If there were any justice in the world, Rob Watson would become the Jon Montgomery of the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Montgomery, you’ll recall, won the gold medal in skeleton at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He’s better known for his antics afterwards, when he ran through the streets of Whistler with a pitcher of beer, partying with the fans.
And sure, Watson, who’s a medal hopeful in Saturday’s men’s marathon, likes his beer. His various social media accounts celebrate the benefits of a fine post-run drink, and he told listeners on his podcast this week that however Saturday’s race goes, you’ll find him celebrating with friends and a beer at the athletics track on Saturday night.
— Rob Watson (@robbiedxc) May 7, 2015
But more than that, Watson exemplifies what it is to be an underappreciated Canadian athlete. He’s one of the world-class athletes at these games, in a sport where the Pan Am competition doesn’t offer much incentive. He’s trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and to do that, he’ll need a much better time than anyone will run on Saturday, thanks to the mid-summer heat and the treacherous hills of High Park.
He’s only 8 weeks off an Ottawa Marathon that he calls ‘disastrous,” thanks to some ill-timed stomach issues and dead legs. His goal race to qualify for Rio, the Chicago Marathon, is in 11 weeks; there isn’t a training program in the world that calls for a full-exertion workout at this stage in the training cycle. And yet, he’s here, having heard only five weeks ago that he’d be on the Canadian national team.
Why? In a way, it’s the ultimate millennial answer: fear of missing out. Watson qualified for the Canadian team last summer for the Commonwealth Games, but he didn’t go because it interfered with his training cycle. But as soon as he saw footage of the games, he regretted he decision to skip out.
“That was me trying to get caught up in being super-elite and only doing so many races,” Watson said over coffee near the Pan Am Games athletes’ village in Toronto this week.
"One of the things about me doing this sport is having the opportunity to have these experiences. There are goals you have and time goals, but then there are life goals. This is the chance to run a big international event on home soil, and there’s a lure to that.”
To be sure, Watson’s never followed a conventional path in his running career. He's a big fan of a technique he calls "fading from the front," going out hard and holding on. He had a reputation in his early marathoning days as a partier who might never achieve his true potential. He gained a lot of notoriety and raised his prifle as an elite runner in 2013 when, frustrated by the slower pace and elbowing and jostling in the lead pack, he forged ahead, and ended up leading the fabled Boston Marathon through 25 km. He finished 11th in that race, staking a claim as a runner who’ll throw caution to the wind. He cemented that reputation 6 weeks later; at the Ottawa Race Weekend, he switched from the 10k to the full marathon with two days’ notice, and won the Canadian championship.
My thing is take the opportunities when they come,” Watson said.
“I’m not doing it for media, I’m doing it just because it’s fun. But I also take my role seriously being part of the Canadian running community. It’s fun being part of that, maybe being an ambassador.”
If part of being an ambassador means throwing caution to the wind and running a hot, hilly race for a chance to represent Canada, Watson’s on board. He ran in the World Championships in Moscow in August 2013, and finished 20th; he was ranked 47th in the world at the time. He knows all the science that goes into a rigid training schedule; he just doesn’t think it’s an absolute.
“There’s that thing in running ‘you only do two marathons a year;’ there are all these rules. I don’t know where they came from. I’ve run four marathons in a year and I’ve been fine. You can’t be afraid to stray from the pack now and then. Just because one person does it one way doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to do it. I just like running marathons.”
And he likes running marathons with other people; even people who are much slower than him. The average marathon will have 10-20 elite runners, and thousands of weekend warriors slogging along anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours behind the leaders on courses that often go out to a fixed point and then come back. While most elites have their eyes fixed ahead and their focus solely on their stride, Watson has been known to cheer on recreational runners he sees going the other way.
The thing about the marathon is, yeah, sure, I may be running it a bit quicker than everyone else, but training for a marathon and running a marathon is an experience that no matter what pace you’re going at, you can share that experience.,” he said.
“I know when I see someone at 30K, the race is starting to get hard. Marathons are hard. They’re not easy, ever. I really dig that. We can all relate. We’re all doing it at a different level but we’re all doing the same thing. I get positive vibes from them cheering for me, so you’ve got to give and take, right? We’re all getting through it together.”
Watson won’t have those runners behind him this week. In fact, there are only 19 runners slated to toe the starting line at the men’s marathon Saturday. But thanks to the hills and the four-loop course, Watson expects to be running closer to his competition that he usually does at major races, and he thinks that could be an advantage.
“I might even have more people to run with, because it’ll be a more controlled group,” he said.
It’s going to be a super-attainable race.”
Attainable, because the heat and hills should prove to be a great equalizer for the field. With five KMs left in the race, the runners will head down a long hill in High Park that could wreak havoc on their muscles.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, man!,” Watson said.
“It’s going to hurt so bad! It’s going to be so uncomfortable! We’re really going to have to time our energy expenditure. The course is going to beat us up pretty good.”
As excited as he is about the Pan Am experience, Watson won’t be happy just competing on Saturday. He wants to win a medal.
And on a personal level, if it helps him forget what went wrong in Ottawa, that would be good too.
“I want a little redemption and this is the perfect place to get it.”
Watson says no matter how Saturday goes, he’ll kick back with a beer or two (or more), enjoy the rest of the games, and then get back to work on that Olympic qualifying he’s put to the side for the moment.
“We’ll make it work,” he said.
“That’s my naïve optimism. Rio is coming up; I’m not going to have too many chances at it. But right now my focus is the Pan Am Games; we’ll worry about it later.”