In his first 42.2-kilometre race, Ben Preisner of Milton, Ont., was the only Canadian male to run under the Tokyo Olympic standard at the Marathon Project on Sunday in Chandler, Ariz.
The 24-year-old finished the elite-only professional race eighth in two hours 10 minutes 17 seconds. It is the fourth-fastest all-time among Canadian men and 52 seconds shy of Cam Levins' national record achieved in his debut marathon at the 2018 Toronto Waterfront event, where he broke Jerome Drayton's 43-year-old mark.
"This race meant a lot to me. In terms of race execution and the time I achieved, it is definitely up there in terms of career highlights," Preisner, who represented Canada at the 2019 world cross-country championships, told CBC Sports. He also won his debut half marathon last year in Vancouver and four months later the half at the TWM.
After spending the final five weeks of his marathon build training at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz. — 270 km north of Chandler — Preisner was told by BC Endurance Project head coach Richard Lee to run his own race against a deep men's field on Sunday that included five of the top 10 finishers from the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon trials.
"I trusted the training we [had] done and didn't feel the need to be right in the middle of the front group," he said. "Staying slightly behind the main pack, but within striking distance, through [32 km] allowed me to focus only on myself and keep mentally focused. I believe the consistency I maintained helped tremendously in the last 10K."
Lee said Preisner had built a solid foundation from his five years at the University of Tulsa and had a clear vision of himself excelling in the marathon when they began working together a little over a year ago.
'Fast marathon will be difficult to find in spring'
"I just gave him a structured program and good knowledge and experience in the marathon, with some smaller details that can make a big difference such as fuelling and pacing," said Lee. "He made some smart choices late in [Sunday's] race like drifting off the lead pack pace at 30 km so he'd have a little more energy in the last 5-7 km.
"The decision to consciously slow down and/or let the front group go is hard to make and takes experience to recognize when to do it."
Preisner, who ran a 2:15:24 marathon time trial on his own in April following the postponement of the London Marathon a month earlier, will quarantine "in his parents' basement" for 14 days before returning to his training base in Kingston, Ont.
"I have had a great year of solid training consisting of over 7,300 km of running and only eight days off," he said. "I am not sure what the plan is for the spring. I think it will be difficult to find a fast marathon due to the current world climate, but obviously I have to keep an eye on the options to maintain my [Olympic] spot."
Calgary's Trevor Hofbauer and Tristan Woodfine of Cobden, Ont., are the other Canadian men to have run the qualifying standard. Hofbauer gained an automatic berth for Tokyo as Canada's top men's finisher at the 2019 TWM while Woodfine clocked a 2:10:51 personal best at the London Marathon on Oct. 4.
Vancouver's Natasha Wodak was the only other runner among six Canadians to reach the standard Sunday, stopping the clock in 2:26:19 — the second-fastest all-time among Canadian women and well below the 2:29:30 Olympic standard — in her second career marathon and first since 2013.
Kinsey Middleton, who lives in Idaho but holds dual citizenship as her mother was born in Guelph, Ont., reached the halfway mark in 1:15:20 but had a flare-up of bursitis in her Achilles and dropped out.
Battle for Olympic spots
"I had a bursitis issue a few weeks ago and didn't want to do more damage," said Middleton, the top women's finisher at the 2018 TWM who had surgery in late June to repair an undiagnosed rotator cuff tear in her left shoulder.
Scottish runner Sarah Inglis, a physical education teacher in Langley, B.C., just missed the Olympic standard in 2:29:41.
Dayna Pidhoresky is in for Toyko as top Canadian women's finisher last year in Toronto. Malindi Elmore is likely to join her after running 2:24:50 in Houston in January. Then, it's Wodak and Rachel Cliff (2:26:56), who withdrew from The Marathon Project recently with right ankle tendinitis that has bothered her on and off for the past year.
Canada can add a maximum of three men and three women to its marathon roster for the Olympics next summer.
Wodak, 39, shaved nearly nine minutes off her debut performance seven years ago, but said before Sunday that qualifying for the 10,000 metres — the Canadian record holder's signature event — remains her top priority leading up to Tokyo. She placed 22nd at her 2016 Olympic debut in Rio.
Levins was 15th on Sunday in 2:12:15 and Calgary-born Rory Linkletter 17th in 2:12:54, a personal best after the Northern Arizona Elite athlete ran a 1:01:44 half marathon PB in Houston. Vancouver's Justin Kent was 37th in 2:17:22 in his marathon debut after taking two sick days early last week, not coronavirus, and hurting some ribs in a fall during a Thursday practice run.
Levins 'looked and felt good through almost 35K'
For Levins, it was the second time since the start of October he was on pace to lower his 2:09:25 Canadian record late in a race. In the rain and cold of London, he dropped out after 35 km when he believed the standard was no longer achievable.
But the conditions in Chandler were ideal, with a race time temperature of 5C with little to no wind.
"He looked good through almost 35K [on Sunday], and felt good, and then as sometimes happens in the marathon, his legs weren't there," said Levins' coach, Jim Finlayson. "It's possible we carried too much fatigue between London and now and that I didn't give him enough recovery.
"Yes, a lot of marathoners find the last 7K toughest and it's where the real race begins. Still, for Cam, I feel like this is something we can navigate well, and he has before, when he set the Canadian record."
On a positive note, Levins unofficially set a 30 km Canadian record in 1:31:44, according to USATF.TV, after Art Boileau went 1:31:45 in Japan on March 7, 1982.
Marty Hehir of Reebok Boston Track Club was the top men's finisher in 2:08:59, followed by fellow Americans Nathan Droddy (2:09:09) and Colin Bennie — Hehir's teammate — in 2:09:38. A third Reebok Track Club member, Ben Flanagan of Kitchener, Ont., paced the 2:11:30 men's group after winning his debut half marathon recently.
Sara Hall, 37, became the second-fastest women's marathoner in U.S history behind Deena Kastor (2:19:36) in a winning time of 2:20:32. Keira D'Amato, who set the women's-only record for 10 miles (16 km) in November, was second (2:22:56) among 33 finishers and fellow American Kellyn Taylor third (2:25:22). The top three men's and women's finishers won $5,000, $2,000 and $1,000 US.