Guelph running community has character, passion and Olympic dreams
Story by Andrew Vowles
Cook’s Mill Road, southeast of Guelph. Backlit by a late afternoon sun, the runners lope over a hill, slender and long-legged as gazelles. They descend the gravel hill and pause where Dave Scott-Thomas, coach of the Gryphon cross-country and track and field team, is waiting. Running at a relaxed pace, the group has arrived here from the parking oval in front of the University’s Athletics Centre. That’s about five kilometres: far enough for the runners to have shaken out the cares of the day and loosened their limbs for their afternoon training session.
For the next few minutes, the team goes through a series of what Scott-Thomas calls creatine-phosphate runs: short uphill bursts, first women, then men, as if the gazelles had spotted a predator and fled en masse to higher ground. At the top of the slope, the runners turn and amble back down, recovering. But then one of them spots that carnivore again at the bottom, gives a secret signal and leads the herd off once more. After several reps, they trot off at a more leisurely pace, this time to vanish down the road. They will spend the next 90 minutes or so logging today’s requisite mileage on the back roads that carve up this section of Puslinch Township.
It seems like a long distance from Cook’s Mill Road to the Olympic Games in London this summer. But “distance” is a relative term for these elite members of the Speed River Track and Field Club centred around Scott-Thomas’s varsity program at U of G. The group includes two marathoners already qualified for London 2012 and several other Olympic prospects who were chasing their own qualifying times this spring.
Reid Coolsaet, B.Comm. ’02, cracked the marathon qualifying time of 2:11:30 during the 2010 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon; last fall, he finished third at the same event with a personal best of 2:10:55. Last year’s race in Toronto also saw Speed River teammate Eric Gillis earn a spot by running one second under the mark. This will be the second Olympic appearance for Gillis, who ran the 10-kilometre race in Beijing in 2008. It’s been 12 years since a Canadian appeared in the Olympic marathon, and now two Guelph runners will line up in London this summer.
Gryphon head coach, Dave Scott-Thomas
Ten years ago, Gillis was training at St. Francis Xavier University in his home province of Nova Scotia. He and Coolsaet were Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) competitors then but already teammates at international events like the 2002 World Student Games held in Sain; both represented Canada that year, with Scott-Thomas as coach.
Other Guelph prospects in middle and long distances were still aiming for Olympic qualifying times when The Portico went to print. By mid-April, Kyle Boorsma, B.Sc. ’11, was preparing for a five-kilometre race in Los Angeles near the end of the month. He needed to hit the Olympic standard there and finish in the top three at a national meet in Calgary in late June.
Taylor Milne, a 1,500-metre specialist, was also looking for a qualifying time at meets beginning in late April. Now 30, Milne moved to Guelph after finishing school in North Carolina. This would be his second Olympics as well.
Genevieve Lalonde placed sixth in the 3,000 metres at the world juniors in 2010 and is the second-fastest Canadian steeplechaser ever. A third-year U of G student in environmental sciences, she also needed to earn an Olympic berth by qualifying at meets beginning in late April. “I love running,” she says. “Getting to go to the Olympics is amazing.”
Also in the 3,000-metre steeplechase is Alex Genest. A transfer from the University of Sherbrooke, he is in his fourth year of applied nutrition. “It’s an amazing group of people,” says Genest, whose cousin Sonia Paquette ran the 100-metre hurdles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Everybody’s trying for the same goal: to get better.” By March, Genest had his requisite Olympic qualifying time and needed to hit B standards in a couple of races this spring.
Middle-distance runner Hilary Stellingwerff was also looking for an Olympic ticket. Her 13th-place finish at the 2007 world championships set her up for London, but she also needed to compete in races this spring. Originally from Sarnia, Ont., she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her husband and training adviser is Trent Stellingwerff, a 2006 Guelph PhD graduate in exercise physiology who was a two-time All-Canadian runner with the Gryphs and is a former assistant coach.
By mid-March, several of those runners were away at meets or training; a week later, the elite team would leave Guelph for a month’s worth of high-altitude training in Arizona. But today at least, many members of what’s considered to be Canada’s best running club are doing what they’ve been doing for years — logging the requisite distance on and around Cook’s Mill Road. Says Scott-Thomas: “There’s nowhere else in the country where people of that talent are running up and down a dirty hill.”
Talent? There’s no dispute. U of G claims the most successful cross-country program among Canadian universities, having captured the most CIS cross-country banners: 19 in all, 11 men’s titles and eight women’s. Last fall, the Gryphon women’s team won its seventh CIS title in a row, and the men’s team, its sixth.
On the track, both the men’s and women’s teams won silver at the 2012 CIS championships. Those teams have medalled repeatedly since 2007/2008, when both men and women won the CIS championships. That was the first national track and field title for both Gryphon teams and the first time in CIS history that one institution swept both titles in the same year.
