Canada's Malindi Elmore returns to marathon at 39 after lengthy break
'I feel like somebody who just likes to run and run fast,' says 1,500-metre specialist
Malindi Elmore once ran with the weight of nagging injuries and frustratingly tough Olympic standards, at a time track and field was struggling through one of its darkest doping eras.
She runs more lightly these days.
The former 1,500-metre specialist, who walked away from track and field disheartened and unfulfilled in 2012, has reinvented herself as a marathon runner. And what began as a whim has the 39-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., within striking distance of an Olympic berth next summer in Tokyo.
She's still wrapping her head around her almost-accidental return to Canada's elite running scene.
"I feel like somebody who just likes to run and run fast moreso than a professional athlete," Elmore said.
"But now I'm having to shift my focus back, because I realize I have this narrow opportunity to do something really cool again in sport. If I went back (to the Olympics), I think it would be the most incredible full circle I could have, after 16 years of a lot of highs and a lot of lows — and then just somehow to have it come together would be amazing."
Elmore raced the 1,500 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, missing the semifinals by one spot. Either injuries or missed qualifying standards would keep her out of the next two Olympics.
She's now a mom of two boys aged one and five. She owns her own business in event planning and coaching. She's an accomplished triathlete — only three Canadian women in history have topped her Ironman time of eight hours 57 minutes 22 seconds, set in 2016 in Arizona, in her debut at the lung-busting 140.6-mile distance.
Last September, Elmore and husband Graham Hood, a two-time Olympian on the track, were out for a run. Her youngest son was three months old, and she wasn't keen on giving 25 hours a week to triathlon training.
"I said 'I feel like I need some sort of goal or structure with what I'm doing,' because I feel better with my training geared toward something, I don't really like exercising for the sake of exercising.
"I said 'Ah, maybe a marathon.' He said 'That's a great idea, Let's go find you one."'
Hood wrote her training program.
"Turns out he wrote a pretty good program," Elmore said.
She made her marathon debut in Houston in January, running 2:32.15 to finish seventh.
Moving up in distance to the marathon can be a huge physical and psychological hurdle. But Elmore was moving down from the Ironman. The marathon would be six hours shorter.
"Definitely the mentality (from triathlon) helps, the mindset," Elmore said.
She never hit the marathon's proverbial wall.
"I actually felt better in my last 10K than my middle 10Ks," she said. "I just started to get excited about the fact that I was feeling good and things were still going well, and I could start to pick up the pace a little bit and be competitive over the last 10K as people started to fall off the pace.
"I left the race feeling there was a lot more in the tank and it was a really positive experience and I had really enjoyed it."
Olympic qualifying process
The Olympic qualifying process has been rewritten, and is now more convoluted. The women's marathon standard is 2:29.30. Rachel Cliff of Vancouver achieved the standard in March, when she ran a Canadian-record 2:26.56.
Elmore, whose marathon debut was the third-fastest by a Canadian this year, could also qualify with a top-five finish in a Gold Label race such as the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. She announced last week she'll race in the Oct. 20 event. She could also qualify by being in the top 80 in the world rankings, with each country allowed three runners in the rankings.
Tough Olympic standards cost Elmore a trip to the 2012 Olympics. She won the national championships, but was just shy of the qualifying time. It'd been a similar story four years earlier for the Beijing Games. She was rounding back into health after a stress fracture in her foot cost her the better part of two seasons, but narrowly missed the standard.
Athletics Canada used to set A-plus standards that were tougher than the standards set by the IAAF (the world governing body for track and field). They were based on performance potential against a global field full of dopers.
Two weeks before the Beijing Olympics, nine women were suspended for doping violations. The Olympic 1,500 field went from having three rounds of heats to two, because the number of entrants was decimated.
"It was sort of the beginning of what we know as systemic doping in some countries," Elmore said. "At the time (Canadian teammate) Hilary Stellingwerff and I looked at that like 'This is not right, there's something weird going on in our sport that suddenly you can have nine people who have a doping infraction.' And now of course it's well known that that was going on."
Stellingwerff should have run the Olympic 1,500 final in London, a race ESPN would call "one of the dirtiest in Olympic history." Stellingwerff missed making it out of the semis by just one spot, but since then, six of the 12 finalists have received doping bans.
"So we felt peripherally involved on that and really impacted by that with standards and selection," Elmore said.
The crackdown on doping has seemingly benefited Canada. The team won zero track and field medals in 2004, one in 2008, and then six in 2016 in Rio.
Canadian athletes now need only to meet the IAAF standards to qualify.
"I honestly think that now that Athletics Canada is selecting Canadians on IAAF standards and not their own elevated criteria, it allows people to achieve the standards and not be burnt out doing it," Elmore said.
She said qualify for Tokyo or not, she'll be happy. These days the joy is in the process of running more than the results.
"If the results come that's great. For such a long time the results had to be X, Y, Z in order for me to do everything and there was more stress involved, and now it's just a bonus. It's like the cherry on top," Elmore said. "If it doesn't work out, life marches forward. And if it does, it would be amazing."