Just before the Bionic Man established himself as my hero and years before my parents' divorce made them all too human, I wanted to be my father. My father was a marathon runner. He ran with a crew then known as the Thundering Herd. Officially, they were members of the University of Toronto Track Club, but they could have been part of any number of grassroots organizations that dotted the late 1970s; clubs inhabited by a who's who of running's elite guard. It was the best kind of name because it was earned, not chosen. Maybe the name evolved because footfalls just sounded different on the Hart House indoor track, a track that took 11 1/2 tight, concentric circles just to equal a mile. Or maybe it was the rumour that the Thundering Herd had literally run someone over who had refused to yield right of way. Regardless, The Herd was the one constant in my father's life and provided my first iconoclastic standard for what my young mind would later understand as a rare kind of commitment. During the working hours of the day, they were ordinary men with regular jobs and regular lives but on the track, at the starting line and in those fluid minutes and hours that contained a race, they were different. Out there, they were wholly unreconstructed men.
But things are different now.
Culturally, people who value the kind of ethos that celebrates pain, reveres high mileage and venerates speed over distance, are quietly relegated to the fringes of polite conversation. Most running today begins with an apology. In a nation full of citizens that express gratitude to bank machines and say sorry to people who bump into them on the street, this diminutive nature should not be surprising, and its arrogate assumption of Canada's once proud mantle should provoke no revelation. An outsider might be forgiven for assuming that Canada never did anything significant in long distance running and is, indeed, a nation of hockey players and hewers of wood. The past 30 years certainly would not suggest otherwise.
Since 1977, and definitely since Jerome Drayton's record-setting race in Japan in 1975, Canadian distance running has quietly moved on. The grassroots running club has been commercialized and many of the values and essentials prevalent now would have been not only laughable to my father's generation of athletes, but incoherent. In 1977, my mother and two older sisters travelled to Boston in order to set up a water station for my Dad. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a five kilometre race without water, power gels and an aid station. Medals are awarded for completion and prize money for winning. In a sport whose first boom was fuelled by flat Coke, chocolate milkshakes, high mileage and beer, running's new philosophy of inclusion and celebration of unremarkable achievement has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
Despite an unprecedented increase in participation, 35 years later Jerome Drayton's record stands uncontested. The last time Canada sent someone to the Olympics was 10 years ago in Sydney. The last time a Middle School student could name a Canadian distance runner is beyond reckoning. The answer to this puzzle may not be the kind that is palatable to the current running culture that has moved in a strikingly different direction.
According to former elite distance runner and coach Gary Westgate, Canadians simply "aren't willing to train hard enough. In North America, it's more about longevity, the love of the sport and lifestyle." It may also be a game of numbers and attrition. The reason so many African nations have been successful, Mr. Westgate asserts, is only partially answered by the number of people involved. It is the quality of their involvement that matters. "If we are truly committed to developing world-class runners, then it has to be a factory of runners and lots will drop off. A lot of those have to be really good runners that turn in performances far faster than I ever did." In a sport that now cajoles people to "listen to their body" and intermix bouts of walking in their training, Mr. Westgate is a throwback. "In 1991, I ran 16 sub-30-minute 10Ks. I was ridiculed by athletes and coaches for pushing so hard. What I did understand way back then was I had a short window to excel. I was never, ever in running for the lifestyle. It was all about competing. Quite frankly, it could have been dart-throwing I chose, but it was running."
Those select few who do stay in the game and avoid injury tend to burn out quickly. Steve Boyd, Masters Athlete record holder, believes that "very few athletes are really interested in pursuing the marathon seriously in their 20s and 30s. After taking age-class and university running so seriously, and racing far too much as a result, most have had enough by the time they graduate university, and have no interest in attempting something like the marathon." Marathon champion Reid Coolsaet concurs, suggesting that there are "many talented Canadian distance runners who have not given the marathon a chance, and many who simply did not train properly for the event." Mr. Coolsaet remains optimistic: "I don't foresee Drayton's record lasting too much longer. Probably not this year, but from 2011-2013 there will be some serious attempts on the 2:10 barrier."
Not long ago The Herd decided to reconvene at the Hart House track. The plan was to train toward the singular goal of completing one six-minute mile. Hampered by age, arthritis and a myriad of injuries sustained 30 years prior, their run never happened. There was nothing left in the tank. Perhaps the attempt was ill-conceived; a long and awkward dénouement to what should have been a brief flash in a predictable sort of life. The few runners in this country who do answer to a different call and adhere to an unforgiving standard will likely always live in a paradox, always face the uncomfortable Faustian choice between running fast briefly, or jogging for a lifetime. In a time where most athletes have embraced the latter, Mr. Westgate remains unapologetic. "What clubs in Canada can produce 20 sub-31-minute 10K runners right now? None. We've gone backward."
Rory Gilfillan is a middle-school teacher and marathon runner at Lakefield College School.