Track and Field

Canadian-record holder Rachel Cliff is 'made' for the marathon

Richard Lee has spent over three years trying to convince Rachel Cliff she was destined to run long distances and have success. On Sunday, the Vancouver resident proved his point once again by setting a new national women's record at the Nagoya Women's Marathon in Japan.

Coach says Vancouver runner will reach potential with good health, increased training volume

Rachel Cliff is joined by her proud coach, Richard Lee of the BC Endurance Project, after breaking Lanni Marchant’s Canadian marathon record on Sunday in Nagoya, Japan. (Twitter/@cwinter3)

Rachel Cliff isn't sure which running event to pursue in her 2020 Olympic bid, though setting a new Canadian marathon record on Sunday may have pushed the needle a little.

The Vancouver resident is also a threat on the track in the 10,000 metres after finishing ninth in her Commonwealth Games debut last April and winning the women's Canadian championship two months later.

"Convincing her to target the longer distances was the key and it has taken much persuasion," BC Endurance Project head coach Richard Lee told CBC Sports after watching Cliff complete the Nagoya Women's Marathon in two hours 26 minutes 56 seconds for a 15th-place finish in Japan.

"My gut and experience in distance running has always told me this is what Rachel was made to do."

Cliff shaved nearly two minutes off her debut marathon time of 2:28:53 in Berlin last September and broke Lanni Marchant's national women's mark of 2:28:00 that stood since Oct. 20, 2013.

Untapped potential

The 30-year-old will experience true growth in the sport by remaining healthy the next few years and adding more volume to her training, according to Lee, who believes many of the top finishers in Sunday's race averaged more than the 145-153 kilometres Cliff ran weekly in her Nagoya build.

"Watching Rachel run 2:26 in her second marathon is not startling if [the athlete] is gifted at longer distances and willing and able to put in the work," Lee said. "I think the marathon is just something Rachel is suited to do, physically and mentally, so I'm not sure there's been a lot of growth yet.

"She is just good at using the experience honed at shorter distances like the 5,000 and 10,000."

I was fit, focused and in a good place to make the most of the opportunity.— Canadian runner Rachel Cliff on competing in Nagoya Women's Marathon

A race time temperature of 10C and little wind in Nagoya provided the ideal setting for Cliff to gain further marathon experience should it become her Olympic focus.

"It is the biggest women's-only marathon in the world with 24,000 runners, so that's a very different racing dynamic" he said, "and it's not a completely flat time trial course like Berlin. There's a bit of pressure as an invited runner, with travel and different food."

Three pacers led a group of eight to 10 runners, including Cliff, through 30 km of the 42.2 km race at a 2:25 pace, allowing the Canadian "to turn my mind off" and relax for the first half of the race.

"It was a fast course but the turns and small rolling hills were a nice distraction," said Cliff, who pushed the pace earlier in the race more than she had in Berlin. "Most importantly, I was fit, focused and in a good place to make the most of the opportunity."

'Very empowering' to run women's only marathon

Cliff felt strong through 35 km before experiencing pain over the final two kilometres that could have been more a function of her training.

Rachel Cliff also excels on the track, placing ninth in the 10,000 metres at her Commonwealth Games debut last April in Australia. She's planning for a full track season this summer. (Claus Andersen/Athletics Canada/File)

"Running a women's-only race was a unique and cool experience," she said. "It's something I hadn't appreciated until I was on the start line, but it was very empowering to run a marathon only against women."

Cliff's effort continues a series of record-breaking indoor performances by Canadian female runners this winter:

  • Gabriela Stafford broke the mile and 5,000 in a three-week span in January.
  • Jessica O'Connell smashed the 3,000 mark at the Millrose Games in New York on Feb. 9.
  • Jenna Westaway shattered the 800 and 1,000 records in February over two weeks in Boston.

Last March, Cliff also shattered Marchant's 1:10:47 national mark in the half marathon, running 1:10:08 in Woodlands, Texas. She also clocked 1:10:28 in her Nagoya tune-up at the Marugame International event in Japan on Feb. 3.

At the time, Lee encouraged Cliff to think world class and run a particular time because "you're physically capable of doing so, not because it's perceived as good in Canada."

Lee noted the new record times are "decent" but relatively weak by international standards.

Summer plans on the track

"The half marathon is somewhat of a newer event — not really run often until the year 2000 — so the record hasn't had a chance to develop," he said. "This marathon record [by Cliff] definitely moves the marathon to a more respectable level internationally."

Her time also falls within the women's qualifying standard of 2:29:30 for next year's Summer Games in Tokyo as the qualifying period opened Jan. 1.

Cliff is planning to spend the summer on the track following a rest period. She feels extreme fatigue experienced by the end of the Berlin marathon was likely the result of eight consecutive months of intense training and running in 2018.

"When I crossed the [finish] line in Berlin, I knew I was at the end of my rope," Cliff recalled. "It took me a long time to feel recovered and I started ramping up for another marathon before feeling 100 per cent so the training [for Nagoya] didn't go well initially.

"The biggest takeaway from Berlin is to be more patient. If training doesn't go well once I start back, I'll be quick to listen to my body, scale back, not panic and trust things will come around."


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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