When I heard the Halifax Running Club was hosting a run with Eric Gillis, a two-time Canadian Olympian, I knew I had to be there.
It was time to test months of training.
Gillis is a two-time gold medalist in the Canadian 10,000 metre championships. He represented Team Canada in the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 in that discipline, and then moved up to the marathon for the London Olympics this year, where he ran a 2:16.
I was pretty sure I could take him.
Everyone kept telling me today’s race was a “fun run.” But I knew otherwise.
I edged up to Gillis before the run and snarled: “Ready to suffer like you’ve never suffered before?”
“Hey man,” Gillis replied. “Like, take it easy. We’re just going for an easy 10 km here.”
“Oh, there’s not going to be anything easy about this,” I said. “Bring it!”
I knew my
formidable grueling training schedule of five km daily would dwarf any “work” he’d done. I was ready to crush him.
The race – I wish people would quit calling it a “fun run” – didn’t start well. I hesitated – okay, choked – at the start and immediately found myself two groups back of Gillis. The pressure was on.
I was mid-pack in the field of 50, watching Gillis open up a huge lead. I put my head down and began to really work. Beside me, Norma Houston easily kept pace, chatting about tomorrow’s Lucky 7 Relay Race.
“So tomorrow, I run first,” Houston said.
I grunted acknowledgement and began to increase my pace.
“Then Sandra runs second and you’re third,” Houston added.
“Uh-uh,” I managed to expel between rasping breaths.
Houston began to talk about our costumes for the Lucky 7. “Norma,” I gasped,” I’ve got to bridge up to the next group.”
I made my move.
As I left her behind, I heard her say, “Sure, whatever. You’re a little weird, you know that?”
Not everyone understands the extreme sacrifices and demands running places upon you. I forgave Houston her sharp, misguided words.
As I redoubled my effort, successfully integrating myself with a group that included Darcy (whom many earlier had mistaken for Gillis at the club), a white haze washed across my eyes.
As painful as that last effort was, I had to do it again if I was going to bridge the gap to Eric’s group. This would take guts, real guts, Prefontaine-type guts.
I launched myself forward, my world a big bundle of hurt.
Stars exploded before my eyes.
My legs screamed. My lungs burned. I died several times over.
But I did it, I drew even with Gillis. He was blithely chatting with several runners, but when he saw me pull even, he gave me an alarmed look.
“Uh, listen man,” Gillis said. “I don’t know who you are, but your face is beet red and you really don’t look very good. You should take it easy.”
“You won’t ditch me that easily, Gillis,” I snarled.
We hit the Serpentine in Point Pleasant Park, a short but challenging ascent. I was huffing hard, giving it everything I had. Behind me, I heard Gillis say, “So does anyone know that guy? Is he running with us, or did he just pop in off the street?”
That’s okay. Despite his trash talk, I knew Gillis was hurting, using the crass language to distract himself from his own pain. I had this!
And seriously? It was a rare opportunity to enjoy a relaxed run with an athlete of that caliber.
You couldn’t meet a nicer guy, down-to-earth, friendly, unpretentious, hard-working, humble about his own abilities – in essence, a true Canadian.
Gills hails from Antigonish, Nova Scotia originally, but these days calls Guelph, Ontario home, where he trains with Team Canada partner Reid Coolsaet, among others.
I had the chance to chat a bit with Gillis as we ran. Surprisingly small and slight, Gillis is light on his feet and extremely relaxed and efficient as he runs. Back home for a few days, he had a full slate ahead of him, including the fun run with the Halifax Running Club, a speech at the Run Nova Scotia Banquet, workshops and even three laps Sunday morning with United Running’s Lucky 7 Relay.
He patiently submitted to photo after photo (including one with yours truly) after the run and later that evening at the Run Nova Scotia Banquet.
Much of that is to help raise funds as he works toward the next summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
He enjoys Guelph, calling the city of 120,000 more like a small town, and noted that an extensive crushed gravel trail is available for running there.
Obviously, the biggest benefit for Gillis is the level of training support available in the city, where he works out with the Speed River Track Club and, more and more, with Coolsaet.
In fact, the two Olympians are Kenya-bound this winter to train for a couple of months at one of the high-altitude training camps in that country. It will be Gillis’ first trip over and likely a nice change from Guelph’s winters, which he said are pretty much like Canadian winters anywhere.
He’s eyeing either Rotterdam or London for his next marathon, where he hopes to run a 2:10 time and topple Jerome Drayton’s Canadian Record of 2:10:08 set in 1975 in Fukuoka, Japan.
I think I can speak for all of us when we wish Gillis well. He’s a fine athlete and we’re fortunate to have him represent Canada.