Rings - Season Recap Pt. 2
Now for the good stuff. If you were able to bear with me through part 1, congratulations, hopefully what follows will be the content you turned up for in the first place! If you were really meaning to read part 1 but just couldn’t quite find the time, you can check it out here. If you had no intention of reading part 1 in hopes of waiting for a summary, well you’re in luck too! To recap:
March 13th – Victoria Twilight #2, Victoria, BC 2000m SC – 5:34.29
April 24th – USATF Grand Prix Eugene, OR 3000m SC – 8:23.96 (5th) PB
May 1st – Trial of Miles KC Qualifier, Leavenworth, KS 3000m SC – 8:33.98 (3rd)
May 9th – USATF Golden Games, Walnut, CA 3000m SC – 8:27.40 (5th)
May 28th – Portland Track Festival, Portland, OR 3000m SC – 8:23.52 (4th) PB
June 12th – Harry Jerome Track Classic, Burnaby, BC 4000m of 5000m – 10:37 @ 4k
June 25th – Canadian Olympic Trials, Montréal, QC 3000m SC – 8:20.68 (1st) PB, OQ, CR
Following the Olympic Trials, I was back in Vancouver for three weeks to put the finishing touches on my prep before heading to Japan. In line with my return from Montréal, the West Coast got hit with a massive heat wave, setting temperature records across the province. With temperatures in the high-30s it made for perfect heat prep for the conditions forecast in Tokyo. The three-week stint at home was the longest time I’d spent in Vancouver since early March and provided a welcome sense of normalcy before the inevitable sensory overload of my first Olympic Games. It was wonderful to immerse myself once again in the Vancouver track & field community. Work with the club was in full swing managing our series of summer camps and twilight meets, providing a great counterweight to my growing excitement.
As meet director for the Vancouver Thunderbirds twilight series I used the powers of cronyism to shoe horn an “invitational” mile into our final meet of the season at Swangard Stadium. In need of a tune up race (and definitely not another steeplechase) I had a distance that best suited my needs added to the end of the meet programme and set about recruiting guys to make a decent race of the thing. Demand proved higher than anticipated and soon enough we had a field of 11 assembled. Pacing services would come courtesy of Christian Gravel, with whom I’d already completed my portion of a pacing-for-pacing transaction, and the goal was to get as many guys as possible under the 4-minute barrier.
Those who frequent this blog (if that were possible X/ ) will recall that in 2020 I made breaking 4 minutes in the mile my quarantine project. While I had succeeded to that end, my 3:59.2 was a hand time and, thus deemed “unofficial”. A year later, I sought to buck the monkey from my back for good. To accomplish the feat I was fortunate to have the same cast of characters that had played the biggest role in my hunt the previous year. Namely, Kieran Lumb, Luc, Bruchet, Cam Proceviat and Justin Kent. Over the year prior the 5 of us had formed a dizzying number of combinations pacing and racing each other. With four different coaches and three separate clubs between us, coordinating events like my invitational mile was a testament to the willingness of the local track community to come together for the benefit of its athletes. In addition to the names above, I was also thrilled to have a host of up-and-coming talent along for the ride, with some university guys and even high-school standouts answering the call for the 4-lap showdown.
By the event date of July 10th, the weather had cooled back down to seasonal temperatures and we were blessed with a perfect evening for racing. Excitement had built through the duration of our junior development, high school and open races. My parents came to town to catch my only race of the year anywhere close to home and, for the first time in months, spectators were allowed inside the competition facility. Though it greatly diminished my chances of winning, the meet-director side of me couldn’t help but feel some pride at the group I’d lined up. Luc was alone amongst the entrants in claims to a ratified sub-4 clocking but I had a strong feeling that was about to change. Cam had put together a standout season in the 1500 and seemed a shoe-in to add a new mile PB to the one he’d freshly minted in the 1500 while Kieran was fresh off a European campaign replete with stellar results at 1500, 3000 and 5000, the mile would be his last in a season of track that had gone steady since February.
