It has been 10 months since my last entry here. A lot has happened. In the time that has passed I spent several months abroad, qualified for my first Olympic Games, where I made the final, and capped it all off by getting hitched earlier this fall. In the spirit of full disclosure, this is my second attempt at a prologue. In my first, written when I actually started writing this piece, I made a promise to keep things brief that I think would have convinced only myself. As it stands at the time of writing this revision, I’ve overcome my self-delusion but replaced it with something that will prove far more worrying to you the reader, self-indulgence. What began as a high-level overview has morphed into a saga whose seeming grandeur is probably no less a product of my delusion than my attempts at brevity. Nevertheless, putting the season into words has been a thoroughly enjoyable task for me and, while fumbling and long-winded, has been an exercise in marking its end. All that to say that I have created a monster which, for your sakes and mine, I have decided to kill by means of cutting in half. What follows is Part 1 of 2 in my rambling odyssey. Best of luck.
As has become tradition, the year 2021 began for me with night sweats, fevered dreams, and a general sense of looming destruction at the spectre of my day-job nemesis, the Thunderbirds Track & Field Club's annual Manure and Soil Sale. As club manager since 2019, the successful staging of Vancouver's biggest shit-show has become my purview. I spent the first 2.5 months of the year alternating between a high-mileage training block and honing my skills in operations logistics for the home garden industry. With the borders still closed, the prospect of dipping down south for some indoor races as I'd done in previous years was ruled out and I contented myself with the promise of a prolonged training camp under sunnier skies once the all-organic-mushroom-composted-nitrate-rich monster had been slain.
In late march, with a one way ticket and my first of thirty-six negative COVID tests, I jetted to Flagstaff, where I joined Kieran Lumb at Linkletter Ranch, our same-but-different training camp venue as the previous winter. We were once again graciously hosted by Rory, Jill, Kota and the newest addition to their growing clan, Sky. With about a month until my first race on the schedule, I settled in to a great training rhythm with Kieran and an international cast of steeplechase workout partners in Isaac Updike and Zak Seddon.
My first race of the year was April 24 in Eugene, Oregon, the inaugural international competition to be held at the newly renovated Hayward Field. The aura of Hayward field always adds an element of excitement to racing in Eugene and after over 18 months away from the steeplechase I was excited to open up with a real opportunity of running the Olympic qualifier against a strong US-field.
The race itself was a bit of a mixed bag with lots of surging in the opening laps as guys (myself included) tried to figure out an event few of us had raced since 2019. I felt I held my own well and was pleased to come away with a 5 second PB of 8:23.96, a huge leap from two years prior but an agonizingly near miss from the Olympic Standard (8:22.00). The Hayward magic lived up to its name as all 4 of the men in front of me also set lifetime bests, with my training partner and Eugene tour guide Isaac coming away with the biggest of them all, an 8:17 world lead! During my time in the sport I'd never seen such depth in a domestic steeplechase field; an Olympic year truly does bring out the best in people.
A week later I was toeing the line again, this time in Leavenworth, Kansas at the Trial of Miles KC Qualifier. The ToM guys do an incredible job of providing race opportunities nation-wide and mixing in an element of camaraderie and showmanship to their meets. Despite a strong field and heroic pace making, the elements played against us and a swirling wind forced the pack tightly together. With an OQ out the window by half way I focused on staying composed and going for the win, facing a great four-way battle down the homestretch after an all-out last lap and settling for 3rd in 8:33.98.
With two races under my belt, a world ranking that had inched up ever so slightly, and a glimpse at what it would take to hit the OQ it was back up to Flagstaff for a week before another great opportunity on the West Coast. Keeping with the trend set in Eugene, I would be racing at another "Grand Opening" of sorts, this time at the newly renovated and wildly-improved Hilmer Lodge Stadium at Mt. SAC in Walnut, CA. The Mt. SAC Golden Games promised a fantastic field, perfect pace-making and those ideal Southern California temperatures. I road tripped through the desert with Kieran and Zak and we linked up with my fellow Thunderbird Natalia Hawthorn, who like me was hunting an Olympic Standard, albeit in the 5000.