If Gryphon runners are decorated, so is their coach. Since arriving at Guelph in 1997, Scott-Thomas has won 24 Coach of the Year awards from Ontario University Athletics and 21 from CIS. Besides turning around U of G’s running program in that time, he created the Speed River Track and Field Club for student and local runners; it’s now considered the most successful club in the country. Guelph is also home to one of three National Endurance Centres in Canada developing future Olympians.
Assistant Gryphon coach Chris Moulton, B.Comm. ’05 and a former middle-distance Gryphon, says Scott-Thomas has a lot to do with all that success. “He’s built a really strong environment here. His understanding of people — that’s what he does better than anybody else.”
There’s more at stake here than medals and Olympic glory. Yes, these are superbly conditioned athletes, says Moulton, but they’re part of a community of ordinary human beings. Adds Scott-Thomas: “The fact that, for us, it’s running is almost irrelevant. It’s about pursuing something to a higher level.” Medals and championships are great, he says, but that “something” is a running culture he measures in ways other than hardware and titles.
Arriving from Victoria to his alma mater in 1997, Scott-Thomas took over a program with almost no resources or budget. Perhaps the most important thing he did was to look beyond the campus borders to launch the club program. He now works with a support staff of about 20 specialists in massage and physiotherapy, nutrition and mental skills. “We went from a non-existent low-resource group to getting good to becoming one of the best ever.” Last fall, a story in the Globe and Mail ran beneath the headline: “Is Guelph Canada’s Fastest City?”
Today the Speed River club boasts about 180 runners, including some 80 varsity members. Jeff Haller coaches the club’s 19-and-unders, numbering about 40 athletes. He also coached with the Gryphons until 2007, when he decided to focus on the club juniors and his own school-teaching career in Cambridge, Ont.
About half of those juniors live in Guelph; the rest come from Oakville, Milton, Georgetown, Cambridge and other places. Four of Haller’s own “graduates” are now U of G varsity athletes. “Dave’s group creates quite a buzz, which causes people to come from all over,” says Haller, a former cross-country and 1,500- and 3,000-metre track specialist with the University of Windsor. “Dave’s passion is something that you notice within the first couple of minutes of meeting him. He’s very assuring; his mannerisms allow you to believe.”
Guelph is also now home to the Canadian Centre for Running Excellence, a not-for-profit group working to promote running in the city and area. Chair John Marsden credits Scott-Thomas with being the “connective tissue” among people and groups in the city: “He’s one of the best community builders Guelph has ever seen.” Marsden organizes the Guelph Victors recreational running club, whose more than 200 members are based at the track at St. James Catholic High School. They range in age from elementary schoolers to seniors. Members Christina Clark, B.Sc. ’99 and M.Sc. ’02, and David Brooks, M.Sc. ’98, have finished among the top 50 Canadian marathoners in recent years.
The club is named for the late Victor Matthews, a longtime U of G classics professor and a former Gryphon coach who led the team to numerous championships. He was inducted into the Gryphon Club Hall of Fame in 1996.
Marsden relied on Scott-Thomas’s connections and reputation in leading a grassroots fundraising drive this year for a new international-calibre track and field facility at U of G’s Alumni Stadium. That campaign sparked donations from elite athletes, community members, alumni, friends and businesses. It took just over a week to raise $1 million to build an eight-lane facility for certification by the International Association of Athletics Federations. That project will be part of a multimillion-dollar overhaul of Alumni Stadium.
On a couple of days, the campaign received $100,000 without a major donor. On another day, Coolsaet pledged $10,000 of his winnings from the Scotiabank marathon in Toronto last year. Running groups and businesses have also donated, including Angus GeoSolutions Inc. in Georgetown, Ont., which gave $150,000. Scott-Thomas says it was “a crazy week,” one that actually began years ago. “It took me 15 years to get to one week. It was one week but a lifetime of connections; a lot of people contributed to believe in the program and the dream.”
What does that dream look like? Simple, he says: a town that runs. “There’s something powerful in what the group does that resonates with the community. I can drive from my house to here and pass 50 runners. This is becoming a running town. We’ve had hundreds of different people coming together to support this; it really is a giant spectrum we’ve tapped into.”
On its own, that new track on campus won’t produce the next Olympic runner; after all, Scott-Thomas has done just fine without it. But he says the new facility will help in attracting attention and recruits, as well as allowing the University to host internationally sanctioned meets. For all the local success, recruiting is still a scrap pitting varsity and club programs from across North America. “I work as hard as ever at that,” he says.
One new recruit, Hamilton’s Anthony Romaniw, had started at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire but returned to Canada earlier this year. Weighing both U of G and the University of Victoria, he had emailed Scott-Thomas and received a prompt reply outlining Guelph’s approach and program and where an 800-metre specialist might fit. “He gave me the best email a coach could give in that situation,” says Romaniw. “We were on the same page. He has some sort of energy about him. There’s a good mix of laid-back and aggressive about him — it’s kind of hard to explain.”
The human kinetics transfer will become eligible to compete for Guelph next fall. Meanwhile, he’s joined that growing herd of gazelles at Cook’s Mill Road, rebuilding his program with his new coaches to run more efficiently and with more power. His goal is a shot at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016.