Christian took us out right on pace and stayed metronomic through his 1000m task. From there I found myself at the lead and tried to make a long push for home with a lap and a half to go. While I held steady in the final circuit, I was no match for the razor-sharp duo of Cam and Kieran, who blew my doors off in the final 100 meters. As a silver lining I was granted a front row seat to an incredible battle to the line, with photo finish necessary to determine Cam as the winner, by just 0.05 seconds. Crucially, the top four runners all went south of 3:59, much to the elation of the crowd that had lined the home stretch for the finale. Personally, I came away with a new PB of 3:58.14, a confirmation that I was rounding into the sort of sharpness I hoped for to contend with the rounds in Tokyo.
A week later, on the afternoon of Saturday July 17th, I began my travel to Japan. With a 14hr time difference between Vancouver and Tokyo, Athletics Canada was persistent in their advice to travel early in order to provide as much adjustment as possible to the time zone, heat, and humidity. If for none of the reasons previously mentioned, travelling early proved a good decision simply to recover from the journey itself. While the 9-hour flight from Vancouver was as seamless as could be hoped for, it marked only the beginning of the journey to the Athletics Canada final phase camp in Gifu, located about 6 hours South West of Tokyo. Upon arriving at Narita, 7 hours of queuing for various pandemic-related checkpoints in the airport made for the unofficial welcome to the world’s first pandemic-Olympics. After finally making it out of NRT a 6-hour bus ride through the night awaited our jet lagged contingent, pulling up to our team hotel in Gifu at 6:15am, just in time for breakfast on Monday, July 19th.
After a bleary eyed first 24 hours in Japan, I found I was soon settled into the training camp routine that would dictate my life for the duration of my time in Gifu. Due to stringent pandemic policies in the Gifu prefecture, Athletics Canada had spent months jumping through every hoop imaginable simply to create space for us athletes to eat, sleep, and train. As our first 14 days in Japan would technically be considered part of a strict quarantine, arrangements were made so that all of the activities necessary for us to do each day (really just the three listed above) could be carried out from within a tightly monitored “bubble”. In practice, this meant that our day-to-day activities were part of a carefully orchestrated operation keeping us (AC athletes, coaches, and staff) separate from the local population.
Each day began with a trip from the hotel floors comprising our quarantine zone down the service elevator (earmarked for our group to avoid run-ins with other hotel patrons) to our dining area. Upon arrival, our daily C19 test was administered and a temperature scan conducted before proceeding to the buffet. For those wishing to run, a shuttle was provided each morning at 6:45am, taking us to a riverside park (taped off and patrolled by security) where we could run freely without risk of coming into contact with local residents. It was here that I gained a full appreciation for Japanese planning and attention to detail, as each day a miniature porta-potty on wheels (The “Mobile Flush”) dutifully rolled onto the sight for our convenience, packing up and leaving behind us after each AM and PM session.
Back at the hotel we were escorted from the shuttle to our quarantined dining area, which doubled as a social space for those weary of being alone in their hotel rooms all day. From the upper floors, we enjoyed beautiful views of, on one side, a river and mountains and, on the other, the gorgeous track & field facility that served as our training venue. Literally across the street from our hotel, the facility was unlike any Athletics-specific venues that exist in Canada. With a full-size secondary warm-up track, covered indoor straightaways (a boon during the oppressive heat) and seating for 6000+, it was an inspiring location to carry out our final phase preparation, and a testament to the Japanese passion for the sport. Nevertheless, though even a weak-armed runner like me could muster the strength to throw a stone and hit the facility from our hotel, walking to and from was strictly prohibited. Like our run spot, a trip to the track meant once again climbing aboard a shuttle for a hilariously short taxi across the street and into the belly of the complex, where we were conducted by airport-runway-esque flaggers into the facility and away from any potential passers-by.
