© Copyright – 2010 – Athletics Illustrated
Bruce Deacon caught and held the attention of the Canadian distance running community for nearly a decade as he qualified and competed internationally during much of the country’s marathon-distance dry spell. The lone torch bearer – sort of speak – of Canadian marathon running, Deacon competed admirably for Canada, placing a very respectable 11th and 16th at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships, winning silver at the Pan American Games, twice winning the California International Marathon, once in a storm, besting Kenyan, Elly Rono (who has a personal best time of 2:10:57) and he won the other CIM in oppressive heat. Deacon was the first two-time CIM champion and has won the event a total of three times. Additionally he has run under the 2:20:00 barrier an amazing 19 times. With a personal best of 2:13, twice.
Now retired from competing internationally, Bruce works with the Canadian Olympic Committee in delivering education programs to Canadian schools. He kindly took the time from his busy work schedule to talk with me regarding his running career.
Christopher Kelsall: Most Canadians, who fancy themselves fans of the sport of running, are familiar with your story of competing in two marathons when you were 12 years of age. I understand that for typical stick and ball games you weren’t normally a high, schoolyard pick. Were you experimenting with marathons then because you weren’t playing on teams?
Bruce Deacon: I was one of the shortest kids in my school and really uncoordinated. I was the kid who rushed for the outfield in gym class because I knew that no one could hit the ball that far and so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I was not an athlete. In fact, if they had a vote in my school for the least likely to ever be an Olympian, I would have voted for myself.
It wasn’t until the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games that I really wanted to be an athlete. I prayed: “God if you find me a sport at which I can beat the big kids (pretty much all the other kids), then I would work really hard at it.” I went away to a summer camp and discovered I could run long distances. I just figured that God expected that I live up to my end of the deal and train at it.
I wasn’t last in my first races, but I was close enough to last to convince myself that longer distances, like the marathon, might be where I could best achieve a bit of sporting success. So, I did two marathons when I was 12. I would have done more, but for Bill Rodgers. I was a HUGE fan, and wrote him to tell him that I was running marathons. He was kind enough to write back, and wise enough to steer me towards track.
CK: You were around 9-years of age during the Montreal Games, which seems young to recognize you were probably not going to be a stick and ball athlete and that you wanted to be an Olympian.
BD: I was 10 during the games and didn’t really see much of them until we were herded into the gym in the fall to watch the films. I spent most of my summers at our cottage and at camp, so I didn’t watch much TV during the Montreal Games. I do think that there was divine direction during my teen years. I believe that as you use the abilities God gives you, that you are given more opportunities. I look back and see lots of great opportunities that opened up and how they encouraged me to persevere.
CK: You were one of a few to represent Canada internationally in distance running during the 1990s and early 2000s. You managed a couple 2:13 marathon results. It appears that even though Canadian distance running has been improving over recent years, your times would still be top-level as a Canadian today. How far away do you think we are from seeing someone pop a sub-2:10?
BD: Well, I would preface my remarks by saying that there were some great Canadian marathoners in the 1990s, including Peter Maher, Peter Fonseca, Carey Nelson and Art Boileau. All of these runners ran faster than I did. I guess the difference is that I outlasted them and kept at it. I think that Canada will get its sub-2:10, but you never know by who and when. I am confident that Coolsaet, Bairu or Gillis can run really fast, but you just can’t guarantee anything in the marathon. It is a strange event and luck plays a bigger role in it than in most others. There were many times I was ready for a 2:11 or 2:12, but arrived at the race to find howling winds or something small going wrong. I thought for sure that Jeff Schiebler would get a 2:08, or that Jon Brown would run 2:07, but so many little things can derail you. It isn’t like a shorter distance where you can try again the next week. In the marathon, your whole season comes down to one race.
CK: How is recovery from surgery on your Haglund’s Deformity progressing?
BD: It is getting better each day. It will still be a while until I can start a run-walk program, but I am running in the pool. I am just glad that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I battled with chronic Achilles tendinosis for more than a year and simply couldn’t run. I had all kinds of treatments that in the end proved to be very frustrating. Half the battle is learning the cause of the pain. The other half is getting rid of the pain and recovering.
CK: Seems like you have a high tolerance for boredom and pain. I am sure I read that you ran on a treadmill in a sauna in advance of a potential hot-weather marathon for the purpose of heat acclimatization.
BD: Yes, and it works like a charm. Prior to some of my hot-weather races I also used a heat chamber built around a treadmill. I was running in 40C heat and let me tell you how tough that makes you.
CK: You and I had a conversation once about base building. You seemed to indicate that after all of your years of running, you questioned how much of a base phase you really needed to repeat every cycle. Also I remember you once mentioning that your anaerobic phase is or was 8 – 12 weeks before you stop seeing improvements, which seems like a fairly long stretch. Looking at your 5k, 10k and half-marathon times in comparison to your marathon results, do you think you needed a lot more quality than a typical marathoner – that as a distance guy your stamina was easily improved?
BD: I found the long runs relatively easier than many people. I am more of an endurance guy and lack the leg speed of a lot of others. I mean on a downhill track with a running start and a tailwind, I might have been able to run a 54 second quarter. I would have a 10-13 week marathon build-up that would include a mix of aerobic and anaerobic threshold running. However, the anaerobic running would be more 5,000m or 10, 000m pace work. I would always include some 5-10K work in my typical week of marathon training, and would very rarely do a full week of nothing other than aerobic running unless I was in a recovery period after a marathon. I guess I never really felt that this was sound training practice.
