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At her first Olympics in 2004, Canadian Malindi Elmore hoped she’d be back in 2008—and if all went according to plan, maybe in 2012, too. In 2021? It’s fair to say, for many reasons, that wasn’t on her radar.
But here she is, 17 years later, lining up for her second Games. She is not a 1500-meter runner anymore, however. This time Elmore, 41, is competing in the marathon on August 6 in Sapporo, Japan (where it will be August 7). Her goal is to finish in the top 10.
“I’ve had my best block of training ever,” Elmore said during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Tuesday, after completing her final workout near her home in Kelowna, British Columbia. “I’m fit, healthy, definitely ready to get on an airplane and start tapering now. I just need to get over the travel and get ready to execute.”
In between the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Tokyo Games, Elmore quit pro running (in 2012), gave birth to two sons who are now ages 7 and 3, and had a stint competing in professional triathlon, including the Ironman distance. In 2018, after her second child came along, she craved some alone time each day, but didn’t have the capacity for the many hours required of triathlon training anymore. So she gradually put in more miles until she was tempted to try a marathon.
In January 2019, Elmore lined up for her first try at racing 26.2 miles, at the Houston Marathon. At the time, she thought she was capable of finishing in 2:45 or so, but crossed the line in 2:32:09. That result rekindled her eternally competitive nature and she set a new goal of achieving the Olympic standard of 2:29:30. A year later she did better than that, finishing the 2020 Houston Marathon in a new Canadian record of 2:24:50.
“It’s been quite the journey,” said Elmore, who is also coach of the University of British Columbia Okanagan cross-country team. “I was standing next to my husband after my workout today—he’s coaching me and supporting me—and we just come back to being so grateful for where I’m at now. This is an unexpected chapter in my running career that came around in the last year or two that was never planned.”
She won’t be the only masters-age competitor on the line in Sapporo. Her Canadian teammate Natasha Wodak, 40, is racing with a personal best of 2:26:19. Sinead Diver of Australia, 44, has run 2:24:11, along with fellow Australian Lisa Weightman, 42, whose PR is 2:25:15. Johannes Helalia, 40, of Namibia finished the 2020 Valencia Marathon in 2:19.52.
Olympic officials moved the marathon events to Sapporo, which is about 500 miles north of Tokyo, because of concerns about extreme heat. The start is in Odori Park, where they’ll run two laps, then head into the streets of the city on a three-loop course before finishing back in the park. Spectators have been asked to refrain from attending because of COVID-19 concerns.
Elmore took some time before traveling to Japan to talk to Women’s Running about her comeback, training, and aspirations for her renewed career.
Women’s Running: What are the details of your training for the Tokyo Olympics? What did you do mileage-wise?
Malindi Elmore: In the last four weeks, I’ve pretty much averaged 100 miles [per week], which is really great for me. I haven’t traditionally been a high-mileage person. To be able to string four weeks together like that is really great. There are lots of different philosophies for marathon training, but our key sessions are once every eight to 10 days. They were a bit more frequent in this block because I did a 10K race on June 18—the Canadian 10,000-meter championships. Since then, I’ve done 4 x 6K and then a 40K run with a 20K fast finish around marathon pace. Today I did 10K, 7K, 3K. We cut off a little volume today because I’m ready and there’s not point in going over the top now. So our key sessions were aiming from 25K to 30K of work at marathon pace, with warmup and cool downs.
WR: Given that your second Olympic berth is a bit of a surprise, would you reflect on your unusual path to this moment?
ME: As much as I’m nervous and have high expectations for how I perform in Tokyo, I’m just trying to channel the gratitude of being able to do this again. I raced until 2012 on the track, in the 1500 meters primarily, and in Canada we’ve changed our [national team] selection process, but back then I didn’t make the team.
