Olympic steeplechaser Alex Genest is there stretching. He’ll join Gillis for a five-kilometre warmup, but for the next 22 kilometres — known as a fartlek session, mixing speed work with short intervals of moderate pace and cool down — he’ll have to do it alone.
There’s that old aphorism about solitary distance runners but that’s not Gillis, at least not if he can help it. He runs about 7,000 kilometres a year and says he’s happiest when someone is in stride beside him.
On this day in late September, regular marathon training partner Reid Coolsaet is in Berlin, where he cemented his Rio Olympic qualification with a 2:10:29 finish, the second-fastest marathon ever run by a Canadian.
Gillis’ best chance to join Coolsaet in Rio and become a three-time Olympian comes in Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The Olympic standard is 2:12:50. Gillis ran a minute and a half faster than that on this course last year, so he’s expecting to qualify.
But Gillis says he won’t even try to break the Canadian record of 2:10:09, which has stood for an astonishing 40 years. Without a Rio qualifier in the bag, chasing that mark is too big a risk, even with a $ 40,000 bonus on the line.
That’s why Gillis is running country road loops, passing a plastic table with a row of five bottles at regular intervals. Each bottle holds a couple of mouthfuls of a carbohydrate drink to refuel. Gillis doesn’t need that much for this workout, but he’s practising. A marathoner leaves nothing to chance.
Grabbing a bottle off a table while running isn’t as simple as it sounds. (In one race he zoned out for a couple of seconds and missed entirely.) Once in hand, he has to drink it without slowing down. That also takes practice.
For all the thousands of kilometres he runs, Gillis only has one or two chances a year to peak for a marathon. He’s run just seven since the first in 2010, and though he isn’t sure exactly how many more he’ll do, he knows each one has to count.
“I used to think my body would take care of itself, it would either run well or it wouldn’t . . . and it wasn’t so much in my control,” Gillis says, thinking back to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when he ran the 10,000 metres. “Now, I’ve been running for so long I realize I am in control of how it goes more than I thought.”
Success in a marathon, particularly in the final 12.2 kilometres, takes far more than just physical excellence. “It’s big-time mental,” Gillis says. “You absolutely cannot fake a marathon. There is no being just mentally strong. But once you put in the physical work of training, a big part is believing in yourself and executing properly.”
Gillis has to maintain good form, physically and mentally, despite pain. Just like the refueling regimen, he practises replacing bad thoughts with good ones — though not the ones you might expect. There’s no daydreaming about donuts or massages for Gillis.
“Those things are too far away,” he says, laughing. “The real positives, like I’m going to have a beer after the race, you might think of it once during the race but it’s too far away and too external to be able to use it for much good. I look forward to checking out the next kilometre split. It’s something to get to. Or, if my shoulders relax, that’s a positive.
On Sunday, if everything Gillis can control goes as planned and the weather is kind, that thought will come before the race clock hits two hours and 11 minutes, securing a personal best and a strong Rio qualifying time.