While a bit tedious, the careful organization of every detail pertinent to our stay in Gifu proved a great help in creating an environment where I could best prepare for the biggest stage of my life. The predictability of each day and the steady routine served to remove distractions and stressors so that I could focus my energy on training and recovering to the best of my abilities. With all of the incredible AC support team’s resources at our disposal I was able to rehearse many of the elements of competing in Tokyo that could prove difference makers against the best of the best (cooling strategies, heat adaptation etc.). As my final session before departing for the Olympic Village I was able to make use of the steeplechase water pit for a race pace simulation workout (5’ steady state + 2x600m w/hurdles & water + 400-300-200 + 400 w/hurdles and water). Between the massage and chiro treatments I had received, the heat training counsel from our IST, the work of our endurance coaches counting out hurdle placement and taking splits, and the tireless work of the AC staff and local organizers to ensure smooth sailing throughout, I capped off the camp with a session that proved to me how ready I was for the Olympic Games. As my last interval I ran my fastest 400m split over hurdles ever and left Gifu confident that I had done all I could to prepare for what lay ahead.
On Monday, July 26th we boarded the bus to Tokyo, trading our walled fortress in Gifu for another, grander, exclusion zone in the heart of the capital, the Olympic Village. Like other major games, the Olympic village housed athletes by country, with a sprawling dining hall serving as the nerve centre and hub for the 11,000+ athletes and support staff residing within the walled off microcosm. Though much attention was paid to the use of recyclable cardboard beds I found that I enjoyed the best sleeps of my trip during my time in the village and was impressed throughout my stay with the order and efficiency with which the whole operation ran. While not the closest to the dining hall, the tower housing Team Canada was blessed with an incredible view into Tokyo’s inner harbour, with an unobstructed sightline of the Rainbow Bridge and much of downtown across the water. My unit was equipped to house 6 athletes, including myself, Marco Arop (800), Django Lovett and Mike Mason (High Jump), and our two decathletes, Pierce LePage and Damian Warner (whom you may know now as the Olympic Champion!).
For training venues, the daily option was laps around the perimeter of the village on paved pathways which, at roughly 3km/lap, was very manageable for the amount of running I had left to accomplish. I was able to make a few trips to the Olympic Stadium’s warmup track for the pace-specific sessions I had prior to competing. At about 30 minutes’ bus ride from the village, practicing shuttle transport to and from the stadium was helpful to acquaint myself with what I’d be navigating come race-day. For food, while there was an overabundance of choices in the dining hall, I found myself gravitating daily to the Halal station, with buttery parathas and lentil curry becoming my go-to for lunch and dinner aside from the requisite pre-race pasta meal the night before my semi-final.
The qualifying round of the men’s 3000m Steeplechase was slated for the first session of day 1 in the 10-day Athletics programme. Partially to accommodate prime-time viewing hours in other parts of the world, and partially to stave off competition during the heat of the day, much of the Tokyo Athletics programme took place in morning sessions. Having been drawn in the first of three qualifying heats, my event was scheduled to go off at 9:30am. As a general rule, distance events on the track are typically reserved for after dusk, and a race day involves hours of waiting about, languishing in a preoccupation with the upcoming effort. In contrast, beginning a race mid-morning meant reworking my pre-race routine to account for the several “little things” I like to do in the lead up to a race without the overabundance of time I’m used to having at my disposal on race day. After a surprisingly good sleep given the circumstances, I was up at 4:45 and out the door for a 10’ shakeout run to wake up my body. I showered, shaved, ate a bit of breakfast and was on the 7:10 shuttle to the track. With the additional procedures (marshalling, first and second call-room etc.) that go along with major competitions I began my warmup at 8am, by which time the sun was already high in the sky and the temperatures beginning to rise. Fortunately, in the days and weeks prior, the Athletics Canada team had practiced diligently to ensure that all systems were “go” come the beginning of the competition. Shaded and air-conditioned areas had been scouted out, cooling vests stashed away in tubs of ice, and a host of AC coaches and IST were on hand to cater to every need of the athletes. I was able to go through my warmup routine calmly and confidently as something I had already rehearsed many times, arriving at the check-in tent excited and as ready as I’ve ever felt.
