By Paul Gains
The morning after racing the Ottawa 10km race in 2001, Eric Gillis responded to his early wake up call, got into his running gear then ran out along part of the marathon course to cheer on some of his friends at the 30k and 40k marks.
Buoyed by the experience, the native of Antigonish, Nova Scotia silently vowed to add the Ottawa Marathon to his list of ‘must do’ races.
Twelve years later, Gillis is a two time Olympian and now has signed on for the Ottawa Marathon - an IAAF Silver Label Race - on Sunday, May 26th. The event is also the 2013 Canadian National Marathon Championship.
“Canadian marathons are definitely something special,” says the 33 year old. “They are always on my radar - Toronto and Ottawa are the two biggest marathons in Canada and I have had Ottawa on my bucket list.
“My list includes all the big ones around the world like Boston, New York and London so definitely Ottawa is on that list. This year it worked out, time wise, that Ottawa was do-able. I am excited about the opportunity to race. I knew I wanted to do the marathon one day and do it there. I didn’t think it would take twelve years but it has and it should be fun.”
Few people would describe the marathon as fun but that’s Gillis’s cheerful disposition shining through. Naturally, he also has very bold ambitions for Ottawa, which could include an improvement of his personal best time of 2:11:28. He achieved that Olympic qualifying standard at the 2011 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon under cold, windy conditions. Most importantly, he shows optimism in abundance.
“Yes,” he concurs, “and the reason being, my ‘p.b’ comes on a course, which is arguably faster - it’s flatter - but the conditions that day were not conducive to running really fast. So if I get better weather in Ottawa, I definitely feel I can run a p.b. there.”
"I ran the entire second half of the course last year. (Again) I did the 10km the night before and as part of my Sunday long run I did the second half, which goes into Hull (Quebec). It’s a challenging back section of the course. I am not familiar with the first half. But what I remember is that it’s not like any marathon I have run before. There are not many flat sections on the back half.”
Gillis spent seven weeks in Kenya this past winter training with fellow Olympian and Speed River Track Club teammate, Reid Coolsaet. Though he has previous high altitude training experience in Flagstaff, Arizona, it was his first time in Kenya.
Unfortunately, he was nursing an inflammation of his ilio-tibial band when he arrived at the high altitude training camp in Iten. A couple of weeks of cross training with British Olympic marathoner Lee Merrien preceded some proper distance running and that seems to be just what he needed.
Originally he had planned to run Boston, but decided he wasn’t in the shape he wanted to be in at that time. An extra six weeks, he believes, will prove beneficial. And so came the decision to switch to Ottawa and knock off another of his career objectives. Whether he can run the fast time he desires remains to be seen. Again Gillis is especially cautious.
“We will see when it comes to race time,” he declares. “It’s eight weeks out now from Ottawa and I am in much better shape eight weeks before this than when I thought I was going to run Boston.”
A fan of the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Gillis plans to bring his wife and three year old daughter with him for the event and, after the race, they will experience the cultural side of Canada’s capital city.
Gillis admits that he went through a period after the London Olympics when his motivation was challenged. There was the nagging injury that surfaced occasionally. But most trying was the recognition that he had been on, not one, but two consecutive Canadian Olympic teams and had to ask himself ‘what’s next?’
In London, he was one of three Canadians in the Olympic marathon. At the Beijing Olympic he ran the 10,000m after having to go through an appeal process. He had made the IAAF standard but not the tougher Canadian Olympic mark. Still he was added to the team as a “Rising Star.”
“I did have that lull after the London Olympics where I didn’t have specific goals for the fall,” he reveals. “I did have some races lined up I was struggling with some on again off again injuries. I didn't really focus; I didn't want to push it. But now I am getting hungry to get out there again after not racing for six months and getting back on the line.”
In preparation for the marathon he intends to compete in the Toronto Yonge Street 10km, a Canada Running Series race, on April 21st. Though the race is downhill he is excited about the possibility of turning in a fast time and competing against a competitive field. Two years ago he finished three-tenths of a second behind Coolsaet in a time of 28:08.3
“You can gauge fitness by workouts, but a race is a race,” he says of the race. “I will be looking at my time, more so afterwards. With my marathon buildup, I will have more mileage in my legs than I did when I ran it in 2011.”
One thing is certain; Gillis is a pragmatic individual who prepares for his marathons with diligence. His debut marathon was the 2010 Houston Marathon where he ran 2:13:52. The London Olympic race with its winding course and warm temperatures yielded his slowest of his four marathons. So, much can be expected of him on the streets of Ottawa -- a fast time and a fun time!
Photo credit: Victah Sailor