Track and Field

Coach tells Canadian runner Rachel Cliff to 'think world class'

Coach Richard Lee is constantly pushing runner Rachel Cliff to achieve world-class times and not settle for Canadian records, but he views the Commonwealth Games more as a "stepping stone" for Cliff and a way for her to gain more experience in the 10,000 metres.

Richard Lee believes Commonwealth Games athlete shouldn't settle for national-record time

Rachel Cliff will enter the women’s 10,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games healthy and confident after breaking the Canadian half marathon record in early March. (Kevin Light/CBC)

Richard Lee wasn't trying to be flippant or downplay Canadian long-distance runner Rachel Cliff's latest achievement.

In early March, Cliff set the national record in the half marathon in one hour 10 minutes eight seconds at Woodlands, Tex., 39 seconds faster than Lanni Marchant's 2014 effort at the Tom King Classic in Nashville, Tenn.

"Those are nice goals and you get a pat on the back when you set a Canadian record but, really, it's not that significant," the B.C. Endurance Project coach said over the phone from Vancouver. "There are girls in the States running 1:06, four minutes faster."

Lee doesn't have a particular time or placing in mind for Cliff in the women's 10,000-metre final at the Commonwealth Games on Monday at 6:35 a.m. ET as he expects the pace "to be all over the map" in the championship race at Gold Coast, Australia.

He views the event as another experience and stepping stone for the 30-year-old, who finished 20th in the 10,000 in a personal-best 32:00.03 at her world championships debut last summer.

Rachel will freely admit that in other races her mind wanders as to how the competition is doing or whether she can [succeed] or not.— B.C. Endurance Project coach Richard Lee on Canadian runner Rachel Cliff's focus during a recent half marathon in Woodlands, Tex.

"I still don't think [the 10,000] is her best event, so that's helpful in that you can take this [experience and result] and build on it," he said. "The field will be closely matched. You could finish anywhere from top three to eighth or ninth and still achieve what you set out to do."

Lee, who began coaching Cliff in September 2015, is constantly pushing the concept of thinking outside of the Canadian box, noting race times considered good by Canadian standards have been celebrated for far too long.

The coach has often shared with Cliff that he could drive 30 minutes to the U.S. border and find a dozen or more women who could break the 70-minute barrier in a half marathon. With no difference in culture or lifestyle compared to our American neighbours, the coach noted, there is no reason for Canadians to not meet that standard.

"Think world class," said Lee. "Run a particular time because you're physically capable of doing so, not because it's perceived as good in Canada."

Cliff, left, says her high-volume of training helped her body respond well to three half marathons over the past three months. (Kevin Light/CBC Sports/File)

There was a consistent pace from start to finish at the Woodlands event, where Cliff displayed a level of focus needed in each race of that significance.

"There was very little competition so it was just her and the time," said Lee, "but it was a good lesson in 'this is how good you can be if you can focus to that level every time.'

"Rachel will freely admit that in other races her mind wanders as to how the competition is doing or whether she can [succeed] or not. This time, I guess she totally bought into the fact that I believe she could set out on the task, and never wavered."

Changed approach in training

Performance-wise, Cliff is similar to the national-calibre cross-country and track runner she was at the beginning of her working relationship with Lee. She also has an ability to stay healthy and work hard, which is paramount for athletes moving up in distance.

Lee, who prides himself on getting the extra one or two per cent from his athletes, understood early on Cliff didn't have the raw, natural speed to run the 5,000, so he changed her approach to training. These days, she tops 80 miles per week consistently — up from 65-70 two years ago — and will need to approach 100 if Cliff wants to run a marathon.

Cliff said her high-volume training, which includes a half marathon distance each Sunday, helped her body respond well to running the Houston Half Marathon (1:11:52), Vancouver's 'First Half' Half Marathon (course record 1:12:21) and in Woodlands over the past three months.

"I'm definitely in the best shape of my life right now," said Cliff, who is working on her master's degree in occupational and environmental hygiene at the University of British Columbia. "Obviously, my half marathon time speaks to that and at this point I'm healthy and my energy is great."

Cliff added her 5:14 mile pace in the Woodlands half marathon gives her added confidence she could compete at a pace near her PB in Australia.

"I'm excited for, hopefully, next year to get into an elite half marathon and try to finish under that 70-minute barrier," she said.


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 Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc


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