Depending on your frame of reference, being seeded in the first qualifying section can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, with a limited number of time-based qualifying spots (“little q’s”) available, runners in the first section do not have the luxury of knowing what time will be quick enough to advance them through to the final round. On the other hand, because of the imbalanced information available to runners in subsequent heats, there is an incentive to run as fast as possible in heat 1 to give yourself the best chance of holding onto a qualifier. Having just used a hard, even-paced effort at the Olympic trials I was confident in my ability to perform in that style of race. I hoped it would be fast from the gun and was prepared to take that task upon myself if no one else in the field was willing.
Fortunately, when the gun went off it was clear that I would not need to be doing any of the leading. I got a solid start and slotted myself in towards the back of the pack, which strung out quickly in the early stages. Looking back at historical steeplechase results from Olympics and World Championships I knew that an 8:20 clocking or better was almost always quick enough to advance. With a PB of 8:20.68 going into the qualifying round I believed I had a shot if I could keep my composure and cover the right moves. After seeing our first lap split I knew we were off to a strong start and I focused on staying as controlled as possible. As the laps ticked away I kept a close count of where I was running in the order. With a maximum of six athletes able to advance from any given heat I kept an eye on that 6th and final qualifying position and ensured no gaps could form between me and the qualifying pack. The 2km split was my fastest ever and by that point the field had begun to dwindle, from the 15 who had started the race to 10 in contact with the leaders. I sat in the 6th and final qualifying position and began sensing that qualification was a real possibility. A lap later the separation from 6th back to the rest of the pack had widened and I hit the bell lap knowing that if I could stay on my feet I’d be booking a spot back on the track in three days’ time. A slight wobble to avoid a stumbling competitor over the final water barrier brought my focus back to the task at hand and I hammered it home over the final straightaway, counting (and recounting) the 5 figures finishing ahead of me and watching the clock tick upwards as I approached the finish line. As I crossed the line I couldn’t help but throw a fist in the air. Though only 6th place in a qualifying round, the result was my greatest victory to date and I was rewarded with a new PB of 8:16.99 and, crucially, a chance at advancing to the final.
As I stepped off the track I tried to temper my excitement by reminding myself that two additional qualifying heats still stood between me and confirmation of a spot in the Olympic Final. I had done my research and knew that there had never been a global championship where the time I’d just run didn’t qualify for a final but I was reticent to let myself get carried away in the moment until any results became official. I watched from the press gantry as the second heat played out in much the same order as the first. My teammate Matt Hughes put on a master class in savvy racing, covering all the moves necessary to put himself in a qualifying position while gamely holding back from the last lap burnup of the top three, conserving himself for the real test that would follow. My qualifying spot still intact I lingered on the gantry through about the first kilometre of the third and final heat. As I’d hoped, it went out slowly and tactically, setting the stage for a last lap crapshoot and, likely, no little q’s.
After navigating the mixed zone and it’s mingling of the elated and the devastated, I arrived at the post-race area and gathered my belongings. The walk back to the warmup track and team zone was a long one through a series of winding tunnels under the main stadium complex. My walk was solitary and, for the first time since finishing my race, gave me a chance to collect my thoughts and emotions. I laughed to myself, prayed, and event fought back some uncharacteristic tears of joy (more would follow later) as the gravity of what had transpired settled. I had just run the race of my life on the biggest stage and, for the first time ever, two Canadian men would be competing in an Olympic Steeplechase final.
When I returned to the warm up area I was greeted by a host of AC coaches and IST, the team that had worked so hard to get me to the starting line at my best. As the first men’s track event, the morning session containing the steeplechase had served as the competition debut for the whole Athletics Canada team. With both Matt and I through to the final there was a collective sense of momentum at what Canada could accomplish on the track over the coming days. After savouring the post-race high on my walk from the stadium, it was back to business when I returned to the team camp. In no time I had refuelled, donned an ice vest, done my cool down jog and received a post-race massage flush. From there it was back on a bus and straight home to the Olympic Village by 11:30am; a productive morning to be sure.
