and become a better-than-good country!

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