A year ago, Reid Coolsaet finished third in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon with a personal best time of 2 hours 10 minutes 55 seconds, a result that solidified his spot on the Canadian Olympic team.
It was a huge individual achievement, but he wasn’t alone.
Coolsaet ran the first 34 kilometres of that 42.2-kilometre race following a pace-setting runner known as a “rabbit,” who in this case was Stephen Chelimo of Kenya.
This Sunday at the same event in Toronto, Coolsaet will return the favour by being a rabbit for Chelimo in the Kenyan’s marathon debut.
“Reid’s a really loyal guy,” said Coolsaet’s coach, Dave Scott-Thomas. “Reid will talk to Chelimo and say, what do you want me to do? And his job will be to go and do that. It’s a paid gig. All the elite rabbits get paid. But this job is less job-like, because Reid likes Chelimo.”
The job of rabbits requires more than just hitting precise time benchmarks. They must block wind, navigate the terrain, and shoulder the burden of thinking early on in a race. The aim is to give the racer enough of a break so he has something left in the tank after the rabbit peels away.
“The back end of a marathon is very, very difficult. You’re in a protracted state of discomfort. So the rabbit’s job is to delay that critical onset as long as possible,” said Scott-Thomas, head coach of the Speed River Track Club in Guelph, Ont., one of Canada’s top distance running clubs.
At international events, including the Olympics, teammates will sometimes act as rabbits, essentially sacrificing their own result to help a teammate win. Usually in road races, however, rabbits-for-hire will sign contracts that will guarantee them cash for completing a certain distance. If they go farther, they make performance bonuses.
“Usually the contract would be something like, you’ve got to get us to the halfway point, and we’ll give you $2,000. And if you take it up to 30 or 35 kilometres, we’ll give you more.”
Chelimo’s effort last year was remarkable because he hung in for 34 kilometres. He specialized in 10-kilometre road races and half-marathons, so it was farther than his usual racing distance. But to go much farther than the halfway point can be unusual for a rabbit, Scott-Thomas says, since the marathon is so gruelling. Most rabbits are competitive racers themselves, so they don’t want to run 42.2 kilometres and sabotage their own training regimens.
If they’ve made it through most of the race, they might as well finish – and seize the prize money for themselves.
There’s also an artistry to the gig that not every rabbit possesses. Rabbits should be able to strictly adhere to their racer’s demands in terms of pace-setting, but they also need to be able to interpret how the racer is feeling and adjust accordingly. Sometimes things can go terribly wrong.
“Two years ago, we were in the situation where the rabbits were way too excitable,” Scott-Thomas said. “They weren’t controlling the pace. I was yelling at these guys: ‘Way too fast!’ At around the 12-kilometre mark, Reid’s looking at me. He’s got to make a decision [to cut loose and go his own way]. … I knew it was over. He was not going to have his big breakthrough race then.”
A year later, Chelimo had the right instincts to help Coolsaet run a personal best. And lucky for Chelimo, Coolsaet has those instincts too.
“Reid’s dialled in,” Scott-Thomas said.