As with every athlete who makes their way to an Olympic Games, my career has had its fair share of “mountain top” moments. What made this one different from all those prior, however, was that my current mountain top served as the base of an even higher peak, one that loomed very near in my future. Elated with what I had accomplished, I wanted to celebrate with the many people who had made my journey to this point possible. I knew I would be inundated with kind words, congratulatory notes and a list of well wishes from those who were so deserving of my gratitude, but indulging too much had the potential to take away from preparing for the task at hand. I felt a tension between wanting to acknowledge every single person whose kindness had made a difference in my career and blocking it all out and returning to the small, focused world that I had lived in during the days and weeks leading up to this race. I made a few calls, first to Camille, then to my coach CJ and to my family. I cried and allowed myself the emotional outlet that had been building for months. By mid-afternoon I had gotten off of my social media and muted all incoming notifications from the outside world. I napped more deeply than could be expected by the amount of caffeine and adrenaline still in my system and woke up refreshed and ready to refocus so I could do it all over again. Onto the Olympic final, Monday, August 2nd at 9:35pm.
The time between the qualifying round and the finals was a bit surreal. The Olympics marked my first time ever advancing out of a preliminary round in the steeplechase (every meet prior had never had the numbers to warrant a semi-final, save the 2019 world championships where I finished 33rd) and in many ways just making the final had been the A+ goal for me all season long. With that mission accomplished I was determined to bring my best self to the final and made a concerted effort to reign in my excitement and prepare the same way as I had all season long. I felt I recovered well from Friday’s effort and by the Monday of the final felt fresh and primed. Unlike the early morning wake up for the qualifier, the 9:35pm start time of the final meant that I spent an entire day killing time in the Olympic Village, waiting for my evening shuttle to the track. The day ticked away like so many race days before and I believed I was doing a good job of dealing with this like any race prior. With a lifetime best already to show for my first Olympics I returned to the track confident and prepared for the relentless pace of an Olympic final.
Except when the gun went off the pace wasn’t relentless. Standing on the starting line, my plan
of attack was to get out hard and hold on for dear life to what I was sure would be a blistering pace from the get-go. My start was good but when the pace began to lag after just 100m I found myself jostled about amidst the whole field and utterly surprised. Our first kilometre, at 2:51, was ten seconds slower than I had expected, meaning the entire field was present and bustling around one another. It seemed nobody wanted to lead and I could feel myself tensing up with anticipation for a sudden burst of speed. Several surges were made and I committed to covering each of them, determined to be on the right side of the deciding move that would inevitably break the race open. As the laps ticked by we continued surging only to slow down once again, one lap I was as high as 6th and the next a distant 11th. By the time we hit halfway I could feel myself fatiguing from the yo-yoing pace and trying to parry every move made up to that point. It was around this time that the leaders decided that enough was enough and, almost imperceptibly, the field began stringing out and moving away from me. Very quickly I had been gapped and my legs were shot. By the time I hit the bell lap my best bet of watching the battle for the medals was via the jumbotron at the top of the stadium. Unable to give anymore I crossed the line in 8:35, my slowest time of the year and dead last in the field.
Not the result I had hoped for. My first experience with a global final was a reminder that physical preparation is only part of the equation on the highest stage. Despite being in the best shape of my life I lacked the wherewithal to keep my composure and it cost me. Almost immediately upon finishing it was as if I’d had an epiphany, seeing all too clearly the missteps I’d taken which cost me the race. Post-race, my feeling was less one of disappointment and moreso an intense desire to do things over. Much like my experience at the World Championships in Doha in 2019, where I had failed to advance out of the rounds, my lacklustre debut in a global final was a sobering reminder of how much I have yet to learn. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities available to me to get things right in future years, onwards and upwards!
