Eric Gillis is quietly sitting in the kitchen of his new home on a remote dirt road off Nova Scotia’s Trunk Highway 7. The two-bedroom duplex sits on a side of the 20 acres of land it shares with a makeshift barn. Dividing the two structures is a long, windy, dirt driveway that adds 400m each way to his daily runs.
The time is 9 p.m., and his wife Emily has just put their third child, three-month-old Callum, to sleep. For the first time today, Canada’s most consistent elite men’s marathoner hears no noise, and is reconciled with his thoughts. The household’s bleakness in the evening is juxtaposed with its daytime cacophony as Gillis’ calm demeanour contrasts with his disorderly new life schedule.
“It gets busy here,” he states in a hushed tone. “We have three kids, a horse, three cats and a dog. We had nine chickens at some point.”
His family has grown since the three-time Olympian packed his bags and moved back to his hometown of Antigonish, N.S. in July from from Guelph, Ont. He’s in his first year as a coach at his alma mater, St. FX University, and is learning the ropes from his former cross-country coach, Bernie Chisholm, who is in his final year of coaching. “My supposed role with the cross-country team this year was just to be an observant,” states the 10th-place finisher in the marathon at the 2016 Olympics.
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Chisholm, a St. FX hall of fame member and 17-time AUS champion, was thrilled to acquire Gillis. He had set the stage for Gillis’ arrival to be as transitional and painless as possible by guiding him through day-to-day coaching duties and being available to answer any questions. Though Gillis was already invested in his own training and family life, surely he would have time to help out and slowly grow into a coaching role. The job appeared foolproof: St. FX’s most successful cross-country athlete learning to coach from St. FX’s winningest athletics coach. Pretty simple.
But, fate had other plans. “As I came in,” remembers Gillis, “it turned out that St. FX had no jump and sprint-specific track coaches.” Chisholm immediately asked Gillis to step up. “Like that, I became the sprint and jumps coach – though I would call myself more of a facilitator,” he notes. “I guided athletes through practices for a couple of weeks and, with the help of our seniors and our strength and conditioning coach, Khyl Orser, we have been making it work. I am getting to know the other events of track and field, and I am willing to get stronger at them.”
Chisholm realizes that Gillis’ role had broadened without warning, but he was confident that his co-coach would be able to take on the challenge. “I knew he would do an excellent job no matter what I asked of him,” Chisholm says. “Because of his background, he had the respect of all the athletes from the start. Eric will do a great job and I have full confidence that our program will continue to get stronger going forward.”
The track and field team practices on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, Gillis was in his element at cross-country practice. But, instead of supervising practice like he had planned, he took on a more active role. “At the start of the year, I would go watch cross-country workouts, but it became difficult to juggle that with my own running and sprint and jump practices. So I started working out with the cross-country team.” The athletes were in for a treat. Gillis began pushing the top X-Men to faster intervals, and even paced them in races.
For Angus Rawling and Alex Neuffer, the AUS [Atlantic University Sport] cross-country gold and silver medallists, the situation was perfect. “Having someone to chase on a few key workouts absolutely made a difference when it came to important races,” says Neuffer. “He is not a loud guy, but constantly provides useful insight about breathing and form that has helped me a lot in races.” Neuffer, a fifth-year runner who has dealt with injuries during most of his varsity career credits Gillis for helping him make little modifications in his training that has permitted him to race healthy and better than ever.
Likewise, Rawling partly credits his new training partner for his career-best 10th-place finish at the U Sports Championship. “I had some nagging injuries early into the season, and then a fall at the end of September in training. In the past couple of years, I would have let those setbacks go to my head,” Rawling admits. “Eric helped me position my thoughts towards getting ready for the next race. Ultimately, I think his help permitted me to place well at U Sports, despite having a far-from-perfect season leading up to it.”
Similarly, Gillis developed a liking to his newest training partners. “Angus and Alex, even though they are still in university, are very wise runners. It is evident that they have been around the running culture for quite some time. Along with Paul [MacLellan, AUS sixth-place finisher], they compliment each other well and, in their presence, I pick up great vibes. It has been quite a good setup for me.”
Being away from his old training grounds and partners does not faze Gillis. “When I went to Kenya to train a few years ago, I realized that no matter where you go, you are always in control of your effort – how you run. Despite the change in setting and training partners, running stays the same. It’s about managing effort on a day-to-day basis, putting prep in setting up workouts, and maintaining a good routine. Whether that happens in Guelph or Antigonish, it’s similar.”
Gillis is not bluffing. The 37-year-old has not let a busier coaching schedule nor a change in scenery slow him down. He finished second at the Canadian Cross-Country Championships, and he is now gearing up to race the Boston Marathon for the first time in April. He had planned to debut at the historic race last year, but had to withdraw due to an Achilles injury. He is still adapting, however, to his new lifestyle. “I am learning how to train lots while being busy,” he explains. “After Rio, I immediately chose to run the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, because I wanted to teach myself how to train with lots on my plate… and even if I end up not being able to train as much in this buildup, maybe my body will benefit from running less mileage.”
In the event that family, coaching, and adaptation to his new home does end up spreading him thin, it will not be time lost. “Everything I’ve done this fall has been something I wanted to be doing,” he says. “It has been great to make the move (to Antigonish). Taking on a new professional experience has also been nice.” He is looking forward to growing into his new role as St. FX’s head coach once the 2018-19 season kicks off. “I like what I am doing – progress is addicting.”