© Copyright – 2021 – Athletics Illustrated
Since the Tokyo Olympic Games wrapped up on August 8, little has been said regarding the performances of Canada’s six athletes. On paper, the team was Canada’s all-time strongest to compete at a global championship. For the first time, Canada had reserve athletes.
Nominated by Athletics Canada’s National Team Committee (NTC), the six athletes competing in Sapporo, were: Malindi Elmore, Natasha Wodak, Dayna Pidhoresky, Trevor Hofbauer, Cameron Levins, and Ben Preisner.
Sapporo, 800 kilometres north of Tokyo on the island of Hokkaido, was used for the marathons and racewalk events due to concerns about the summer heat. Heat was a major factor in the running of the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships in September 2019.
The good news
There is no debate regarding the quality of the performances by Elmore of Kelowna, BC and Vancouver’s Wodak, respectively. They trained smart, especially during their heat acclimatization protocol. They raced competitively and finished at least as well or better than expected.
Western Canada experienced a couple of heat waves during the summer. While some training was done together in Greater Vancouver, Wodak joined Elmore in the desert of Kelowna as part of the process of becoming more heat acclimated. The plan seemed to work for them.
Elmore finished in ninth position recording a 2:30:59, while Wodak clocked a 2:31:41 on her way to a 13th-place finish.
The third Canadian woman, Dayna Pidhoresky, also of Vancouver, had a rough go leading up to the race. There was concern of a minor injury and apparent COVID exposure.
Suspected COVID exposure and isolation
Pidhoresky had to quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks. Her experience due to a suspected potential COVID exposure on her flight to Japan was less than ideal.
According to her coach and husband, Josh Seifarth, the experience was underwhelming and there did not seem to be a contingency plan in place. He and Pidhoresky would be given day-to-day instruction, which primarily resulted in staying isolated in the hotel room and unable to fit in any running or physiotherapy.
“It seemed that no one at Athletics Canada (AC) really had any answers or knew how to handle the situation, so we were often in the dark about what was going to happen,” said Seifarth. “We were often told that we’d be released “possibly tomorrow” or similar, only to be later told that it was denied and we can’t leave the room. With COVID, there were always going to be unknowns, but there was a clear lack of contingency planning for a situation like this which was likely to happen given everyone flew to Japan on standard commercial flights with the general public.”
On the surface, it appears that the handling of her suspected exposure was a failure. Pidhoresky was also dealing with a pesky injury and left Vancouver with a calf issue.
“Beyond being segregated from the team, isolated in a hotel room, unable to go outside, and not allowed any sort of treatment or IST, Dayna was also dealing with a calf issue that arose in the final two weeks of training before departing for Japan. It was aggravated by slower running, which meant we had to stop all easy runs and instead only hit key workouts for the final two weeks. To supplement, we had Dayna on the bike in a heat room at our house in lieu of easy running and had increased how often she saw physiotherapy and massage here in Vancouver. However, when we were put in isolation Dayna was also not permitted to see anyone or have any treatment.”
“…as part of carding/AAP we communicated with AC regularly. They were aware of the adapted training. We could have said nothing but wanted to let them know ahead of Japan as Dayna would want to cross-train more than others as well as have IST up to speed prior to arrival. The isolation measures in place by Japan meant we were not to have contact with anyone, which meant no IST or treatment while in Gifu,” added Seifarth.
Gifu, Japan was the site of the pre-Olympic training base for Team Canada.
According to Athletics Canada’s published Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Nomination Criteria (including amendments published Feb. 19, 2021):
5.2 Once nominated, and until the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, athletes are required to immediately report any injury, illness, or change in training status that could affect their ability to compete at their highest level. Failure to properly report injury or illness prior to the event may result in the athlete being deselected and held financially responsible for all the athlete’s costs associated with the event. Notification must be sent immediately to Jessica Scarlato at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps knowing this, IST should have been made available.
How did it go for Pidhoresky?
Pidhoresky earned a spot on the team because she was the first Canadian to finish the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon — a national championship — while bettering the Tokyo Olympic standard of 2:29:30. She did so by finishing in the time of 2:29:03. For that performance, she was a lock — outside of injury or COVID infection, there was nothing that could take away from her being an Olympian.
Handled differently, Pidhoresky likely would have finished in a much better position than she did, which was last, 73 of 73 finishers and in the time of 3:03:10. It was hot at 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Celsius) at the time of the 6:00 AM race start. As luck would have it, the temperature was the same in Tokyo. Fifteen of the 89 starters dropped out. The race winner, Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, finished in the time of 2:27:20. Her best going in was 2:17:16. World record holder Brigid Kosgei, also Kenyan, has a best of 2:14:04. She finished second in the time of 2:27:36. Surprise bronze medallist Molly Seidel of the US clocked a 2:27:46, just 2:33 off her lifetime best.
