Canadian marathoners left in limbo after COVID-19 cancels global races

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Krista DuChene knew the bad news was coming. 

As one global sporting event after another has been wiped out in a rapid-fire COVID-19 string of dominoes, DuChene knew it was likely only a matter of when, not if.

The Boston Marathon, the world's most celebrated road race, was rescheduled on Friday amid the threat of the worldwide pandemic, and now DuChene, like countless other Canadian athletes, is facing an uncertain future, and wondering if the Tokyo Olympics — if indeed they will be held — will even be in the cards for her.

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But the bronze medallist at the 2018 Boston Marathon was taking the news in stride.

"I'm not that stressed to be honest. I can see the big picture, right?" she said. "It's affecting everyone in the world. And I think when these things happen, you've got perspective on your life."

The 124-year-old Boston Marathon was rescheduled from April 20 to Sept. 14, which doesn't help elite runners around the world hoping to secure their spots there for the Tokyo Olympics.

Numerous big races have been cancelled or postponed in recent days, including Rotterdam, Rome, Paris and Barcelona. This month's Tokyo Marathon was expected to draw 38,000 runners but was limited to an elite field due to concerns over the outbreak of the virus in Japan.

Cam Levins, the Canadian record-holder in the men's marathon, had been scheduled to race in Rotterdam but that race was postponed on Thursday. An injury hampered him at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October, and so he has yet to qualify for Tokyo.

"COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation with constantly evolving information. Events are being cancelled or rescheduled daily and what is currently still scheduled in about four weeks may still require cancellation that we cannot anticipate," Levins said in an email from Kenya, where he's been training the past three weeks. 

"I am in great shape and would love to run any available race . . . However, at the suggestion of my coach, my agent and my governing body the recommendation is to return home to await future instruction."

Two-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet is registered for the Prague Marathon on May 3. It hasn't been cancelled — yet. 

"When I first heard Tokyo announced they were only going to run (an elite field), that's when I first thought 'OK, this could disrupt things,' but at least my marathon was later," Coolsaet said. "A few weeks ago I thought maybe this will peak and it will be good by May, and it does not look like that at all. It looks like everything is going to be cancelled for the spring really."

Led by Canadian record-holder Malindi Elmore, four women have already hit the Olympic qualifying standard. DuChene was hoping to become No. 5 in Boston, and from there, the top three of those five would secure Olympic berths.

On the men's side, however, Trevor Hofbauer is Canada's lone qualifier thus far, leaving two spots open.

"There's about eight of us trying to chase it," Coolsaet said. "So it would be a shame for us."

The Canadians are hoping World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, will take a hard look at qualifying criteria in light of these uncertain times.

"If the Tokyo Olympics do indeed take place this summer, I urge the International Olympic Committee, World Athletics and Athletics Canada to take this global crisis into consideration when naming all competing athletes," Levins said.  

Coolsaet said the Ottawa Marathon, which is a go for May 24, is an option, although it's a week before the Olympic qualifying window closes.

Coolsaet, who is also DuChene's coach, suggested Athletics Canada host its own elite race, much like a time trial.  

"Set up a race somewhere just on a seven-kilometer loop, and you just run," he said. "There doesn't have to be spectators. At least you would get a shot at it."

An Athletics Canada spokesperson said in an email it's too soon to say whether that might happen.

All three athletes were gracious amidst their own personal racing upheaval. Sports in such turbulent times, they said, take a backseat to health threats. 

"My individual health risk is low, but social distancing is an act of generosity and solidarity for the benefit of others," Levins said. "I support the efforts of all government and athletic leaders who have made the difficult decisions to disrupt the lives of so many to help control the escalation of this disease and protect our most vulnerable populations."

Coolsaet, who is 40, and DuChene, a 43-year-old mom of three, said the threat of missing an Olympics would have caused considerably more personal grief had it happened in previous years.

"(In 2012 or '16) that would be weighing on me more just because I was in my prime. If I get to these Olympics, it's a bonus," Coolsaet said. "That being said, though, I haven't been in this kind of shape for years, probably since 2016. So, even if the Olympics don't happen, I want to just capitalize and use my fitness to just show myself what I can do. Because it's been a while."

DuChene said "it's been fun to train and compete" and will continue to do so.

"But yes, I can already say that I'm an Olympian," she said. "And to be honest, for me with a family, my decisions are based more on financial gain, I guess you could say that, and becoming a two-time Olympian doesn't really change.

"Being able to get into the world major events where you have a decent apearance fee is going to help us put our kids through university someday. So that's my perspective right now in terms of my racing career.

"And as a believer, I'm a Christian, I don't define myself by my running. So, I'm not devastated by any of this. Of course, everyone's disappointed, but this is just the way it is."

About a dozen Canadian sports so far have had their Olympic qualifying plans derailed by COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2020.

Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly reported Cam Levins did not race in the Toronto Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October.

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