After the emotional whirlwind of my time competing, the realities of a pandemic-games set in rapidly after the conclusion of the final. As with all athletes, I was provided with a 48h window to depart Japan following my final day of competing. In no time I was at home in Vancouver. With several days of Olympic action remaining, I leveraged my jet-lag to good use and caught all the live action from Tokyo; a surreal experience to watch teammates whom just days earlier I’d been living with compete on the other side of the world in an Olympic Games to which I was a member.
The day I arrived home also happened to be one month from the date of mine and Camille’s wedding, that other important life event which I’d been planning for and definitely hadn’t offloaded to Camille while I galivanted around the globe playing athlete. Fortunately, I was marrying a woman for whom event planning seems to come quite naturally and despite my absence (or perhaps because of it?) she’d lined up nearly everything that needed doing prior to our upcoming nuptials. In many ways, having the prospect of a wedding looming in my near future was a perfect antidote for the post-Olympic hangover so many athletes experience. While I still experienced some sense of a reality crash, the blow was softened by the promise of something equally as exciting and important arriving in short order.
I decided to keep training after Tokyo in hopes of finding a final track meet to ride out my fitness with. When nothing materialized, I held on for the remainder of the month to notch a time in the Canadian “virtual” 5km championships. Training solo and with little at stake was a refreshing change of pace and I put in some really solid sessions before the opening of the race window on August 28th. As it turned out, my long-planned bachelor party was to fall on the opening weekend, not typically a pairing conducive to high performance. I decided to postpone my 5k until the Monday following my party, considering it an exploration in just how important (or not) race-prep is to racing. After an opening 3k in 8:13 the attrition of paint ball, beer mile-ing, late nights, and general mischief wreaked their havoc and I crawled home for a time of 14:13, a decidedly anticlimactic conclusion to a very long season.
Three days later, on September 2nd, amidst the chaos of preparation for a backyard wedding, my Grandpa John was taken up to heaven. Surrounded by nearly all of his family, who by God’s grace had already converged on Kelowna for our wedding, he passed away with his wife of 64 years by his side. My Grandpa John was a man I’ve aspired to emulate my whole life, an aspiration I suppose carried even more weight knowing he was my namesake. His integrity was striking to all who met him while his kindness and love left a spring in the step of anyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. Throughout my whole career a brief phone call with Grandpa (and a not-so-brief one with Grandma) had become a staple of my pre-race routine. Grandpa John never ceased to let his children and grandchildren know how proud he was of them, nor to affirm how loved they were. It didn’t matter where our passions lay (part of me always wished I’d been more of a golfer like he was), but rather that we acted on those passions with perseverance and humility. My Grandpa had lived long enough to see me live out my passion at the Olympic Games and passed away with the knowledge that in mere days I would be marrying the love of my life. As Camille and I have embarked on a new chapter together we’re deeply grateful for the model of steadfast love and enduring commitment that was modelled for us in the marriage of my Grandparents. To carry my grandfather’s name forward is an honour I’ll spend my days striving to uphold.
On September 4th, 2021, Camille and I were married. Somehow, amidst wave after wave of travel restrictions, emergency measures, and gathering limits we managed to shoe-horn our wedding date into what seemed like the one weekend all summer without pandemic related restrictions. And there was no smoke! Camille and I were surrounded by loved ones to celebrate together and mark the beginning of a new chapter as Husband and Wife.
Thus far, that chapter has been a wonderful one and a welcome break from the action of the preceding months. Cami and I have settled into a solid routine and enjoyed a quiet fall in Vancouver. My training has resumed and, as I write this now, I’m gearing up for the Canadian Cross Country Championships this Saturday in Ottawa. It’s so good to be back racing and with a busy indoor season lying ahead I promise more entries on this site will be shorter in arriving than this (now tome-like) season recap.
See you on the XC Course!
John Eamon Gay