The nagging hip injury started around the London Olympics, and with virtually every step for months afterward came frustration for Eric Gillis.
"And as a runner who's out there taking a million steps a week, if each one of them you feel a little off. . . it builds and builds and all of a sudden one day, you think: 'I'm not enjoying this anymore,'" Gillis said.
The 34-year-old from Antigonish, N.S., bounced back from some of his worst months of training, and heads into Sunday's Canadian marathon championship on the heels of some of his best.
"It's the most consistent it's been in a few years now," Gillis said Friday morning. "I was getting things together for Toronto (the Scotiabank Waterfront marathon last fall), I felt good when I ran that, and I've actually progressed since then — more consistent workouts, less hip alignment issues. I'm really on top of that stuff, so I'm feeling really in control and I know it too because I'm happy running.
"I'm just enjoying running more than I have in a long time."
Gillis will battle Rob Watson of London, Ont., for the Canadian title. Watson won it last year, but Gillis is coming off a victory at the Canadian half-marathon championships last month, running a personal best 63 minutes 30 seconds.
Gillis, who finished 22nd at the Olympics two summers ago, said his hip alignment problems started there. The father of two — he and wife Emily Hurst have a son Luke who was born in November, and a four-year-old daughter Heidi — was finding he was bringing his work home with him.
"The more issues I had with my body, the more I do bring it home and the more it negatively impacts the stuff at home," he said. "Especially when I got to the point where I wasn't enjoying it anymore, that was tough to kind of figure out: Do I try and make this work? I was feeling lost a little bit."
He was getting ready to travel to Kenya for warm-weather training when he sprained his sacroiliac joint in his hip, forcing him to stop running for several weeks, and re-examine the way he runs altogether.
"That made it serious enough that I regrouped and kind of rebuilt my stride in a way and took a step back and did some new strength work, really listened to my physio Brenda Scott-Thomas (wife of Gillis's coach Dave Scott-Thomas)," Gillis said. "Every time I got lost out there, I just went back and really focused on what she was telling me as opposed to what I was feeling on a day to day basis. She just made me look at the big picture more."
Gillis, Wykes, and Reid Coolsaet — who is dealing with a hip/abdomen injury of his own, and isn't racing in Ottawa — have all been chasing the Canadian marathon record for years.
The 39-year-old record — the oldest on the national track and field books — 2:10.09, set by Jerome Drayton.
Gillis's best time is 2:13.29 set in the Scotiabank Waterfront race last fall. Wykes holds the second fastest Canadian marathon mark in history — 2:10:47, set in 2012.
While Gillis, who lives and trains in Guelph, Ont., said the record is always in the back of his mind during training. He won't be thinking about it when he steps to the start line Sunday.
Instead of racing for time — which requires going out hard and maintaining a relatively even pace over the 42.195 kilometres — he'll approach it as a championship race, meaning taking it out more conservatively, and then reeling in runners over the second half. That racing tactic, he said, will stand him in good stead in his next world championship and/or Olympic appearance.
"I feel like I'm in very good shape for it," he said. "It feels great to be able to choose a race tactic as opposed as being resigned to one."
As for the Canadian record, Gillis said he drew inspiration from Lanni Marchant's performance at the Waterfront Marathon in Toronto — Marchant raced to a Canadian women's record.
"I was doing an interview after, and I was thinking 'I didn't run as fast as I wanted to. . . But then someone yelled out 'The Canadian women's record might be coming down, she's coming across the line!' everyone runs from me to the finish line," Gillis said, laughing.
"I thought it was a great moment. It got me excited, it snapped me out of my little two-minute feel sorry for myself because I didn't run a few seconds faster. All of a sudden I was excited again."
Gillis chose the Ottawa marathon over the Commonwealth Games marathon in July in Glasgow for a couple of reasons. The timing is better — it allows him to do both Ottawa and the Toronto race in the fall. The money is better — there's $5,000 up for grabs for the Canadian champion, plus additional prize money for overall placing in the international field. Plus, he and wife, who's a nurse, plan to spend five weeks this summer vacationing in Nova Scotia.
The couple owns land there, and plan to live in a yurt.
"So that should be interesting for training, living in essentially a glorified campsite, with no electricity for July," he said. "This is the affordable way of enjoying our piece of land. Plus, I'll be looking to get in one run a day at least while I'm there."
The women's race will see a new Canadian champion as last year's winner Lioudmila Kortchaguina of Thornhill, Ont., will race in the 10-km event, which goes Saturday. Among the top Canadian women: Rhiannon Johns of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., whose best time is 2:40.24, and Lisa Avery of Orillia, Ont., whose personal best stands at 2:42:00.
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