A distraught Simon Bairu struggled to explain what went wrong on Sunday morning. The Regina marathoner, who trains with the Nike Project in Portland, Oregon, was sixth in the Houston Marathon in 2:19:52 — nowhere near the Canadian Olympic standard of 2:11:29.
“I’m crushed right now,” the 29-year-old Bairu said with tears streaming down his face. “I pictured myself at the Olympics in the marathon. I’m not giving up on this. Eventually I’m going to get it.”
Near perfect conditions of around 9 C and calm winds provided a sense of hope. But some erratic pacing in the early stages may have cost the runner a berth on the Olympic team.
He split the half-marathon in 1:05:11, but Bairu was already fading by that point. The first of his pacers, Tim Nelson, didn’t last long, dropping out before 15K. Bairu’s other pacer, Andrew Bumbalough, took him to 25K, where they remained on pace for the 2:11:29 standard.
Bumbalough stuck with the pace-making duties for 10K longer than expected, but after he was gone, Bairu had no others around him and couldn’t regain the tempo of the early miles.
“For someone who has never finished a marathon coming into this, expecting to run the last 10 miles at 5-minute pace by myself, wasn’t going to happen. I tried my best but it was just too tough. I just couldn’t do it,” Bairu said.
“I’m not good enough right now to do the last 10 miles by myself right now. That just killed me.”
Bairu will now take a couple of weeks off, before regrouping for a run at the 10,000m standard of 27:45 at the Payton Jordan meet in California in April. At the same event in 2010, Bairu set the Canadian record for the distance in 27:23.68.
Bairu still plans a return to the marathon, saying he wants to be a marathoner for the next six to eight years.
“I really wanted the marathon. My heart was in the marathon. I know deep down I’m a marathoner. Despite these days, I still believe I’m going to be a marathoner.”
Since Bairu ran the 10,000m record and finished 12th at the world cross-country championships in 2010, he has struggled in many races, including his marathon debut in New York City, 14 months ago. He collapsed at 33K of that race, raising questions about his ability to be a top marathoner.
Determined to fix those problems, Bairu and coach Jerry Schumacher revised their fuelling strategy, and ran more mileage at goal marathon pace. He was supposed to run against Canada’s top marathoners Reid Coolsaet, Eric Gillis and Dylan Wykes at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last fall. Just weeks before the race, Bairu pulled out, citing fatigue.
Coolsaet and Gillis both ran under the Canadian Olympic standard at the race.
Bairu said he never considered dropping out of Houston, even when the race started to unravel in the final 15K.
“I knew at the halfway point it was going to be tough. I was kind of digging already.”
“I was in denial until about 3 miles to go, I just kept thinking I was still on pace. I wasn’t really paying attention to the clock or anything and 3 miles to go, it just kind of hit me.”
While he couldn’t explain what happened — unlike New York it wasn’t a fuelling issue — he stood by his training, which included three-hour runs and a 24-mile long run.
“Everything I did in training indicated that I could get the standard,” Bairu said. “It wasn’t like I had to pull something special to get the standard.”
It’s been a banner season for Schumacher’s female marathoners — both Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher qualified for the U.S. Olympic team on Saturday. But the men have had some issues. Brent Vaughn didn’t finish the U.S. Trials race and Tim Nelson withdrew, choosing instead to help with Bairu’s pacing.
Bairu is especially popular among his teammates, and Flanagan said he plays a key role in keeping the group’s spirits up. With the 29-year-old athlete now dealing with one of the toughest defeats of his career, it seems he’ll need their support more than ever.
“You dedicate so much of your energy, of your emotion to one race, you picture yourself going to the Olympics and doing these great things. When it doesn’t work out, it’s tough to swallow,” he said.
Prior to the race, Schumacher said no matter what happens, he believes Bairu will emerge a better marathoner from this experience. The question remains did the effort take too much of a toll on the athlete, as he prepares to turn his attention to the track.