“Canadian Olympian Headlines Sunday’s Banque Scotia 21k de Montreal,” by Paul Gains

Eric leading Dylan Wykes through The Beach, around 34km into Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2011, en route to his 2:11:28

Canadian Olympic marathoner Eric Gillis flies into Montreal Friday to contest the Banque Scotia 21k de Montreal as a tune-up for the London Olympics.

By no means does the 32 year old distance running star expect an easy time in Sunday’s race around Parc Jean Drapeau, however.

Gillis spent four weeks at a high altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona recently and the adjustment to sea level has been taking a little time. That has meant he has raced just once in 2012 – a 4th place finish in the Vancouver Sun Run April 15th in a time of 29:30.0. A year earlier he won that race in 29:06.

The man best equipped to challenge him Sunday, Toronto’s Matt Loiselle, finished 3rd on that occasion with a time of 29:17.8. Still, Gillis is one tough runner and is certainly confident in his fitness level.

“I feel like I have a better base (than last year) but I don’t feel as sharp right now,” Gillis revealed earlier this week. “I am not in as good 10k shape, but I have had more consistent training over the last four or five months than I did going into the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last year.

“I do have the confidence but a different confidence; less sharpness going into 10ks and half marathons, but more consistent training under my belt. I had a good race in Toronto, stayed injury free for the most part afterwards, and got in my training. I do feel confident going into London.”

The native of Antigonish, Nova Scotia is wise to respect Loiselle. Two years ago the Torontonian won the Banque Scotia 21k de Montreal and in 2011 he pushed Gillis’s training partner – and fellow Olympian – Reid Coolsaet to the finish along a windswept course. His familiarity with the route will be an advantage. Gillis sees this as a challenge.

“I have no time expectations,” Gillis declares. “I am focused more on getting back into a good routine with doing the little things, training and getting proper rest. Being home from Flagstaff I’m getting into a routine with my two year old daughter (Heidi) and my wife (Emily). I am taking on the parenting responsibilities again.

“In Montreal I am looking to get in another race so that when I get into marathon training in a couple of weeks I kind of already have those feelings ‘hey I have raced recently.’ Whereas if I don’t race it will have been a while.”

At stake is a Canada national half marathon title and the winner’s purse of $2,000 which will no doubt provide Loiselle with great motivation but for Gillis the Olympic marathon is the ultimate prize and one that he earned by racing to a 4th place finish in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October 16th.

His time of 2:11:28 there, under difficult weather conditions, easily beat the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:15:00. But Athletics Canada, in its quest for excellence, set a challenging standard of 2:11:29 for Canadians to chase. Gillis, Coolsaet and more recently, Dylan Wykes, who joined Gillis for a brief spell in Flagstaff, impressively achieved the standard. Now, for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games Canada, will have three athletes in the men’s Olympic marathon.

Until this week Gillis had been reluctant to talk about his Olympic berth and it’s no wonder.

Four years ago he beat the Olympic 10,000m qualifying standard and won the Canadian championship. He and his coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, believed he had done everything required to be named to the Olympic team. And, so he turned up at the post championship banquet along with the other Olympians only to be pulled aside by a national team coach. He was told he was not on the team.

The news devastated him. An exhausting appeal followed which resulted in him being added to the team as a “Rising Star.” The official announcement of his London Olympic place is to be made Thursday.

Though he is likely in the best condition of his life things haven’t progressed as smoothly as he would have liked. While training in Flagstaff he developed iliotibial band syndrome in his right leg which limited his workouts. Regular physiotherapy since then has corrected the problem and he says he is more comfortable with every passing day.

When he wasn’t busy training and getting therapy on his leg, Gillis partnered Coolsaet at a nearby pool table. The marathon pair took on the middle distance runners from Speed River Track Club including 2008 Olympic 1,500m runner Taylor Milne. Gillis laughs when he recalls the scenario.

“I made the mistake of making the comment “These teams aren’t fair,’” he says laughing. “I said ‘Reid and I are going to kick your butt.” And they beat us six in a row.”

It will be a more serious Eric Gillis who lines up Sunday. Although he is unsure of what to expect there’s no doubt that instinct will kick in. One doesn’t make the Olympic team without a large measure of competitiveness.

“I like to win,” he finally admits. “So yes, it’s important for me to win. If I don’t win and feel as good as I did in Vancouver I will be o.k. It’s getting to the point where I am starting to feel more in control of my runs and workouts.

“I have a good base under me and I have had some good workouts. It’s just that its been a few weeks since I have had them. The Vancouver Sun Run was a good workout. We will see how it goes in Montreal.”

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