© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated 

Canadian distance runner Natasha Wodak went to the well to get her Olympic qualifying time of 2:26:19 at The Marathon Project on Sunday.

The Marathon Project took place in Chandler, Arizona. It was put together for North American athletes who needed a late autumn race. Some Americans were seeking redemption after not finishing top-three at the US Olympic Trials in Atlanta, GA — doing so is an automatic qualifying performance for the Olympics. Canadians were using the race to try to run under the respective qualifying times. The races were won by Americans Martin Hehir in the time of 2:08:59 and Sara Hall with her 2:20:31, the second-fastest American performance all-time, both personal bests.

Natasha Wodak on training run leading up to The Marathon Project

Wodak’s time was the second-fastest Canadian performance of all-time. It was just her second marathon, seven years after her not-as-serious effort at the 2013 Toronto Marathon.

“I definitely went to the well! The last 7k was very tough. My left hamstring started to cramp up and I felt nauseous,” said Wodak, who turned 39 three days before the race. “I could feel the wheels start to come off. But I knew it was going to hurt. I was prepared for the pain. I repeated my positive phrases and kept checking in on my form. I kept thinking 1km at a time and eventually it was the final 800m. I am very grateful for my two amazing pacers that really helped get me through those final three miles.”

Wodak was aiming to run into the 2:26 range. Her training was geared towards that level of a performance. If she could pull it off, she would move herself into at least the third spot on the three-person marathon team bound for the Tokyo Olympics, at least for now.

Wodak has in effect forced fellow Vancouver runner Rachel Cliff, who is the former national record holder, into running another marathon.

Cliff qualified before any of the other Canadians with a national record of 2:26:56 in Nagoya, Japan in March 2019. The pandemic shut down the Olympic qualifying window by April, which was reopened Dec. 1, 2020.

Natasha Wodak at 2019 Harriers Pioneer 8K. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall/Athletics Illustrated

In January 2020, Malindi Elmore broke Cliff’s record with a 2:24:50 running in Houston.

Two other athletes ran qualifying-level runs, Lyndsey Tessier finished top-10 during the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships marathon. The performance is not an automatic nomination to Tokyo but is considered a qualifying run. The standard is 2:29:30. She ran 2:42:03 in the hot Doha climate. During the 2019 Toronto Marathon, Dayna Pidhoresky was the first Canadian, which does mean automatic selection should she run faster than the standard. She did. The then 33-year-old clocked a 2:29:03 performance. So, essentially there are two spots left available.

National records

As for Wodak, it is another top-Canadian time to her credit. She is currently the national record holder in the 10,000m event with her 2015 Payton Jordan Invitational performance of 31:41.59. She also set the Canadian road 8K record at 25:28 in January 2013. Both records continue to stand. She temporarily held the Canadian half-marathon record of 69:41 from the Houston Half Marathon in January this year. She was the first Canadian to crack the 70-minute barrier.

But with the marathon anything can and often does happen.

“I think everyone is relieved at the end of a marathon. It’s a long freaking race! And for months you have put so much work into this one race, so when you cross the line and it’s been a good day it’s a feeling like no other.”

Asked to describe how it felt to cross the line with an Olympic qualifying time and how important the outcome was, she added, “[It is] hard to describe but it is definitely a good feeling. 

It was important for me to have a strong performance on Sunday but at the same time, I didn’t feel pressure to perform. I felt grateful for the opportunity to be racing at all and confident in my preparation. I knew that no matter what happened, I would go home, and life would go on as always and my friends and family would all love me the same.”

Meanwhile, Wodak will have to keep an eye on the marathon results in 2021. There will be few racing opportunities available before the May 31st deadline to qualify for the Olympic marathon, however, Canadians can be sure that Cliff will make another attempt.