Elmore and Wodak were 6:05 and 5:22 off their lifetime bests, respectively. For Pidhoresky, finishing around 20th would have been very possible under ideal conditions.
It is difficult to determine if Vancouver’s Rachel Cliff could or should have hit the start line in Sapporo. She is indeed worthy of a start, but perhaps Athletics Canada handcuffed themselves with the requirement that the first finisher in Toronto who also achieves standard is guaranteed to go. Pidhoresky was there fair and square. Considering the language of section 5.2 regarding injury, should Pidhoresky been kept from going to Japan and Cliff sent instead? It may have been too late by the time the injury appeared.
Hindsight is 20/20. Certainly, the pandemic is unprecedented times for everyone. Perhaps a better idea than a single athlete chosen from a national championship, a national trials, like the US offers, would have been more appropriate. Have all athletes compete for a spot on the Olympic team in the same race.
Dan Lilot, agent for Canadian marathon runner Tristan Woodfine likes the idea of the trials.
“Perhaps my view is influenced by being American and growing up in our trials system, but I would argue that even more, if not all, spots should be awarded by place at the selection event. Of course, that isn’t typically possible, since there have been fewer than three athletes with the standard in the past few decades. But if Canadian distance running, and marathoning specifically, continue to improve, I would like to see more, if not all, spots chosen from the selection event. Watching athletes duking it out on the streets of Toronto is much more exciting than waking up to check the results in London, Rotterdam or Berlin,” shared Lilot.
Cameron Levins from Black Creek, BC on Vancouver Island had an interesting experience leading up to the end of the qualification window.
The 2012 London Olympian failed to make the team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. He was clearly dead set on making Tokyo and nothing was going to stop him. He did it, but not until the 11th hour. Not until after running three hard marathons in eight months (and four in 10 months including Tokyo) — not ideal. Did the three marathons influence his fitness for Tokyo? That is difficult to determine, but he didn’t have the performance he was looking for. The Canadian record holder (2:10:25) finished in the time of 2:28:43.
In October 2019, Levins ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. He was racing intent on two things: defending his national title from 2018 and to run the Olympic standard or better — perhaps improve on his own national record. Standard is 2:11:30. Neither happened. Head to head — which is criteria that the NTC is to consider — he was beaten by Calgary’s Trevor Hofbauer. Hofbauer, like Pidhoresky, clocked a qualification time, while also being the first Canadian to cross the finish line in Toronto.
Hofbauer was a lock and recorded the second-fastest Canadian marathon all-time at 2:09:51. Only Levins has run faster and his record continues to stand. Unfortunately, during the 2019 edition, he clocked a 2:15:01 finish time. This race took place during the initial qualification window (the qualification window closed and re-opened due to the pandemic, as Tokyo was also delayed one year). Luckily for him and for Wodak, the window re-opened giving them an opportunity to qualify that they would not otherwise have had.
On Oct. 4, 2020, Levins started the re-scheduled London Marathon in St. James Park. The temperature was cold and the rain was at times heavy, plus there was wind. Some athletes fared well, others, including world record holder Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya did not. Kipchoge lost his first marathon major, after eight consecutive wins and clocked, by his standard, a slow 2:06:49, finishing in eighth place. Levins dropped out.
Not to be deterred, Levins tried the warmth of Arizona in Dec 2020. The Chandler-based, closed-circuit Marathon Project course was perfect. Levins was on roughly 2:08 pace to approximately 20 miles (32kms), then the wheels fell off. He looked great to that point and was in the mix for the win and appeared like his old self. The winner was American Martin Hehir, who clocked a 2:08:59 finish time. On May 23, 2021, at the 11th hour in Fürstenfeld, Austria, Levins again took to the streets. He threw caution to the wind, leaving behind eight time zones to attempt the Olympic standard of 2:11:30 or rather something faster than 2:10:51, which Ontario’s Tristan Woodfine had run in London. It was Levins’ final opportunity to qualify and he did it, looking smooth right to the finish. It appeared he could have run faster. Whatever wasn’t working for him during the other marathons, he appeared to have fixed.
He clocked a 2:10:14 performance.
Was that just too much marathon racing for one person to go through considering the goal was the Olympics just 77 days later?
Remember the head-to-head consideration? Woodfine bettered Levins by clocking 2:10:51 in London. In Chandler, Ben Preisner clocked a 2:10:17. In Toronto, Hofbauer was the first Canadian.
Not only was Levins potentially burning through his fitness, chasing standard, but he was losing to fellow Canadians each time. Austria was a great performance, but Woodfine wondered how he was not nominated.
Woodfine appealed but the nomination was upheld.
According to the four-page appeal document, the NTC’s decision was based on incomplete information, contradictory reasoning, and use of results outside of the qualifying window as well as shorter distance events. “AC didn’t present complete information on Tristan Woodfine’s history or performance progression, and they ignored and/or minimized information that was critical to Woodfine’s case,” the document reads.