When you are training, you want to create a sufficient training stimulus to cause your body to adapt to a higher level of fitness. If you keep the same types of training for much more than 4-5 weeks, then your body will begin to experience a diminishing return on your training. For instance, if I run a 20-mile long run week in and week out, I sooner or later get into diminishing returns. My body has adapted to the stimulus, and I no longer gain any additional fitness. I need to either increase the stimulus or detrain and then return to the 20-mile long runs later. Many runners feel that if they bump up their long runs from 20 to 22 it will create a much greater stimulus. I don’t buy that. I don’t think that your body will differentiate between another 12-15 minutes of running. I would usually get my longest runs in the first 5 weeks of a marathon build-up. I would then reduce the volume and focus on more quality. I might do a 24-26 mile long run at week 5-6 of the build up, and then do a 20 mile run with 10-13 miles at pace (or faster) at week 8.
CK: Any leg speed in your weeks – alactic strides?
BD: Well, over the span of my career, I tried tons of things. I used to do a lot of diagonal strides on a soccer field. I would do these on easy days in my second session. I also did these really short activation sprints of maybe 4-6 strides as fast a possible. These were to activate the central nervous system and I would do them when I was fully warmed up in a morning easy run.
CK: Can you tell me about your role with the Vancouver Winter Olympics?
BD: I lead the Western office of the Canadian Olympic Committee. The COC has offices in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver (until the end of March). In the Vancouver office we take care of all of the COC’s education program and community relations West of Toronto. My primary responsibility is the Canadian Olympic School Program, which provides Olympic themed classroom activities for close to 1 million students.
CK: Was the delivery of the classroom activities successful? Was it well embraced by the schools and administration?
BD: Over the last two years, we have grown from a membership of 14,000 to over 52,000. We are now one of the best and most respected Olympic Education programs in the world.
Ed note: Bruce wrote in an August 16, 2010 message, “you may adjust the Canadian School Program numbers from 52, 000 to 65, 000. When we spoke, we were gaining upwards of 1500 new members/day…no kidding, it was crazy.”
CK: How was such a great level of success achieved?
BD: I think it helps having a home Games, but a lot of it is the result of the work that my team has done to elevate the program to a whole new level. We had a really successful execution of a solid plan and vision. I approached this with the same intensity that I did marathon running, and it paid off.
CK: What are your thoughts on the IAAF versus the Canadian Olympic Committee’s standards for the marathon? You had run your fastest marathon time of 2:13:18, well inside the international A standard and even faster than Jon Brown had (for the UK at the time) and you were left off the team. Jon ended up within seconds of a bronze medal for Great Britain.
BD: It was a decision by the COC to have top-12 as the standard for 2004. It hurt, because I thought I should have been on the team. I was less than a second per kilometre from qualifying, but in the end I wasn’t fast enough. Each country determines its standards and then the athletes have to make them. It is really that simple. I had raced well on the Athens course (16th at WC in ’97), but that didn’t seem to matter.
CK: If you were in the position to change the particular criteria, would you and what changes would you make?
BD: Now the COC lets the NSOs (National Sports Organizations) determine their selection standards based on IAAF standards. That is the way it should be.
I think that the IAAF standard should be sufficient to qualify. We focus way too much on qualifying and it sends all the wrong messages. By the time the athlete has qualified, he is so exhausted by all of the process, that he has had little time to focus on the purpose of the exercise – performing well when it counts. Prior to being selected for my first World Championships, I had to write a letter explaining how I intended to come top-16. The expectations were clear: perform or don’t go. We need to spend more time focusing our athletes on performance at the event and less time trying to keep them off the team.
We waste our efforts keeping people off the team. We need to focus on getting marathoners to perform at the event and not trying to set the bar so high that making the team becomes the big accomplishment. It is counter-productive. We want people to race well when it counts, not chase standards for a team uniform. We should take more risks, but hold people more accountable at the Championships.
CK: Currently reading?
BD: Recently read: Playing the Enemy, Trade Like the Little Guy, and When the Heart Waits.
CK: Favourite running oriented book?
BD: Once a Runner
CK: Currently on your iPod?
BD: U2, CCR, Lifehouse, David Gray, Chris Tomlin, Delirious, Guess Who and a bunch more.
CK: I assume you don’t have any vices, but if you did, what would it be?
BD: I do have vices…Starbucks Coffee for starters.
CK: Are you a lifetime runner? Are you going to run marathons as long as you are physically able?
BD: I would say that these are two very different questions. I hope to always run. I would like to race again, but I am not sure if this will be at the marathon distance.
CK: Your eldest son must be ready for a marathon, is he 11 or 12 now?
BD: You are a cheeky one, Kelsall. My oldest is 10 and has no interest in running. My youngest is more interested in running than the oldest. I am just fine with this.
I would not advise them to run marathons before they are in their 20s (if they are ever so inclined). However, I believe that there are development windows for endurance where aerobic exercise can yield high returns. From 11-13 is one of these windows. You don’t have to get kids running marathons to benefit from this window, but you can introduce them to longer easy running, tough hiking, cross country skiing, long bike rides, swimming lengths, etc. In western countries we are so scared that we will over do things, that we discourage kids from working on their aerobic endurance until they are older. Africans don’t have this hang up.