© Copyright – 2017 – Athletics Illustrated

John Gay after winning Vikes Invitational. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall.

Kelowna’s John Gay – a fourth-year University of British Columbia Thunderbird – quickly went from distance-running beginner to a serious competitor during the 2015-2016 school year.

He grew up in sport as a “jack-of-all-trades” as he describes it and turned into a master of one. For example, during the spring of 2016, he won the 3,000m steeplechase at the NAIA national championships. He has since run the event as fast as 8:36.55, which he accomplished in June of 2017.

The month before, he won the steeplechase at nationals for a second time, when the T-Birds won the men’s team title at the NAIA meet.

This year, he extended his racing season longer than usual to compete in the Francophone Games that took place in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He finished fourth in the time of 8:55.41.

On Saturday, October 14, after much–needed rest and a few workouts, he won the Vikes Invitational in Victoria, BC in a cross-country race that ran 2K longer than he typically races. The NAIA meets go to 8K for men, while the U Sport covers 10K.

Gay, in his final year at UBC, will be racing several more cross-country meets including the NAIA nationals on November 18. The meet will take place in Vancouver, Washington.

Below he talks about the quality of the team now and the new recruits, however, he has also benefitted from mentoring by at least two former T-Birds-turned-Olympians in Luc Bruchet and Chris Winter.

Christopher Kelsall: You had a solid race at the Vikes Invitational at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. Did you get a sense from that race where your fitness is? What are your goals for your conference and NAIA nationals?

John Gay: Thank you! With a late start to the cross-country season, for me, following a long track campaign, training thus far has been a fairly gradual process. I took nearly two weeks off at the beginning of September to recharge the batteries and it definitely had me itching to get back into another competitive build up. With a solid training block on the books, I was excited to head into Victoria knowing that my fitness had come along well in a relatively short period of time.

One of the benefits of racing locally against fellow BC programs is the familiarity that comes from racing the same teams and individuals often. Having an idea from earlier races, run by my UBC teammates against some of our provincial rivals, gave me an idea of what to expect competitively from this meet and, in talking with the UBC coaches Norm Tinkham and Chris Johnson, we felt that working in the top group was within my current ability. In past seasons I’ve struggled with the racing side of cross-country and have often fell victim to my over-ambition in the early stages of races, running out of gas before the real deciding moments of the race even began.

John Gay and Adam Strueby (U of Regina Cougars) lead field at Vikes Invitational. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall.

With experience at the university level has come a better ability to assess my limits on a given day and to stay within myself. If I could take one thing away from this past weekend’s race it would be the sense of control I felt throughout, which I’m hoping indicates that there is still plenty more to give as the season progresses towards our collegiate (NAIA) national championships and, eventually, Canadian XC nationals. In my opinion, our team has its best chance in history at taking home a championship banner at NAIAs, so my ambitions really lie in doing all I can to make that happen. While that means hopefully racing for the individual title, it also means working with my teammates to ensure we give as many of our guys an opportunity to score low points when it counts.

CK: You must have been very pleased with racing so well off of your much-needed downtime. This must bolster your confidence with that title in mind.

JG: Yeah, I think it was a great way to test the waters and re-evaluate my goals for the season. So far things have been clicking really well so my outlook on upcoming championships is an optimistic one, both personally and for our team’s results.

CK: There is a good culture of sport and recreation in Kelowna, is your family into sports or fitness?

JG: I would say that my family has always been into fitness in the sense of living generally active lifestyles. That being said, aside from skiing in the winter, we’ve never really been defined by participation in any one sport. I think something I’m really grateful to my parents for is their support for me and my sibling’s sporting interests regardless of what we were into or how into it we were. As I’ve progressed as a runner my twin brother has very much stayed within the action sports vein and has progressed very quickly in rock climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry alpine ski-touring. For both me and my brother, and sister my parents became fans of whatever it was that we were passionate about at the time and I never felt any pressure on their part to have to prove myself or my worth through sport.

CK: Well said. In regards to your twin brother, any interest is seeing what could come of his running ability, based on your success?

JG: I’ve definitely thought about it before, he’s a naturally faster sprinter than I am and comparably athletic, so I think he would be a solid runner. That being said, he would agree with me when I say the lifestyle of a distance runner isn’t for him, sports with the promise of a cold beer afterwards are more his speed.

CK: You can have a cold (or room temperature) beer after long runs (don’t let CJ see this). Which sports did you play growing up in Kelowna?

JG: I was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-none for most of my growing up years. Kelowna has been a hot-spot for action sports for a long time and, in retrospect, I realize I was definitely a product of that environment. Throughout elementary school and into middle school I was really involved in BMX (Bicycle Motocross) racing and mountain biking. My family has always spent its winters at our local ski hill, Big White, and so skiing was a real passion for me pretty much since I was able to walk. I ski-raced early on and had a brief career in competitive moguls and freestyle, but I think I’ve always lacked the ability that the best athletes in those sports have to shut off the risk-analyzing side of their brain and that definitely limited my ability to progress.

CK: At what age did you decide that running was going to be your sport?