As pacemaker we had reigning Olympic Silver medallist and US record holder Evan Jager, who clicked off perfect 66s through 5 laps. I tucked in directly behind our rabbit and enjoyed 2 kilometres of perfectly smooth running before our pacer stepped aside and I found myself at the front of the field and painfully aware of the gusty winds to which I had been previously oblivious. A reluctant leader for the next 500 or-so meters I pushed on and tried to run the sting out of the pack but with less than a lap and a half to go I felt myself going backwards as guys started to wind up their kicks, breaking form and trailing off in the final lap for a lacklustre 8:27.4, good enough for 5th but not the auto standard I'd come down from Flagstaff to pursue. Fortunately not all of our little party had the same story, as Natalia ran an inspired effort in the women's 5000, smashing her PB and with it the Olympic Qualifying time, running 15:05. In the midst of my disappointment Nat's effort was wind in my sails, a teammate under the same CJ-led program as me breaking through and running the mark she'd been working towards for years.
With the borders still closed and more racing opportunities shaping up in the US, Kieran and I made the decision to stay state-side, trading the mountains for the coast and relocating ourselves to San Diego, where we spent a week with my (soon to be) in-laws and another 10 days at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training centre. The change of scenery (and O2 levels) was a welcome one and we benefited from the hospitality of Erica Avila and the Gold Coast Track Club, who graciously let us share their track for some key sessions before the racing season really began heating up. On May 15th I paced a 5000 (8:38 through 3200) at the Sound Running Track Meet in San Clemente, CA before returning to San Diego in preparation for one final crack at the Steeplechase to round out my US-tour.
After the sun and the dry of the Southwest, travelling to Portland came with a sense that I was homeward-bound. The field at the Portland Track Festival was a characteristically strong one and, having made the decision to return to Canada afterwards and face the 14-day quarantine, I was determined to capitalize on the opportunity set before me. Our pace was hot from the gun, with a first km in the low 2:40s, before slowing significantly in the middle laps. After my blow up at Mt. SAC CJ and I decided that I was not to lead before the final 800m, no matter what my front-running instinct told me. With a handful of my American peers already holding the Auto Standard it was understandable that they were reluctant to push the pace and risk pulling others under the 8:22 mark, thereby deepening the field of contenders for their upcoming Olympic Trials. Finally, with 1200m to go, my former NAIA comrade Benard Keter (now of the US WCAP) put in the move that decided the race, stringing out the field and taking off. I was slower to respond than I would have liked but managed to hook on to the back of the breakaway, running my fastest closing KM ever to run 8:23.52, another (small) personal best but still no OQ.
From Portland I rented a car and returned home where I spent the next 14 days on my parent's acreage in Kelowna serving my mandatory 14-ay quarantine. Made at a time when I was unsure what opportunities lay ahead, the decision to undergo quarantine mid-season was a stressful one. On the one hand, my world ranking was just high enough that I sat within the quota for selection to the Olympic Team. If all things remained equal over the course of the 4-week period between my return from the US and the closure of the qualifying window (June 29th) I would likely be on the plane to Japan. If that was the case, I knew I'd benefit from (eventually) returning to Vancouver, getting eyes-on training with CJ and, crucially, being home with my fiancée Camille for at least a little while to remind her of what I looked like before our upcoming wedding. On the flip side, returning home meant forgoing any races that could crop up abroad and being subject to "unconventional" training for the duration of my quarantine. If I chose to stay outside of Canada the best-case scenario was to run a qualifying mark abroad or otherwise be granted discretional selection to the Olympic Team, which would likely mean further prolonging my time out of Canada until early August as I would go directly from wherever I was based to an AC training camp and then to Japan.
