The second installment in the Series of weekly profile stories by Paul Gains on THE CONTENDERS taking part in this year’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, October 16th, 2011.
This week we continue with our top Canadians as we profile Simon Bairu of Regina, SK. Now residing at the Nike training campus in Portland, Oregon, Simon discusses his DNF disappointment at his debut marathon in New York City last year and how his focus is now on turning this experience into success, aiming to use STWM to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.
Confident Bairu Chasing Olympic Standard
by Paul Gains
Despite collapsing three miles from the finish in his debut marathon Simon Bairu is approaching the 2011 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon October 16th with tremendous optimism.
The 28 year old went into the 2010 ING New York Marathon intent on racing the world class field rather than with a time in mind but found that the erratic pace was not to his liking. An ambulance ride to hospital was the last thing expected for the Canadian distance running star, who had finished an incredible 12th in the 2010 IAAF World Cross Country Championships then smashed the national 10,000m record with a time of 27:23.63.
Along with the humiliation, he spent the next three months dealing with nagging injuries which might well be traced to the marathon. Of particular concern was an inflammation of a sciatic nerve. But those are a distant memory now. With a solid block of training behind him Bairu and his coach Jerry Schumacher come to Toronto with one objective – to make the Olympic standard of 2:11:29.
“Jerry always talks about ‘defining moments,’” Bairu says shortly after receiving his weekly massage. “A lot of people kind of thought that maybe the marathon just wasn’t my event. Our motivation is that Toronto is a ‘defining moment’ which is my chance to come back stronger and better because of New York.
“There’s a lot of motivation. I know if I can get fired up and do all the right things in training there’s no other Canadian who can stop me from making the team.”
Bairu’s confidence could be mistaken for arrogance but he has nothing but respect for a trio of Canadian runners who are also in contention for an Olympic place – Reid Coolsaet (10th in 2010 STWM 2:11:23), Eric Gillis (11th 2:12:07) and Dylan Wykes (2:12:39 at Sacramento). Only three can run in London.
“Honestly, look at it on paper,” he declares. “Those guys are, above and beyond, more accomplished than me in the marathon. They have all done some great things in the marathon. The only thing I have next to my name right now is a DNF. I am confident that if I can put in my training and bring my ‘A ‘game I am going to make the team no matter how well those guys run.”
Bairu spent eight weeks of the summer at high altitude training camps in Flagstaff, Arizona and then St. Moritz, Switzerland recording 130 miles (210km) a week. A year ago the most he reached was 120 a couple of times (190km). The plan is to slowly reduce the mileage and increase the quality of his workouts. A final test will be September 5th when he races the New Haven 20km.
Bairu was born in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia to Ethiopian-Eritrean parents who had fled the war in the East African region. Being Christians they sought refuge, first in Greece, before finally settling in Regina, Saskatchewan. A trouble maker who seemed headed down the wrong path Bairu was led to track and field by a caring teacher in his early teens. He went on to win the provincial high school cross country championships earning a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. He would win two NCAA cross country titles for the Badgers and a record seven – so far – Canadian cross country championships.
Based in Portland, Oregon the world headquarters of his sponsor Nike Bairu has the benefits of a training group which includes Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan and former Wisconsin Badger Chris Solinsky, the US 10,000m record holder. With his track credentials and connections to Nike he could surely have chosen any number of fall marathons in which to attack the Olympic standard. Why then did he choose Toronto?
“I have been in contact with (race director) Alan (Brookes) for a while now,” he explains. “I think Toronto gives me and other Canadians the best opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. I know he is going to do everything he can to help us out in terms of rabbits and things.
“The course itself is nice and fast and, just being in Canada, it gives me that extra incentive having my family there watching. And the crowds have always been great watching in Canada. I think all that put together makes for a real special day and hopefully I can do some special things.”
As a full time athlete Bairu can afford little distraction. Each day begins at 8:00 a.m. with a drive out to the Nike campus where he runs with the group. Ninety minutes of strength conditioning, under the direction of former US Olympic steeplechaser Pascal Dobert, follows. Then it’s a healthy lunch either at the Nike cafeteria or at home before an afternoon nap. A second run precedes dinner and an early night.
One thing that Bairu makes time for is an association with the Portland Big Brothers organisation spending time with an 11 year old boy named Marcus.
“We usually hang out once a week,” says Bairu. “We will go watch movies to watch, There’s a lot of good kid movies out there. We might eat pizza and watch a movie at my place. Sometimes we go to arcades. He is really big into video games and he helps polish up on my skills on video games.”
He also reads when he has a spare moment admittedly jumping from book to book. On his coffee table currently are “Our Kind Of People” a history of elite African Americans by Otis Graham and “Night” a story on a holocaust survivor.
“It was a gift from an ex-girlfriend,” he says of the latter. ”It is heavy reading and very dark but what I like about it is that it’s a story of overcoming great odds. This man has experienced unspeakable horrors in his early life and yet he stands in triumph having beaten the odds. It kind of puts life and running into perspective for me.”
Although the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon has put up a Canadian Record bonus of $36,000 – $1,000 for every year that Jerome Drayton’s formidable time of 2:10:09 has stood – Bairu doesn’t see this as a motivator.
“My attitude with the record has always been the same- you can’t force the issue. It just comes to you,” he declares. “My goal right now is to make the Olympics. Nobody cares if I am on Canadian Record pace with a mile to go and then blow up and don’t make the team. My number one priority, not to sound cliche, is to make the team. But If I am feeling good in the race I am going to go after that record.”
Bairu is likely to ask for a pacemaker capable of taking him through the half way point in 65 minutes even. Then he will keep an eye on the clock as he chases the Olympic standard.
“I had a lot of problems after New York,” he admits, and I wanted to refresh mentally and physically and kind of put my eggs all in one basket and honestly if I can’t do it in Toronto well it wasn’t going to happen this year.”