By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
TORONTO (20-Oct) — The fastest marathons ever run in Canada by both men and women plus a pair of upset winners in the Athletics Canada National Marathon Championships highlighted today’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon here, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race. In cool and cloudy conditions with little wind, Kenyans Philemon Rono and Magdelyne Masai won in 2:05:00 and 2:22:16, respectively, both Canadian all-comers records and personal bests, while Trevor Hofbauer and Dayna Pidhoresky ran huge personal bests of 2:09:51 and 2:29:03, respectively, to not only win the Canadian titles but also lock-in team berths for Team Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The race served as the first Canadian Olympic Trials since 1984.
For Rono, 28, today’s win was his third victory here in four tries (he also won in 2016 and 2017 but was ninth last year), but it did not come easily. Through halfway (1:03:07) the the lead pack of seven men followed three pacemakers, and all of the contenders in the lead pack –Kenyans Rono, Silas Mwetich, Benson Kipruto, and Festus Talam, Ethiopians Lemi Berhanu and Abera Kuma, and Ugandan Felix Chemonges– looked comfortable. The were just under course record pace, and the first four 5-kilometer splits were strong: 14:52, 14:50, 15:07, and 14:55.
That group of seven remained together through 25-K (1:14:48), and only Talam was dropped by the 30-K mark when that 5-kilometer segment was covered in a swift 14:36, the fastest of the race.
Soon the surging began and Berhanu, the 2016 Boston Marathon winner, was the biggest instigator, striding ahead to break up the race. By the 33-K mark, the lead group had been shaved down to four: Berhanu, Rono, Kipruto and Chemonges. The quartet hit the 35-K in 1:43:57 after a fast 14:33 5-K segment, and it was clear that the course and Canadian all comers record of 2:06:52 was going to be broken, but by whom?
Before the 40-K mark, Berhanu made the move which seemed to wrap up the race. He surged away from Rono, and built up an 18-second lead. His lead looked so convincing that the local television broadcast cut away from the men’s race.
That was a mistake. Berhanu was actually struggling with a stitch on his right side, and it was slowing him down. Meanwhile, Rono was gathering himself and determined to catch up. He told himself that the race wasn’t over.
“It was very, very tough,” Rono said about the final stages of the race. He continued: “I was not scared because my body was responding well. I kept consistent with my pace.”
By the 40-K checkpoint Rono had cut Berhanu’s lead to six seconds, then he blew past his much taller rival past the 41-K mark. The tiny Kenyan, who has the unusual nickname of “Baby Police” because of his position as a police officer and his youthful looks, ran uncontested to the finish in 2:05:00. He would win CAD 80,000 (USD 61,000) in prize money and time bonuses for winning the race, and setting both a new course and all comers record. Berhanu had to settle for second in 2:05:09, Chemonges was third in a Ugandan record of 2:05:12 and Kipruto was fourth in 2:05:13. Silas Mwetich rounded out the top five in 2:06:59.
But behind the top finishers, perhaps the biggest story of the day was playing out. Trevor Hofbauer, who only had a personal best of 2:16:48 coming into the race, was having the race of his life. The tall Canadian from Calgary, Alberta, went through halfway in 1:05:00 with compatriot Cam Levins, the national record holder and defending national champion, and three Mexicans, Juan Luis Barrios, Juan Alberto Mena and Daniel Vargas. Hofbauer, who did not wear a watch, was just running on feel.
“Being at home I don’t use pace on my watch,” Hofbauer explained later. He added: “I just use pace off of the effort.”
Levins, who ran 2:09:25 here last year, would soon fall back. He would finish 12th overall, and the third Canadian, in 2:15:01. But Hofbauer continued to chug ahead. Running the final kilometers alone, he thought about his friends and family who were waiting at the finish.
“Having them at the finish line is what drove me,” Hofbauer said. He continued: “I wanted to bring it home for them.”
Hofbauer finished in 2:09:51, becoming the second-fastest Canadian of all-time. He not only won the Canadian title, but since he ran under the 2020 Olympic qualifying standard of 2:11:30 he locked-in his team berth for next summer’s Olympics.
“In my mind I never hold myself to limits,” Hofbauer said earnestly.
The women’s race unfolded similarly to the men’s. At the halfway point (1:11:39) a pack of nine contenders were all together: Kenyans Masai, Ruth Chebitok, Betsy Saina, and Racheal Mutgaa, and Ethiopians Shuko Genemo, Birke Debele, Bekelech Gudeta, Biruktayit Eshetu, and Etaferahu Temesgen. They were basically on pace for both course and all comers records, 2:22:29 and 2:22:17, respectively, if the second half moved along a just a little bit faster.
Again, like the men’s race, only one athlete was dropped by 35-K (Temesgen), and although there was one surge by Eshetu not much had changed. Masai was waiting to strike.
“I didn’t want to waste energy,” Masai explained later. “I decided that I was going to make a move after 39 kilometers.”
Sporting pink arm warmers, she upped her tempo and the response from the pack was only tepid. They simply couldn’t keep up, including Olympian Betsy Saina, a late addition to the race after suffering from food poisoning which derailed her run at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last Sunday where she had dropped out.
“When Madelyn made the move I was happy that there was three of us,” Saina said, knowing that she couldn’t catch her yet would finish on the podium. “I’ll be top three for sure.
Masai ran the rest of the race alone, but she continued to press because she could earn the same CAD 80,000 total that Rono did by breaking the all comers record. Remarkably, she made it by just one second bettering the 2:22:17 run by Gelete Burka in Ottawa in 2018.
“Everything just came together,” she said.
There were many quality performances behind Masai. Eshetu finished second in 2:22:40, Saina got third in 2:22:43, Debele was fourth in 2:23:19 and Mutgaa was fifth in 2:23:30. All of those marks were personal bests.
In the Canadian championships division, a dramatic story was playing out only a few minutes behind. Dayna Pidhoresky, who arrived here with a modest personal best of 2:36:08, pushed boldly through halfway with two make pacemakers in 1:12:56, well under Canadian record pace. It was a huge gamble, but she felt good.
“We’ve been training for 2:28, 2:29, but maybe not to run as aggressively in the first half,” she admitted later.
Pidhoresky slowed considerably in the second half, but she managed to hold it together in the final kilometers to finish in a huge personal best of 2:29:03. Like Hofbauer, she not only won the Canadian title but also earned a berth on Team Canada for the 2020 Olympics because her finish time was under 2:29:30, the Olympic Games qualifying standard.
“I feel like I’ve had this performance in me for many years,” a tearful Pidhoresky said. “It’s overwhelming for it to all come together.”