As it happened, I was able to make surprisingly good use of my time under house-arrest. Armed with a set of scissor hurdles, a 300m stretch of private driveway and more free time than I knew what to do with, I knuckled down to a productive (albeit tedious) quarantine training block. With no distractions like a social life or travel I was able to maximize every session and felt that I not only maintained my fitness, but made advances over the course of the two-week block. As the days went on, I started feeling a strong desire to seek out one final race opportunity, determined to take control of my fate by running one more qualifying attempt rather than waiting in suspense for my world ranking to hold up (or not). Mid-way through quarantine I found a Bronze Label Continental Tour meeting in Sweden that promised a strong steeplechase field. After corresponding with the meet director, I booked a one way flight to Sweden, set to leave Canada just 72 hours after exiting quarantine.
Before making my trip across the pond I had one key session to test out my fitness, hoping it would confirm what I thought to be big gains made on my driveway-cum-track. Weeks earlier I had agreed to help out with pacing for the Harry Jerome International Track Classic, which was slated for Saturday June 12th, my first day of freedom post-quarantine. Held each year in Burnaby, the Jerome is hands down my favourite meet of the season. With strict provincial rules on participation, and no international fields for obvious reasons, the fields were necessarily thin, but top-heavy with talent. I had agreed to help pace the men's 5000m, which fellow BC-Boy Luc Bruchet was targeting as his final crack at the Olympic Standard of 13:13.50. Having already PB'd by a big margin two weeks earlier I knew he was fit and that it would be a tall task to provide the help he needed to take another 8+ seconds off his time to hit the standard. Fortunately, we had incredible help thanks to Cam Proceviat and Justin Kent. From the moment the gun went off there was a palpable sense that something special was about to happen. Our trio of pacers were locked in and by the time both Cam and Justin had stepped off at 2700m (nearly two laps further than they'd promised!) I felt that we'd entered a time-warp where I'd had to do next to no work. Luc was still right on my heels and I was determined to do everything I could to help get him under the standard. We split 3k in 7:57 and kept right on rolling. Luc called up to me asking for one more KM just like the last and I knew he was poised for the break through. I made it as far as 4000 before peeling out and watching as Luc delivered another signature clutch performance, nabbing the standard with a closing km of 2:30, good for 13:12.56 and #3 all time in Canada.
While I'll never have a result to show from pacing that night, it stands out as a highlight of my season and a ready reminder of what I love about this sport. Being part of a local athletics community coming together the way it did to make Olympic dreams a reality is something truly special. Moreover, my own performance that night gave me a renewed sense of confidence in my own ability to hit the mark I'd been vying for all year in the steeplechase. My quarantine training camp paid off and I was excited to be carry my fitness forward to my own race soon enough.
Fast forward to the following Wednesday and I found myself held up at the baggage check of Vancouver International. With an 18-hour itinerary door-to-door and EU requirements for a negative C19 test taken no more than 24 hours prior to arrival I had rolled the dice on my rapid test and was now being told my ticket could only be validated as far as Montréal, where I would have to hope that my negative result had come through while en route in order to re-check my bags and proceed with my next flight into Europe. In this moment I had an uncharacteristically strong change of heart and felt that my plan to race in Sweden was no longer the route I wanted to pursue.
Flustered (and a bit embarrassed) I phoned my parents from the gate, hoping they could speak some wisdom into my nervous situation. In a call that lasted all of two minutes they prayed for me and promised their full support no matter what I decided. I felt a wave of peace sweep over me in a way that I hadn't felt through months of striving after a target that seemed narrower and narrower. I made up my mind to forego my trip while boarding the airplane in Vancouver. By the time we'd taken off for Montréal CJ had signed off on my change of heart. I arrived in Montréal, collected my bags from the carousel and sat munching a falafel wrap in the YUL food court awaiting my return flight an hour later. Still in a bit of disbelief at the way my day had transpired I got word from CJ that he had succeeded in getting me a late entry to the Canadian Olympic Trials, which would take place 10 days later in, you guessed it, Montréal.
