Busy life can’t keep St. F.X. coach Eric Gillis from Boston Marathon

Busy life can’t keep St. F.X. coach Eric Gillis from Boston Marathon

By Monty Mosher

When you are capable enough to place 10th in the men's marathon at the Olympics in 2016, you probably don't dwell on your bucket list all that often.

But if Eric Gillis had one thing left to get done before he wraps up his career as an elite international road racer, the Boston Marathon would be it.

After two close calls in recent years, the 38-year-old Antigonish native and current St. Francis Xavier cross country and track and field coach is days away from getting his wish.

The three-time Olympian, healthy and strong to start 2018, will be part of the professional field for the 122nd Boston Marathon on April 16. He will be joined in the race by fellow Canadian Olympian Reid Coolsaet, his long-time training partner in Ontario.

Coolsaet has the second-fastest time for a Canadian in a marathon at 2:10:28. Gillis, who moved from Ontario to his native province late last summer to become the heir to retiring X-Men coach Bernie Chisholm, has a 2:11:21 on his resume.

As an added benefit for Gillis, Chisholm will join him in Boston. Chisholm ran the race decades ago.

More than 30,000 runners, dozens from Nova Scotia, will run the famed 42.2-kilometre course from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in the heart of the city.

Gillis always planned to continue running after the Rio Olympics, where he produced a 2:12:29 in humid conditions, vowing he would run at least one more marathon.

Despite making the shift to coaching at his alma mater, which necessitated buying a home and moving his family -- as well as adopting a horse on the property -- he trained to compete in last year's world championships in London. That didn't end well as he was felled by his stomach ailment, one that plagued many athletes at the competition, in the second half of the race.

Even with the addition of a third child to the family shortly after the move, Gillis found a way to make time for his training through the fall and winter even with all of the other new duties that demanded his attention.

"It's just another thing to do, and try to do well," Gillis said of his busy life. "It has been challenging, but I'm highly motivated. It's a lot easier to be busy when you enjoy what you're doing. I've been enjoying the coaching and the running and being in Antigonish with the family."

Motivation is one thing, but slotting in all of those hours to bang the pavement is another.

He has to be home in the morning to help get his children ready for the day ahead, then might have responsibilities at the university.

"Then you have to decide if you can get one or two runs in. If it is one then it is going to be longer. I don't enjoy that as much. I really like my old routine for running at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and just knowing that's what I'm doing every day.

"But when I'm at the university with athletes, or in meetings, I'm really enjoying that. And I want to do that. That's why I came here. So I'm figuring it out as I go. It's not as optimal, but I'm making it work."

Gillis was a four-time all-Canadian runner at St. F.X. He competed in his first Olympics in Beijing in 2008 in the 10,000 metres, placing 33rd.

Two years later, he switched to marathon running, qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London. He placed 22nd in intense heat in a time of 2:16:00.

He planned to run the Boston Marathon in 2013 but came down with a hip injury while attending a winter training camp in Kenya.

The second opportunity was to be last spring. He ran the New York half-marathon in March and followed up shortly after by completing a training run over much of the Boston course. But a sore Achilles tendon kept him out of action on race day.

Gillis ran New York again last month, clocking 1:05:42 to finish 19th overall. He was the fastest in the 35-39 age class.

Boston is the drawing card. It has always had a special attachment for Nova Scotians, maybe because of proximity and maybe because Cape Breton native Johnny Miles won it in 1926 and 1929.

Gillis remembers watching it on television back in high school. As far as he can remember, it was the only marathon he ever got to see.

"No, Boston, for sure," Gillis said of his attraction to the race. "It would probably have worked out better if I had chosen Ottawa, which is later. That would be more sensible. But I chose Boston because it is Boston. And it gets me out the door."

He was drawn in by the aura of the Boston event, the crowds along the course and at the finish line. If he was ever to run a marathon, this would certainly be the one to pursue.

"It was something a lot of people knew about and watched. I remember watching it and I don't remember watching any other marathon at that age. So that kind of stuck in the back of my head."

Many recreational runners have long told him Boston is their inspiration, the motivation to put the work in over the long winter months.

"That's intriguing to me. I've never been there on the Boston race weekend. People call it magical. I'd like to experience that. If I've been a marathon runner for this long I might as well do it while I'm still doing it seriously."

He'll race to be around at the finish line, not for time. But it will be no fun run. He's been formulating a race plan and if he can bring it off the results should follow.

"I don't make predictions. I just have to stay dialled in to what the process is and not think too much about the outcome.

"I can hope for a top-10. I haven't run it before and it is a unique course so it is hard to say a time. But I'd like to come down the last kilometre and be curious what my time will be. I think it is going to be a good one."



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