JG: When I started at Okanagan Mission Secondary in the ninth grade I immediately signed up for high school cross-country. Years earlier I had enjoyed the occasional run with my Dad before school and so I had a sense that distance running may be something I would enjoy. On top of that, my competitive nature always got a hold of me in P.E. and I long-prided myself on running further than my peers on the warm-ups that started each class. In both the 9th and 10th grade, my cross-country performances were mediocre at best and it was not until a summer of training on my own prior to my Grade 11 year that I really started taking the steps necessary to improve. From failing to make it out of my zone in Grade 10t, I placed 29th at Provincials in Grade 11. Shortly after that, I joined my home club, Okanagan Athletics, and, with a year of well-guided training and my first track season under my belt, placed third at BC High Schools in my senior year. It was after that performance that I really began thinking I had what it took to go further in the sport and so I began exploring the possibility of competing at the university level shortly after that.

CK:  The Thunderbirds have some great new recruits including Charlie Dannatt and Tyler Dozzi. How does the team look going-forward?

JG: As I mentioned earlier, I think the team we have this year is the strongest it has ever been. With really strong recruiting classes the last two seasons, we have depth to our roster that I certainly can’t recall ever existing at UBC prior. On top of that, and I would say most importantly to our recent successes as a team, the guys like myself who have been with the program since the big coaching changes of 2015, have had a few seasons now under the programming of CJ (Chris Johnson) and Norm (Tinkham) to really adjust and grow in the style of training that they’ve put forth.

The attitude of our men’s cross program in recent years has been founded in a real desire to prove we can mix it up with any program in the country. The relationship between coaches and athletes has been one of very strong mutual belief; the degree of trust placed in CJ and Norm’s expertise has fostered real buy-in amongst the group and their belief in their own capabilities is a product of that belief first being espoused by the coaches. This past track season our men’s team was able to take home UBC’s first ever Track and Field national title. In doing so, all of our team points came from events ranging from the 800m to the 5,000m and I think that statistic more than anything is a testament to the endurance coaching we’ve enjoyed. With strong coaching in place and a training group whose pedigree gets better every year. I’m excited most by the prospect of developing a real tradition of excellence at UBC. We’ve been on the rise with every passing season during my time here and from my perspective, I have every reason to believe that even greater successes lay in store.

CK: What sort of training style works for you? Are you more of a volume runner or do you prefer to work on quality with less general quantity?

JG: I’m definitely more of a volume runner, and lately have been around 145-150kpw on average. I think my greatest successes have come when I’ve felt most confident in my fitness and running a lot of miles helps me to feel like I’ve done all I could to be at the top of my game when it matters. That and I genuinely enjoy getting out the door and going for a run, so maximum volume weeks have never felt like a chore as much as they have something to be savoured. Anyone who has trained with me while at UBC would probably attest to my history as a bit of a workout warrior, in the past, I’ve run into issues by overreaching in hard workouts and burning myself out. Finally recognizing that I’ve tried to stay more level-headed as of late and leave something in the tank for races!

CK: Do you accomplish more of your weekly mileage in singles or do you get some of that volume done with doubles, split runs and or running for transportation?

JG: Like a lot of university programs, ours is structured around 2-3 weekly workouts and a long run. On the other 3-4 days of the week, I will typically break up my mileage into a longer AM run and a shorter PM shakeout.

CK: What about track versus indoors and cross-country. Do you have a preference between three?

JG: My first involvement with the sport was through cross-country and for a long time I considered myself to be more of a cross athlete than a track guy. Over the years, however, I think more of my success has come on the track side of things and I’ve really grown to appreciate the universality of it. That being said, nothing beats the pure racing aspect of cross-country and I think to be great on the track you need the racing skills that the grass teaches you.

CK: Can you take me through your FISU and Francophone Games that you competed in this summer?

JG: Competing so late into the summer was something entirely new for me and presented new challenges to what I’d experienced in previous track seasons. Having run most of my seasonal and personal bests between April and June trying to maintain my fitness for another two months was a shakeup to the usual base-intensity-taper progression. I was away for the latter half of July at the Francophone Games in Cote D’Ivoire and when I returned to prepare for FISU my usual training group had all begun their off-season which made my final prep phase pretty lonely. Thankfully, CJ is an incredibly dedicated coach and was at the track for every early morning session, hurdles all ready to go and stopwatch in hand. Both national team trips had very distinctive feels to them and I’m really grateful for the opportunities they offered to grow and gain experience at multisport games. Where Francophone Games proved more challenging from a comfort perspective, FISU was far and away the bigger spectacle and I think both helped me to gain confidence in my ability to compete regardless of external factors

CK: You are coming to the end of your career with UBC, unless of course, you have a U Sport season next year (which is apparently still up in the air). What will be your run specific goals after school?

JG: I’m in the fortunate position of going to school in a city with a really strong running community and a host of talented post-collegiate runners. Vancouver is a city that I can see myself living in for a long time and the success that I’ve had here already makes the decision for post-graduation an easier one. Currently, my intention is to stay with CJ and Norm and continue training with their growing post-collegiate group under the Vancouver Thunderbirds Track Club banner. With the talented recruits that our varsity team continues pulling in, I foresee a program with great continuity from the collegiate to the elite level and I’m excited to be a part of the first wave along that trajectory.