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Malindi Elmore, from Kelowna, B.C., celebrates winning in the women's 1,500-metre event at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Calgary in 2012.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Over the final seven kilometres of Saturday’s Olympic women’s marathon, when her legs were screaming and she was close to vomiting, Malindi Elmore thought of her two sons and husband.

The 41-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., overcame the searing heat in a test of survival in Sapporo, picking off eight runners over the second half of the race, to finish ninth -- an extraordinary story 17 years in the making.

Competing in her first Olympics since 2004, the track-athlete-turned-triathlete-turned-marathoner raced to the finest finish by a Canadian marathoner in a non-boycotted Olympics, and second best ever.

She finished in two hours 30 minutes 59 seconds.

Kenya went 1-2, with Peres Jepchirchir crossing in 2:27:20 to take gold in a race bumped up an hour in an effort to avoid the heat. Kenyan teammate Brigid Kosgei won silver in 2:27:36. American Molly Weidel won bronze (2:27:46).

Natasha Wodak of Vancouver was 13th in 2:31:41. Both Canadian women arrived in Tokyo ranked outside the top 50.

Moments after the win, Elmore reflected on her remarkable journey.

“I had given up any kind of Olympic aspirations, I never thought I’d be back to the Olympics,” Elmore said. “I was moving on with my life.”

Elmore competed in the 1,500 metres at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, didn’t qualify for the next two Olympics, and retired, frustrated and disillusioned, from track in 2012. She reinvented herself as one of Canada’s top Ironman triathletes.

She ran her first marathon as “a bucket-list item” in 2019 when her second son, Oliver, was six months old.

“And I loved it. And I did really well,” said Elmore, whose time in that first attempt was just two minutes shy of the Olympic qualifying standard.

“I thought, well, I should do another one and see if I could get standard,” she said. “But I thought that was kind of hilarious really, to even be thinking that, trying to get to the Olympics.”

In January of 2020 in Houston, she took aim at the Olympic standard. With her husband Graham Hood, an Olympic middle-distance runner, as her coach, and the initials of her two sons -- “O” for Oscar and “C” for Charlie -- drawn on her hands, she shattered the Canadian record in her second attempt.

She ran 2:24:50 and qualified for Tokyo.

“I had no idea that this was an event for me,” she said.

Canada’s previous top finish in a non-boycotted Games was Odette Lapierre, who raced to 11th in 1988 in Seoul. The late Silvia Ruegger was eighth in 1984 in Los Angeles in a Games that saw 14 Eastern Bloc countries, led by the Soviet Union, refuse to attend.

Because COVID-19 erased the marathon competition schedule for the better part of a year, Saturday was Elmore’s first marathon since her record run 17 months earlier.

Her mantra on the 42.195-kilometre winding course was “patience is power,” and her patience paid off. In a race of attrition that saw 14 women in the field of 88 fail to finish — including world champion Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya — Elmore passed half a dozen runners over the final seven kilometres.

“The longer I could be patient, the better I would do,” she said. “I had hoped to pick it up in the last 10K. But really, it became a hold-on-and-not-fall-apart kind of last lap, because I started to hurt a lot. And I took everything I could really the last 6, 7K to keep the momentum going forward.”

The marathons and race walk events were held in Sapporo, some 800 kilometres north of Tokyo, in hopes of more favourable weather, but the smothering heat and humidity were still a huge factor. The temperature was 27 C with 75 per cent humidity when the runners pushed off the start line at 6 a.m. It had climbed to 30 C by the finish.

Elmore, who was no stranger to severe temperatures having trained in Kelowna during B.C.’s record-breaking heat wave a few weeks ago, started to feel the effects with seven kilometres to go.

“I went from feeling great — I had just received news that I was 40 seconds from 10th place — and suddenly, I was just like, ‘Wooh!’ It hit me really hard, I just felt like I was going to stop. And I felt like throwing up.

“From there on in, it was just like really trying to just stay in the moment. I knew that everyone is hurting at this point. So, if I’m moving forward towards the finish line and not falling apart, then I’m actually probably making good progress.”

The pandemic had prevented her husband and sons -- Oliver is now three, and Charlie, seven -- from travelling to Sapporo with her. But she felt their presence.

“They were both there at the finish line, and CBC mentioned their names, so they were pretty pumped about that,” she said. “I just thought about them a lot the last few kilometres.”

The runners received word 12 hours before race time that the start time was being moved up — very short notice for athletes who meticulously plan their pre-race preparations.

“We were a little peeved,” Wodak said. “I just thought that was very unprofessional. And maybe it was a little bit cooler, but it was more like me frantically trying to message my friends and family before I went to bed, ‘FYI the race starts at 2 (a.m. Vancouver time) instead of 3.”'

Wodak, who was 22nd in the 10,000 metres at the 2016 Rio Olympics, had been aiming at a top-20 finish in Sapporo, and was thrilled with her result.

“I’m in so much of a better place mentally, physically, all around,” she said. “I came into this race with just my heart full of gratitude to be here, and you know, I’m 39 years old. I said after Rio, anything’s icing on the cake. So today was a frickin’ whole cake on top of the cake.”

Wodak and Elmore are two of the oldest members of Team Canada in Japan, and their never-too-late stories have inspired the country’s running community.

“I think we both ran with a lot of gratitude,” Wodak said. “And that is what sort of propelled us in those latter stages of the race, when it was hot, and we were tired. And there’s blisters all over my feet. Malindi is (near) puking. It was carnage. And we were still passing women. We were hanging in there and pushing right to the end. It was a good day.”

Canada’s Dayna Pidhoresky held on to finish in 73rd in the culmination of a rough few weeks. The 34-year-old from Windsor, Ont., had been battling a stress reaction in her shin, and then was forced into quarantine for a week after a passenger on her flight tested positive for COVID-19. She worked out on a stationary bike in her hotel room at the Canadian team’s camp in Gifu.

“I was very unsure whether I’d get to the start line,” Pidhoresky said. “And then with all the stress after travel, and being a close contact, sort of made the start line almost feel like I wasn’t not going to get there, like mentally and physically. But thankfully, I had so much support behind me, and Athletics Canada staff here is probably like what kept me from just flying home and raising the white flag.”

Pidhoresky finished in 3:03:10, well off her best of 2:29:03 that she ran at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2019 to clinch her Olympic berth.

“I definitely had points where I wanted (my body) just to give out on me, so that I could stop running in so much pain, but that never happened,” she said. “And I crossed the finish line. A month ago, this would have been an extremely disappointing result, because I was fit and training was going really well. But with everything that’s happened over the last several weeks, this is more than I could ask for at this point.

“I’m really happy that that I got it done on the day. It might look different than my initial goals. But today the goal was just finish. Can’t ask for more than that.”

The marathon women have been cheering on Canada from their mini-athletes village in Sapporo. Canada won zero track and field medals when Elmore was last on the team in 2004. The Canadians had captured six medals on the track by the time they stepped up to the marathon start line on Saturday.

“It’s been amazing, glued to our our live stream up here and just so excited to cheer on the Canadians,” Elmore said. “We’ve been having a blast.”

With COVID-19 cases climbing in Japan, spectators were instructed not to attend, but fans still showed up to peek through the fence at the event.

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