Athletics Canada Commissioner Frank Fowlie rejected the appeal. He wrote, “In my review of the materials, I have seen no evidence of a conflict of interest, bias or improper consideration or ignorance of information by the NTC. Thus, the issue I am primarily concerned with is whether the selection process was followed, was fair and whether the decision is reasonable.”
Clearly, he thought so.
Meanwhile, the women’s situation was also getting complex
Toronto’s Lindsay Tessier finished top-10 at the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships on Sept. 27, 2019, crossing the line in ninth position. Tessier wasn’t a lock with her 2:42:03 performance in the heat but was now in the pool of candidates. Finishing top-10 in a global championship is equivalent to running faster than the Olympic standard. On Oct. 20 that year, Pidhoresky took the Canadian title in Toronto to claim her spot.
The heat in Doha was unusual and in light of the fact that many athletes dropped out, Tessier ran tough and surprised many with that ninth-place finish. It was a demonstration of great character. Forty athletes finished, 28 did not and two more did not start. Temperatures were 90.9F or 32.7C with 73 per cent humidity.
Elmore qualified next at the Jan. 2020 Houston Marathon, where she set the new Canadian record at 2:24:50, which continues to stand. She improved on Cliff’s national record of 2:26:56 from Nagoya, Japan which was accomplished in March 2019.
It was a tough January and February for Cliff as her national half-marathon and marathon records were taken down. Guelph, Ontario’s Andrea Seccafien ran a 69:38 in Marugame, Japan, in February to take Cliff’s record. She later took down Wodak’s national 10,000m record, clocking a 31:13.94 in Los Angeles in May 2021. Perhaps Seccafien is a future marathon runner for Canada.
Wodak tried her second marathon, and first serious attempt at the distance in Chandler in Dec., 11 months later, clocking a 2:26:19 performance to become the second-fastest Canadian all-time. She finished in fifth place and leapfrogged Cliff.
Until May 23 it was Hofbauer, Preisner and Woodfine
Meanwhile, there was Hofbauer, Preisner, and Woodfine for the men, that is, until May 23, when Levins knocked Woodfine out. One question: with Woodfine having run fewer marathons during the qualification period, would he have been fresher in Sapporo?
No one can blame Levins for trying so hard to get the marathon right so that he could qualify for Tokyo. In fact, it is that level of focus and determination that is applauded in high-level athletes, that killer instinct. Either you have it, or you don’t and Levins has it.
Levins is not only the current national marathon record holder, he is the former 10,000m record holder with his May 2015 performance of 27:07.51. Only St. Catharines, Ontario native Mo Ahmed has run faster, which he accomplished in Doha to finish sixth in the Doha World Championships in the time of 26:59.35. Ahmed also owns the national 5000m record at 12:47.20 and went on to earn a silver medal in the event in Tokyo.
Thirty men did not finish the marathon of the 106 who started the race including all three Ethiopians. Lelisa Desisa with his personal best of 2:04:45 couldn’t do it. Desisa earned gold during the 2019 Doha World Championships in the time of 2:10:40, which is remarkable considering the heat.
The two other Ethiopians were Shura Kitata with his 2:04:49 best and Sisay Lemma with his 2:03:36 PB. Ethiopia had the opportunity to send the legendary Kenenisa Bekele who has run as fast as 2:01:41. Ethiopia completely tripped up in the process by having a trials at altitude, in cool temperatures, and on a 35-kilometre course. It made no sense whatsoever.
The trials took place in Sebeta City, a town located in the geographical centre of the country at more than 7300 feet (2,356m) of elevation. Kitata won, but the event was unrelated physiologically to the Olympic marathon run in the heat at sea level.
Two of three Ethiopian women also did not finish in Birhane Dibaba and Zeineba Yimer. Five of six Ethiopians failed to finish, so not every country got it right.
Perhaps, lucky for Woodfine and Cliff, the next Olympics is only three years off and along the way, there are also the Commonwealth Games, World Championships, and many high-quality races to take in, to hit standards, bests, and perhaps national records.
Much of the drama that took place on the Canadian marathon scene would have been avoided with a one-off, everyone in, trials. Whether Athletics Canada would have the Toronto Waterfront Marathon act as the trials, or to see if Canadians can compete in the US trials, certainly the head-to-head competition influencing the selection process would be greatly simplified for all.
Woodfine will be competing in the London Marathon on Oct. 3. He was contacted and declined to comment on the Tokyo Olympics, preferring to focus on his training in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Wodak and Preisner will be racing the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 10K on Sunday, October 17th.
46. Ben Preisner – 2:19:27
48. Trevor Hofbauer – 2:19:57
72. Cameron Levins – 2:28:43
9. Malindi Elmore – 2:30:59
13. Natasha Wodak – 2:31:41
73. Dayna Pidhoresky – 3:03:10
Full results from Tokyo are available here>>