Due to the pandemic, and Canada's relative caution with reintroducing organized sport, the 2021 Canadian Track & Field Championships and Olympic Trials were an invitation-only event. Only disciplines with Olympic qualification potential were offered and, in those events, only athletes within a certain percentage of the Olympic qualifying marks invited to compete. Moreover, recognizing that for many athletes (particularly in distance events) their best bet at hitting an OQ would come abroad against deeper fields, Athletics Canada made participation in the Olympic Trials optional, even for prospective Olympic team members. In 2021 there were 4 Canadian men with a shot at the Olympic team, 3 of which opted to remain outside of Canada in pursuit of other race opportunities. With that in mind, I knew that entering the Trials would most likely mean setting myself up for a race against the clock.
Up to this point in the season I had left every race with a sense of "if only". If only I'd been more patient, if only our pacer had been more consistent, if only I'd covered that move, and on, and on. In Montréal the luxury of scape goats wouldn't be an option for me, I'd be all alone against the clock, leaving the outcome entirely in my control. While daunting, the prospect of testing myself in a solo effort was also an exciting one to me. After the success of my pacing work two weeks prior I was emboldened in my ability to front run and chose to embrace the opportunity as one where I held all the cards. I believed I was capable of running under the Olympic Standard and the lack of competitors to push me there was a timely reminder that, at the end of the day, only I had control over my own outcome.
The experience of racing at this year’s Olympic Trials was unlike any national championship I’d been a part of prior, or that I am likely to experience again. With no spectators aside from coaches and AC personnel, very few head-to-head matchups, and a thirty-minute schedule break between each track event to ensure the minimum number of interactions, it felt more like one of the time trials I’d filled my 2020 summer with than Canada’s premiere track and field competition. Like so many things affected by the Pandemic, the atypical format of the Olympic Trials was not without its silver linings. In addition to the removal of variables that I mentioned above, the bare bones meet also meant I had the attention of all those in attendance, from officials to the stadium announcer, to CJ, whose splits I wouldn’t have been able to hear under normal circumstances. When the gun went off I had nothing to distract me from the task at hand and felt the collective will of all those in attendance trained on me as I went round and round.
The day prior I’d stepped out the approximate location of my 400 splits thanks to the outside water pit, as well as done a back-of-the-napkin calculation of what my pace would average out to for each full lap (~420 meters). My addition skills leave something to be desired so I was relieved when I concluded that a nice even 70 seconds/full lap was exactly Olympic Standard Pace. As I came through the finish line for the first time I noted the number on the clock and began calculating what the next number I should see would be on the subsequent circuit. In this fashion I kept clicking off laps, running the numbers in my head and trying to keep things as even as possible. I hit the 2k mark in 5:34 and knew I had enough in the tank to keep it rolling through another kilometer. My focus shifted to staying on my feet and not letting the excitement that was starting to build get in the way of executing what needed to be done. Finally, with the bell ringing to mark a lap to go I let myself wind up a bit, shifting out of the rhythm I’d locked in to for the previous 6 circuits and beginning to think about the finish line. While I knew I was on pace to dip under the standard a small stumble on my final water pit with 150m to go was enough to bring me back down to earth and inject a final bout of urgency into my mission. Not sure how much the wobble had cost me, and unwilling to find out the hard way, I hammered it home down the straightaway, staring at the clock as it ticked upwards towards that fateful 8:22 barrier and the gap between me and the finish line closed.
Running 8:20.68 was like an immense weight being lifted off my shoulders. The near-misses, changed plans, and nagging doubts all dissolved with a conclusion that was so much better (albeit more stressful) than what I could have scripted for myself at the beginning of the year. In short, the high stakes do-or-die situation that I had hoped to avoid in my qualification became the highlight that made the whole process worthwhile. Breaking through at the eleventh hour, at “home” in Canada, with so much of my support network surrounding me was a reminder of what makes sport so special, namely the inherent uncertainty that makes moments like mine so impactful. I’d qualified for my first Olympic team and while the route to qualification was not what I had planned (it rarely is), the outcome was better than I could have ever imagined.
John Eamon Gay