Q&A with Rachel Cliff after standout NYC Half performance

Rachel Cliff mixes it up with some of the sport's biggest names at the United Airlines NYC Half on Sunday.

Rachel Cliff
Rachel Cliff
Photo: Oscar Barillas.

Vancouver’s Rachel Cliff vaulted into elite half-marathon company in Canada thanks to her three-minute personal best at the United Airlines NYC Half.

The 28-year-old, who is currently unsponsored, ran 1:12:07 in Manhattan on Sunday finishing eighth overall in a stacked field. It was her second career half-marathon with her debut, a 1:15:04, coming back in 2014 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Vancouver Half-Marathon. The University of Guelph and University of British Columbia graduate planned on running the Vancouver ‘First Half’ Half-Marathon in February but weather forced the cancellation of that event.

RELATED: Full NYC Half race recap.

Instead, Cliff got a coveted spot in the elite NYC Half women’s field and was part of the more than 20,000 runners who took part in the popular event. Her 1:12:07 ranks her as the fifth athlete, unofficially, on the Athletics Canada all-time rankings for an “open” half-marathon (excluding downhill or point-to-point courses). Lanni Marchant, who finished in 1:13:49 in NYC in the same race, holds the Canadian half-marathon record at 1:10:47. Among the big names that Cliff defeated in the Big Apple is Caroline Rotich, the 2015 Boston Marathon champion.

The performance comes after a strong 2016 in which she ran 5,000m and 10,000m personal bests but was not named to Canada’s Olympic 5,000m team because she finished outside the top-two at nationals. Though the top two spots meant automatic qualification, granted the qualifying mark had been met, a third athlete could have been added to the Olympic roster. Athletics Canada opted not to send Cliff to Rio.

“The hardest part of that was knowing how fit I was,” Cliff says. “Psychologically, I knew when I got back to training I was where I belonged again. For a while, it was about dealing with those demons. I’ve been fortunate to have good people around.”

Rebounding from that adversity, Cliff had a strong start to 2017 having represented Canada internationally as recently as the NACAC Road Race Cup in Puerto Rico. She adds a strong half-marathon best to her resume that already includes a 15:28.60 5,000m and 32:21.98 10,000m.

RELATED: Feyisa Lilesa continues to protest home government, this time at NYC Half.

Canadian Running caught up with Cliff for a brief chat to chat NYC Half strategy, possibly moving up to the marathon and how the half-marathon slots in with the 5,000m and 10,000m.

Canadian Running: Did you hit your goals and/or expectations?

Rachel Cliff: I had no real expectations as the only other half-marathon I’ve run was a few years ago. It was different as this was truly an elite field. Time-wise, I wanted to go under 72:30. I had a sense of where I was at during the race and they had splits throughout the course. I did a lot of tempo work ahead of this race and coach [Richard] Lee and I agreed on a time I shouldn’t be faster than in terms of pacing. I erred on the side of caution and figured it was better to negative split.

CR: What were the road conditions like? How did the race play out?

RC: The road conditions were great, the city cleared any remaining snow/slush but it was windy and chilly. The lead pack was together through the first mile and notably picked up the pace from there. I could have gone with them but didn’t want to do anything stupid at that point. Once we got out of Central Park I began to pick people off and did so for the remainder of the race.

How did you decide, specifically, to race the NYC Half? Any talk of doing a marathon?

It [the NYC Half] looked really fun. I was originally going to do the Vancouver First Half [but that race was cancelled]. The timing for NYC was perfect, I only heard good things from others and it seemed like a fun excuse to go to New York City. I think the half-marathon is a smart area to focus on but I’m going to keep doing the 5,000m and 10,000m as that’s the type of athlete I am. In terms of doing the marathon, I haven’t given it much thought.

Did you run with Lanni Marchant (pictured below) during the race? Did you talk strategy beforehand?

We were together for about half the race. We wished each other good luck before the start but didn’t chat during the race itself.

RELATED: Why I retired after the Olympics and unexpectedly became a trail runner.

What did race morning look like for you? What else will you be doing on your NYC trip?

Last night I went to bed really early and of course couldn’t fall asleep. This morning, I woke up at 4 a.m., had breakfast and two cups of coffee (usually one) and then got ready to head out. Three hours before race time is when race morning begins. My brother and his partner, my husband (Chris Winter), and my parents came to watch. After the race, I went to the World Trade Centre memorial (the National September 11 Memorial). Makes you think a lot. Later tonight I’m meeting up with a friend for dinner.

Editor’s note: Cliff’s 5K splits (5K, 10K, 15K, 20K) were: 17:14, 17:08, 16:51 and 17:06.