How one local running figure executed his perfect marathon performance
A warm and humid May morning on Canada's west coast greets more than 17,000 runners toeing the line for the 2018 BMO Vancouver Marathon. Among them is coach, local favourite, and Canadian running scene legend, Rob Watson. The 2 x Canadian 3000m Steeplechase champion and 10 x sub-2:20 marathoner is jumping into the ring for the first time since the 2016 London Marathon —his last serious marathon attempt.
For two years Rob has focused on coaching other athletes with Canadian Olympian, and Mile2Marathon co-founder Dylan Wykes. In the process, Rob claims he "accidentally got into shape", and switched his spring training into a higher gear for today's race.
The days of chasing international qualifying times are behind Rob, and today is about "enjoying the ability to push myself through the marathon" in his adopted hometown. Rob has sub 2:20 aspirations, but with the hotter than expected morning, he really just wants the chance to let his competitive nature take over and to race.
And race he does.
Before the gun goes off however, Rob warms up amongst the other runners. Providing last minute instructions, hugs, high-fives, and encouragement to his athletes milling about the start area.
"I want to make sure they are ready to perform their best", Rob responds when asked if it puts him off prior to the race.
"I don't need to get too much into my box before the race. I'm a veteran. I've done enough of these".
A four person lead-pack strings out early through the streets of Vancouver neighbourhoods towards the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus. A two person race between Rob and Haron Kiptoo Sirma emerges before the nearly 100 M climb at the 9 KM mark known as BMO's Big Climb on Strava. A hill Rob trains on regularly as he lives only 6 KMs away.
"I wanted to have a gap on the uphills...and more than happy with Haron closing the gap on the downhills".
When Rob pulls away to a 35 second lead, he forces Kiptoo Sirma to hammer the downhills out of UBC to catch him into Jericho Beach, where more climbing awaits the two.
"I think him not knowing the course, that's what killed him".
Rob knows Haron is a strong runner and he has a game plan when he is told Haron is coming fast.
"He was trying to drop me, so I settled in. I didn't want him to get that mental advantage. That was some of the hardest I had to focus on the day. I knew he was trying to recover from his move, so I was trying to throw a counter on him". It works.
By the time Rob emerges from the shadows on the crest of the ironclad Burrard Street Bridge, he knows he accomplished his task of hurting Haron.
"I'm looking for Gen [Rob's fiancé] because she said she was going to be on that corner. I was feeling great at this point actually. I think, I know I'm going to win. It was a very positive point".
At the start of the Stanley Park Seawall near Second Beach, Rob receives confirmation from Dylan that his move works and he dropped Haron, who pulled off course. "This is when I started to feel it...I wanted to know if I have to keep pushing or if I can relax".
All that's left is a lonely 10KM run around the seawall. A route Rob — and every Vancouver runner —has run thousands of time. "I know this section too well" he admits.
"I'm miserable at this point. I know I am going to win the race...but at this point I didn't care. I hated it. I was exhausted"
As Rob crosses the finish line, he half heartedly manages to lift a fist in the air before collapsing with the tape wrapped up in his legs. There aren't immediate thoughts of joy and celebration in Rob's head across the line. He remembers thinking "Yes, fuck, it's done...relief feeling that water poured on my head"
Rob is immediately the focus of Genevieve as he sits down, helped by race support crew. The chaos of the finish line engulfs them, but they are connected. In constant contact. In this moment, the energy around us doesn't feel like it exists. It's just Rob and Gen. They earned this together. They fight it as long as they can, but race officials are eager to get Rob standing for interviews, and the energy of the situation rushes back in as Rob is whisked off.
To Rob's credit, within 6 minutes and 30 seconds from crossing the line he is walking about the finish area, accepting congratulations from everyone around, and sipping on a cold beer. Almost immediately, it's back to coach mode when Rob see's Tony Tomsich - fellow Mile2Marathon coach and training partner - walking toward him.
"I ran a 66" Tony exclaims with a smile you could see from a satellite. It's a huge PB in the half-marathon for Tony. "It caught me by surprise, and I was so happy...it brought me back into the whole 'now we can celebrate' mindset" says Rob.
Ice cream, beer, shopping, beer, lunch, beer, and more debriefs with PB'ing athletes comprises the rest of Rob's afternoon. Much like the pre-race warm up, Rob can't move 20 feet without running into his athletes and supporters. It's a literal celebration every step.
Despite all the international experience Rob has racked up over his career, this is Rob's first marathon victory. It's special to watch him celebrate with the entire Vancouver running community.
By the time the sun sets on the 2018 BMO Vancouver Marathon, Rob is laying down on a beach blanket in the shadow of the very bridge that sealed his victory—surrounded by close friends.
"It was kind of the perfect day. To be able to finish it on the beach, drinking beer, and hanging out with friends like I would be anyway. I was just part of the group. I love being a figure in the running scene, but it feels nice to just be Rob 'the guy' at this point"
Rob Watson, 2018 BMO Vancouver Marathon winner