The criteria then meant that you had to run faster than the [World Athletics] standards. I was selectable and had made the standards…in 2008 Canada didn’t take anybody in the women’s distance events. It was devastating. It was so hard to work that hard and be competitive against other people competing at the Olympics and not be going. In the context of that, there was also a lot of doping going on and then I got a navicular stress fracture in 2007 and for about three years that really affected me. In 2012, I knew I had to step away for my mental health. I had classic signs of burnout and I wasn’t enjoying it in the same way anymore. I was ready to move on—I didn’t have regrets. I retired in 2012. The 1500 at the Olympic Trials was my final race.
Then I decided I was going to pursue other interests. I went back to university to get a teaching degree, started teaching, got into triathlon in a big way. I really wanted to start a family, so I had my first child in 2014. We were happy. I took my pro card in triathlon and it just seems to happen that I just can’t stop being competitive. I learned so much about endurance sports being a triathlete. I don’t think I’d be where I’m at in the marathon without having done that—fueling, mindset, and coming to terms with the long days. And it developed my aerobic system.
WR: OK, then you had your second son in 2018. What happened after that?
ME: I was ready to retire again, from triathlon, and just focus on my family. I didn’t train through my pregnancies or postpartum. I wasn’t in a rush to get back—I just wanted to return to being active and the next thing you know I’d be entered in a race. And then I’d get results that indicated I could do better. My son was born in June and in September I came home from a run with some of my friends who were training for the Chicago Marathon and told my husband I wanted to run it, too. He didn’t think I was ready. I wasn’t. But he put together a training plan for me to do Houston in January .
I ran 2:32:08 when the baby was six months old. We took him with us. I finished the race and it felt so easy. I loved the training. [Husband] Graham [Hood] and I looked at each other and said, “We’ve gotta go for the Olympic standard.” We just thought it was so funny. We were walking around Houston for six hours because we had a late flight and had checked out of our hotel room. We kept saying it would be so crazy if I could make the Olympics again.
WR: Having a family now in this new iteration of your running career, how does it influence your attitude?
ME: It’s everything. Once you have kids, that’s the priority. My life is very busy. The boys are very active. My husband said today, “We’ve got to get you on the plane,” because I’m the CEO of the household. I know where the swim suits are and what the activities are for the day. All the mom things you’ve got to do. My running gives me focus and breaks from the management and time with my kids. That’s why I was drawn back into sport after having both of them. I needed a break every day—an hour or so to myself to run or ride or swim.
But I draw a lot of inspiration from my kids. We all want to show our kids what’s possible and be the best role models. My kids have grown up seeing that. I’ll be missing them like crazy in Japan, but I’ll be thinking of them out there.
I think having a family has made me a better athlete in a lot of ways. I have to be a lot more disciplined about when I fit in my training. Some days I have to get up and get it done before my husband goes to work if I know that that’s the window for the day. Now I’ve often finished two runs by 2 p.m.
I’m at a place in my life now where I wouldn’t change anything. I had felt that tug that I wanted to have kids during the last few years of my running career. And I didn’t know if I had to push it off for another quadrennial if that would have been an issue. Now I get to do what I love to do—running and coaching—and I get to have my kids. I wouldn’t change anything. I’m approaching my running from a very happy place.
WR: A lot has been made of the rise of U.S. women’s distance running, but the Canadian women are also seeing much more talent and depth. What do you think accounts for the performances of your teammates?
ME: This is the first time that I can recall, without going too deep into the history of Canadian running, that we’ve sent three women in the 800, 1500, 5K, steeplechase, and marathon to the Olympics. And one in the 10K. In Rio, we sent two in the marathon. In other years we didn’t send anybody. So to have three deep in all these fields has been rare for Canada. We have a tenth of the population of the U.S. We’ve always been competitive with maybe our top runner against an American field, but maybe not three deep. I think we had five women break 15 minutes in the 5K this year. That’s legitimately competitive.
Once the momentum gets going and once people get to see what they need to do, they rise to the occasion. We’re really fortunate that we have really good support now from our national federation. We have great coaching and facilities. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be very competitive.
WR: How did COVID impact training there? And you personally—how did you cope?
