Regina's Bairu makes marathon debut in NYC

Some impressive Canadian content is in the field at the 2010 New York City Marathon, as Simon Bairu of Regina will make his debut at the distance on Sunday (9 a.m. ET).

Jerome Drayton's 35-year-old Canadian record in jeopardy

It's been a while since a Canadian won a medal in the men's race at the New York City Marathon.  

Not since Jerome Drayton finished second at the prestigious event in 1977 has a Canadian stood on the men's podium in Gotham.

When Drayton accomplished the feat, he had set the Canadian marathon record two years earlier — a two hours, 10 minutes and nine seconds clocking at the 1975 Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, which still stands as the national mark.  

That could all change Sunday when Simon Bairu of Regina, Canada's top distance runner, makes his debut at the 2010 New York City Marathon (9 a.m. ET).  

The 27-year-old University of Wisconsin alumnus has dedicated his past two years of training specifically to the marathon, under coach Jerry Schumacher at a Nike-sponsored training group in Oregon.  

"I always told my coach that I had two goals going into my first marathon," Bairu said. "To train consistently at a high, intense volume, and to stay healthy. I've achieved both of them, and that's probably the biggest confidence booster for me."  

But Bairu's body didn't respond well to months of marathon training last year, forcing Schumacher to pull the plug on the original plan, which called for Bairu to run a marathon in fall 2009.

The decision to be patient, rather than chase prize money, paid off. Bairu has had a banner year in 2010.  

It began with an upset victory over American Ryan Hall in the Phoenix Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in January.  

In March, Bairu was the top non-African at the World Cross-Country Championships, finishing 13th.  

He followed that up with a Canadian-record performance in the 10,000 metres at the Payton Jordan meet in California, running a blistering 27 minutes, 23.63 seconds.

Then there was the 1:02:08 half marathon that Bairu ran in Philadelphia in September, as a tune-up for New York.  

'There's a reason the record has lasted'

All signs seem to indicate that Drayton's 35-year-old Canadian record is in jeopardy.  

"I appreciate people believing in me, and that they think I can break one of the oldest records in my debut marathon. [But] there's a reason why that record has lasted as long as it has. It's not an easy feat, and my goal [in New York] isn't to break the record. It's just to compete," Bairu said.  

Although Bairu is like the Sidney Crosby of Canadian distance running, he hasn't been around for much of the pre-race hype in New York. Wednesday's press conference was his first formal media gathering, he said. Bairu and his training partners, Americans Tim Nelson and Shalane Flanagan, sought refuge in upstate New York for a couple of days to get away from the distractions.  

All three of the Oregon-based runners are making their marathon debuts on Sunday, and they have been featured prominently in promotional videos for the race. Bairu has even blogged about the experience for the New York Times.  

But Bairu isn't losing sight of his main goal, which is to be among the world's best in the marathon at the 2012 Olympics in London. The Canadian record will likely fall along the way, but he admits that he might not be the first to get it.  

Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis — both of the Speed River track club in Guelph, Ont. — have shown world-class ability. Coolsaet met the Olympic qualifying standard when he ran 2:11:23 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in September, while Gillis was less than a minute behind in 2:12:08.  

The Canadian record may not be Bairu's target on the hilly and challenging New York course, but the Olympic standard of 2:11:29 most certainly will be.  

Bairu, who has won a record seven Canadian cross-country titles, chose New York to make his debut because it's a tough course that requires athletes to "grind it out." There are no pacemakers and the course record is almost four minutes off the world record time.  

But Bairu ran under 29 minutes for 10 km on a hilly and snowy cross-country course in Guelph at the 2009 nationals, so there's no reason he can't accomplish something special in the five boroughs of the Big Apple.  

He'll have friends, family and his old club coach from Regina, Steve Gersten, cheering him on along the 42.2-kilometre route. Even his Canadian rival and potential future Olympic teammate Coolsaet is making the trip to show his support.  

"I think he'll do really well," Coolsaet said. "But the marathon is so hard to predict — especially first one.  

"You run into a zone that you never do in practice. [But Bairu's] a tough guy, so I think he'll do okay."  

It's unlikely that Bairu will break 2:10 or the Canadian record, Coolsaet added, but punching his ticket to London is a strong possibility.

Olympians dominate field

The competition will be stiff, with world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and defending champion American Meb Keflezighi in the field. The start line will include at least a dozen runners who have gone under 2:10. If all goes according to plan, they could pull Bairu to a fast time.  

"I want to beat people. That's what the marathon is about. I'll determine if New York was a success by looking at who I beat, and if I beat people who I wasn't supposed to beat," Bairu said.  

In pre-race predictions, some experts have picked Bairu as high as third.  

Gebrselassie is the odds-on favourite and believes he can challenge the course record of 2:07:43. His world record of 2:03:59 was set on the flat Berlin course in 2008.  

For Bairu, racing the Ethiopian distance king is going to be an experience that he'll always remember.  

"I think I'll be in awe for about a mile, and then I'll try to figure out a way to beat him."