Road To The Olympic Games

Canadian Olympians Coolsaet, Gillis healthy for long-awaited Boston Marathon debut

Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis have shared the start line at two Olympic marathons, world cross-country championships and countless other races. So, perhaps it is only fitting they toe the line together Monday morning in the elite men’s race of the 122nd Boston Marathon.

Injuries held back friends, longtime teammates from 'must-race' event in recent years

Friends and longtime teammates Eric Gillis, left, and Reid Coolsaet will run the 122nd Boston Marathon together for the first time on Monday. The world’s oldest consecutively run marathon has been on their “must-race” list for several years. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press/File)

University rivals and later teammates, roommates and training partners, they've shared the start line at two Olympic marathons, world cross-country championships and countless other races.

They are competitors, certainly, but also friends, and have overcome serious injury that delayed their participation in the world's oldest consecutively run marathon, until now.

So, perhaps it is only fitting that converted 10,000-metre runners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis toe the line together on Monday at 10 a.m. ET in the elite men's race of the 122nd Boston Marathon. The annual Patriots Day event has been on their must-race list for several years.

"It was the first marathon I watched on TV," Gillis says, "and probably the only one I followed consistently in high school and university. If I were to have never raced this marathon in my professional career, it would be my one regret when I retire."

Coming off a 22nd-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics, Gillis's hopes of running Boston in 2013 were dashed by a hip injury suffered at a winter training camp in Kenya. Last year, the 38-year-old from Antigonish, N.S., completed a training run over much of the Boston course, only to be forced to withdraw three weeks before the race by a sore Achilles tendon.

Now healthy, Gillis battled cold temperatures and a headwind to place 19th in a field of more than 10,000 at the New York City half marathon on March 19. The three-time Olympian's time of one hour five minutes 42 seconds was the fastest in the 35-39 age class.

"It gave me confidence my body is race ready," said Gillis, who clocked 2:12:29 in humid conditions for a 10th-place showing in the 2016 Rio Olympic marathon. It was Canada's best result in the event since national record holder Jerome Drayton placed sixth in 1976. "The Achilles issue hasn't been a concern since [last year]. I'm moving well, feeling fit and overall the body has handled the training for Boston nicely."

Three-time Olympian Eric Gillis of Antigonish, N.S., battled humid conditions to finish 10th in the 2016 Rio Olympic marathon in two hours 12 minutes 29 seconds. It was Canada’s best result in the event since Jerome Drayton finished sixth in 1976. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images/File)

In between a busy work schedule as cross-country and track and field coach at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, his alma mater, Gillis was able to achieve his goal of running 25 kilometres most days over the past three months.

While his total mileage has been lower for this marathon build, Gillis's workouts have remained similar under the guidance of Dave Scott-Thomas, his longtime coach at the University of Guelph and Speed River Track and Field club. Gillis and his wife Emily, who have three children, moved back home last July from the Ontario city.

Eyeing top-10 finish

After a stomach ailment prevented Gillis from finishing the marathon at the world track and field championships last August in London, England, he rebounded to place second at the Canadian cross-country championships in November.

Gillis, who set a personal best of 2:11:21 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct. 19, 2014, is hopeful of a top-10 finish in Boston.

There was a lot of self-doubt about getting back to my own fitness standards in regards to the marathon. ... Belief had to trump doubt.— Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet on overcoming a career-threatening foot injury

Coolsaet, on the other hand, would be thrilled to complete the race pain-free after a career-threatening injury last year sidelined him four months and forced the two-time Olympian to cut his yearly training regime to half its regular volume.

Osteonecrosis on the fourth metatarsal bone in his left foot, a disease caused by reduced blood flow to bones in the joints, lingered but Coolsaet was able to run close to 190 km a week the last three months.

"Last year was the most time I had taken off from running since I started training seriously about 20 years ago. There was a lot of self-doubt about getting back to my own fitness standards in regards to the marathon," says the second fastest marathoner in Canadian history. "I tried to be patient and wanted to see this process through, which helped put things in perspective when my paces weren't as quick as I'd hoped in training. Belief had to trump doubt."

During his Boston build, Reid Coolsaet targeted hilly routes in his hometown and frequently used Hamilton's escarpment to prepare for the many hills in Monday’s race. The second fastest marathoner in Canadian history has fought back from a career-threatening foot injury. (Stu Forster/Getty Images/File)

The 38-year-old U. of Guelph graduate says he hasn't felt this healthy or consistent in his running since late 2016 before running the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, where he placed seventh in 2:10:55, just 46 seconds off Drayton's elusive record.

In training for Boston, Coolsaet targeted hilly routes in his hometown and frequently used Hamilton's escarpment to prepare for the hills of Boston. There are three before Newton's well-known Heartbreak Hill and its 91-foot climb along with several miles of gruelling downhills and quad-busting 310-foot elevation drops.

"I'm really happy with how my training progressed. It seems to have come around in the past month," said Coolsaet, North American's No. 2-ranked men's marathoner in 2011, 2013 and 2015. "If [Monday's] race doesn't go well, I'll still be happy with the progress I've made in training."

Coolsaet said the time was right to run Boston this year after focusing on flat, looped courses in previous years to qualify for the Olympics or chase Drayton's national record.

"It's almost inevitable that a serious runner will at some point run Boston," he says. "As the years ticked by, I felt more urgency [to enter] because I'd like to run it while I'm still competitive."

About the Author

Doug Harrison

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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