With no races, Hofbauer draws inspiration from late Kobe Bryant on training runs

·5 min read

Trevor Hofbauer misses the thrill of the race.

The 28-year-old Canadian is most famous for crushing the Tokyo Olympic marathon standard in a seven-minute personal best in 2019. The fact he did it without wearing a watch for pacing purposes — racing at its most pure — practically launched him into running folklore.

And so, while Hofbauer can rest easy knowing that his spot on the Olympic team is locked up, his 2020 racing season was scrubbed by COVID-19. And with no definite race on the horizon until the Tokyo Olympic marathon, getting out the door some days feels like a grind.

"For me, competition is huge. And just not having a competitive field to battle against kind of takes away some of that purpose as to why I train," Hofbauer said.

The six-foot-three Hofbauer, who played basketball through high school, finds inspiration in his favourite player, the late Kobe Bryant.

"The athlete that he was and the mindset and his work ethic, and what he brought to the game, he left 100 per cent of what he had on the court every single day, I kind of view my training the same way," Hofbauer said.

"I want to be the best version of myself. I don't want to be the next Jerome Drayton or the next Cam Levins, or follow the footsteps of Reid (Coolsaet) or Eric (Gillis), though I know the history of the sport and our Canadian athletes. I just want to be the best version of myself. And whatever I can do on a daily basis, I'm up for it."

Hofbauer had been mentioned among Canada's next top marathoners after Coolsaet and Gillis, and cemented that status at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2019, when he ran two hours nine minutes 51 seconds, the second fastest in Canadian history behind Levins' Canadian record (2:09.25).

Hofbauer secured his spot on the Tokyo Olympic team with that run, while Dayna Pidhoresky won the Canadian woman's marathon title to earn a spot that same day. They're two of the lucky ones. Race walker Evan Dunfee is the only other track and field athlete with a guaranteed spot on Canada's Olympic team.

COVID-19 erased most of the 2020 season after its arrival last spring, and there was a silver lining for Hofbauer.

"It was such a weird time. I know everybody has their own story to it and how the world like flipped within like a minute or seconds is crazy," Hofbauer said.

He was scheduled to race in the world half-marathon championships in Poland in March, and was gunning for the Canadian record there, but was feeling tired, chalking it up to overtraining. The event was postponed to October.

"It was actually kind of a blessing in disguise, because I was really eager to take some down time," he said.

Canada pulled out days before the rescheduled event in October as COVID-19 cases were climbing in Poland.

"And at that time we were receiving that word, I had strained a couple muscles in my quad. It was a minor strain, I was able to run if I wanted to, and I was given the green light to race," he said. "But when that word was sent down by (Athletics Canada), I looked at the big picture of things, and I saw this little tiny thing that could have become worse than it was.

"I just shut everything down, and called it a year."

There is no official race on Hofbauer's calendar, partly due to the pandemic's second wave in Canada, plus the country's travel restrictions. Athletics Canada hopes to hold a training camp in Victoria in the spring, and Hofbauer would like to run a half-marathon, even if it's just a time trial.

"In talking with Athletics Canada, and my position going into Tokyo, I don't have to prove anything this spring," Hofbauer said. "Obviously, they want me to be the best version of myself and maintain fitness, but I don't have any pressure on me."

The Olympic marathon on Aug. 8 in Sapporo will be Hofbauer's first race at the 42.195-kilometre distance since his thrilling 2019 run in Toronto.

"It's kind of weird thinking of it like that," said Hofbauer, who recently signed a sponsorship deal with Saucony.

While the COVID-19 lockdowns and the country's travel restrictions have presented huge challenges to Canadian athletes, Hofbauer's training hasn't been affected much. Born in Burnaby, B.C., he's lived most of his life in Calgary, and considers the Bow River Pathway among the best places on the planet to train.

"It's just so quiet and peaceful . . . I've put in tens of thousands of kilometres in Fish Creek Park," he said of the provincial park that stretches across 13.5 square kilometres in the city's south end. "It doesn't matter where I go in the world, I always gravitate back towards Fish Creek. I think it's one of the most spectacular places on the planet."

And while most of Canada has been plunged into a recent deep freeze, it takes extreme weather to keep Hofbauer inside. He was once forced to run on a treadmill, on a trip to Winnipeg, when it was -45 C with the wind chill.

"My contact lenses were starting to freeze, every blink was so painful that I had to go onto the treadmill to get in a run."

The Olympic postponement, Hofbauer said, had another silver lining in that it's seen the emergence of several young marathoners. Tristan Woodfine had been trending in the right direction through 2019 before running the Olympic standard at the London Marathon this past October. Ben Preisner then ran the standard in his marathon debut in Arizona just before Christmas.

Those two are shoo-ins for the Olympic team if no other Canadians run faster in the next few months.

Pidhoresky has the only guaranteed women's spot after claiming the Canadian title. Malindi Elmore is practically a shoo-in after shattering the Canadian record a year ago, while Natasha Wodak and Rachel Cliff have both run the Olympic standard, and Lyndsay Tessier's top-10 finish at the world championships counts as the Olympic standard.

Canada can only bring three men and three women to Tokyo for the marathon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press