ME: It was really, really hard for everyone, I’m sure. My kids came home that spring at one and five years old. My younger son is your proverbial crazy child. Like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles. I had him daycare three days a week and I wasn’t used to having him home 24/7, trying to keep him alive 24/7 [laughing]. It’s a full-time job. I coach and have flexibility, so like a lot of moms, a lot of the responsibility falls to the mom to manage in these times.
We were concerned that if my husband lost his job, then who’s paying the bills? There’s a lot of worry not just for your own situation, but your friends. The uncertainty of how bad it was going to be. Are we all going to lose our jobs? Are we all going to get sick and die? No one knew what was going on. I felt the stress and worry and having the kids home all day, so I just took a couple months off running. It just seemed like there were no races, a hamstring injury was starting to bother me again. It took adjusting to the new realities and COVID was a wakeup call to prioritize what’s important to us. About this time last year I was starting to feel like myself again, like I could get up and go run in the mornings. There just wasn’t the time and energy there had been to put into running for a while.
WR: So, now that you’re in the 40s and competing on the global stage again, how do you feel about people making issue of your age? Does it bother you or do you think it can serve as inspiration to others?
ME: I’m OK with it. Age is a number and I’m not taking personal judgement by it. It’s an objective fact about myself. In some ways it has given me reason for why I’m doing this. Maybe that’s why I so often wondered about when I was younger: What’s the purpose of what I’m doing? And now I feel like this matters to a lot of people. I’ve had so many people reach out to me and I know how powerful role models and stories are to make me want to well in life, not just in running. If that is meaningful and significant to other people, then I’m honored to serve that role right now. Part of it is my age and part of it is that I’m a parent. It’s all good. I’m not done yet anyways, so we can continue talking about it for a few more years.
WR: What are the key elements of training that are contributing to your longevity?
ME: My breaks have been super helpful. I had two pregnancies that were essentially a year off, then did a bulk of years of not a lot of running, but a lot of swimming and cycling. I don’t have the wear and tear on my body that I might have had I just pressed on. I don’t think I could have continued to train at this level for that long. Breaks, mentally and physically, are key.
I had a tendinopathy in my high hamstring in the fall 2019 that was a wakeup call to me. That’s something that comes on in your 30s and 40s. Since then I’ve done weights with a strength trainer twice a week for the last year. That wasn’t something I did as a middle distance athlete. I wasn’t very diligent or strategic in my strength training program. I feel healthier and stronger now than I ever have.
WR: Turning to the Olympics—the experience is going to be much different than your first for a lot of reasons, but mainly we’re all focused on the logistics you have to go through for COVID safety. How are you feeling about that?
ME: It was added stress last night when my negative COVID test came back not in the right format and without the right time and date. It’s a lot. The majority of the team is already in Japan so I’m following along on our team chat. I have a good idea that when we get there, they aren’t kidding around. We’re in quarantine. You really have to pack your patience and your resiliency.
For me at my age and life experience, I can go with the flow and not let those little things add up to big stressors. I can just do my best to be patient. I know that there will be times when a couple of deep breaths will be required, but hopefully I’ll be able to turn to that instead of getting frustrated.
WR: What’s a successful Olympic marathon for you?
ME: My incoming time is about 16th on the list. My goal is a top 10 performance. I look at how well the Americans did with three in the top 10 in 2016 and I don’t think that’s unrealistic for myself and Natasha. We could run those kind of performances. If I can execute the kind of race I did in Houston, that should put me in that kind of contention even in the heat and humidity. Other than that, if I do everything I should do with pacing, fueling, and hydration, and just executing the race I need to, that will be a success.
WR: Will your kids watch from home?
ME: My older son gets it. He’s super excited that mom is going to Japan for the Olympics and he has all his Canada gear. I don’t know if he has the attention span for a two-and-a-half-hour race. [My younger son] will be watching some sort of show on the iPad.
It’s a long ways off, but it makes me hopeful that maybe I can come back again in Paris [in 2024] and bring the kids with me.