In the middle of a global pandemic that cancelled almost every major marathon over the last nine months, Natasha Wodak felt blessed to even be on the start line Sunday.
The 39-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., made the most of her opportunity.
Wodak ran the second-fastest women's marathon in Canadian history and also raced well under the Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard to finish fifth in the The Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz.
"I feel so lucky that I got this opportunity, and everything worked out," Wodak said.
"I got to travel here, the weather was good. Everything worked out in a year where nothing seems to be working out, and everything seems to be getting cancelled.
"I'm so happy and relieved I was able to monopolize on this opportunity, and to put down a time that was really strong."
In her first marathon in seven years, Wodak crossed the finish line in two hours 26 minutes 19 seconds, which was a personal best by nearly 10 minutes.
It was the second fastest by a Canadian woman over the 42.195-kilometre distance behind Malindi Elmore's Canadian-record of 2:24.50 set early in 2020.
Wodak also easily beat the Tokyo qualifying time for women of 2:29.30.
Canada's Ben Preisner also dipped under the men's Olympic qualifying time, finishing eighth in 2:10.17.
Ben Rosario, head coach of the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite track club, organized Sunday's race specifically for about 100 elite runners gunning for Olympic qualifying times in a year that has seen almost every major road race erased by the COVID-19 virus.
The conditions were ideal. A start-time temperature of 3 C climbed to about 7 by the finish, with cloudless skies and almost no wind.
The women's field splintered early on, so Wodak — wearing bright pink knee-high socks — ran solo most of the way with male pacesetters Nick Hilton and Will Baldwin.
The trio chatted during the early going.
"I can be pretty chatty. But I know I need to not talk because it takes away energy," Wodak said.
"But for the first half of the race, you're feeling really good, you're feeling relaxed, and so it's natural that you want to sort of talk so yeah, I chatted with them a bit, you know, 'Where are you from?' and blah, blah, blah."
American Sara Hall won the women's race in 2:20.32.
Five Canadian women — Wodak, Elmore, Dayna Pidhoresky, Rachel Cliff, and Lindsay Tessier — have all achieved the Olympic qualifying criteria, but each country can enter only three women and three men in Tokyo's marathon.
It's a nice problem for Canada to have.
"There's never been more than two that have got to standard in the marathons, so it's incredible that there are five now," Wodak said.
She's also the Canadian record-holder in the 10,000 metres on the track, so she'll play it by ear on which distance she'll run in Tokyo.
"I'm going to just take the time to recover and then train for a fast 10,000 this spring, and hope to run fast then and then we'll see where we're at with the marathon, and if any other women have run faster than what I just ran," she said.
Wodak must quarantine upon returning to B.C., but she can train on an elliptical in her apartment. She'll take some well-earned days of rest first.
"I'm moving very slowly, making lots of moans and groans," Wodak said with a laugh from her hotel room in Chandler.
Preisner, a 24-year-old from Milton, Ont., made his marathon debut and was the only Canadian in the men's field to run under the qualifying time of 2:11.30.
Two other Canadian men — Tristan Woodfine and Trevor Hofbauer — had previously met the qualifying criteria.
It was another heartbreaking day for Canadian record-holder Cam Levins, who was on national-record pace again through 35 kilometres.
Levins ran with the lead pack before dropping back dramatically to finish 15th in 2:12.15.
When he ran a 2:09.25 in Toronto in 2018, he broke Jerome Drayton's 43-year-old Canadian record.
Levins succumbed to the cold, rainy weather two months ago in the London Marathon and didn't finish.
He has yet to achieve the Olympic standard for Tokyo.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press