On Sunday at The Marathon Project, Ben Preisner had a day most runners can only dream of. Lining up in his debut marathon, the 24-year-old Milton, Ont., native was largely overshadowed by the more experienced runners in the field — like Cam Levins and Jared Ward — but he ended up beating most of them, eventually running to a ninth-place finish in 2:10:17. This is the fourth-fastest time in Canadian history and well under the Olympic standard of 2:11:30, and it gives Preisner great odds to being named to the Canadian team for Tokyo 2021. We had an opportunity to speak to Preisner, the man who knew he had such a performance in his legs all along, about his remarkable marathon debut.
Re-evaluating during COVID-19
Preisner was set to run his first marathon in London in April, but then COVID-19 hit and the 2020 season was indefinitely put on hold. “I was feeling super fit coming out of the build, just before London got cancelled,” he says. The plan for the London Marathon was to hit Olympic standard. As the year progressed, though, so did his paces in training. Then, when the London Marathon eventually did get to run in October and fellow Canadian Tristan Woodfine ran 2:10:51, Preisner says he and his coach had to re-evaluate.
“We looked at what it was going to really take to make the Olympic team,” he says. Athletics Canada can name three men (and three women) to the Tokyo 2021 marathon team, and one spot already belongs to Trevor Hofbauer, who was named to Team Canada after winning the 2019 Canadian Marathon Championships in Toronto. When Woodfine also ran under Olympic standard in London, Preisner says he knew he had to shoot for more than just the bare minimum of sub-2:11:30 if he wanted the best shot at being named to the team.
Back in April, when London was first cancelled, Preisner ran a solo marathon. He had already dedicated so much time and effort to the marathon build that he decided to put his accumulated fitness to the test with a race simulation. He ran 2:15:24 for that solo time trial, and while this is an impressive debut by most standards, Preisner says he held back.
“I went out conservative, so I knew I had more in the tank,” he says. “Having run the distance at a pretty fast pace gave me confidence coming into The Marathon Project.”
Running The Marathon Project
There were two main pace groups at The Marathon Project: a 2:09 group and an Olympic standard group. Preisner says the plan was to start with the 2:09 pack and see how long he could hold that pace. “I was pretty confident in my training, and I thought I could get through a good 20 miles with that group,” he says. “It was just a matter of getting through 20 miles composed, and then going on damage-control for that last 10K.”
This plan worked out perfectly, and while Preisner didn’t exactly run with the lead group for most of the race, he was never more than 20 or 30 metres behind them, which was an intentional move on his part. “I went out with that 2:09 pace group with 10 or 15 guys,” he says, “but I didn’t feel the need to be in the middle of that group.” After about 10K, he dropped back, which gave him the opportunity to “zone out but stay focused,” he says, keeping steady with his pace but not worrying about bumping into his competitors.
“I think staying slightly off that group really helped me,” he says. “It was a big confidence booster to pick runners off as they dropped out of that group.” He ended up picking off a lot of the runners ahead of him, including fellow Canadians Levins and Rory Linkletter, and closing out in tremendous fashion to smash the Olympic standard.
Plans for 2021
With his run, Preisner gave himself a great chance at being named to team for the Tokyo Olympics, but he says he knows nothing is guaranteed just yet. “I’m happy I got that weight off my shoulders for the next few months so I don’t necessarily need to run a race,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if any other Canadians popped off a big time. So many guys will be looking for a race to run standard in the next few months.”
For now, though, Preisner is back home in Canada for his mandatory quarantine of two weeks upon return from the U.S., and he says this will be a great chance to unwind and refocus for 2021 — a year that could be the biggest of his athletic career to date.