27-year-old Tristan Woodfine did an extraordinary thing this month: he qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games by running the Olympic Standard at the elite-only London Marathon. Woodfine, who began his career as a triathlete and trained in Kenya at the start of the year, coming home only when COVID-19 began making the news, is a hard worker with a high pain threshold and a humble disposition. It’s a combination of his ability to pivot and refusal to quit that has earned him an Olympic berth.
“When you’re a kid, winning feels good and I enjoyed training, but a lot of the drive came from winning; then, as I matured as an athlete, it’s evolved to the point where I probably enjoy the training and process more than racing,” says Woodfine, who had run five marathons before hitting his 2:10:51 in London (a PB, but B goal nevertheless). “I still love to compete or I wouldn’t be doing this, but I’ve become much more process driven. It’s more about trying to make myself better as opposed to always just trying to win.”
Talking to Woodfine, I felt myself not wanting to let him off the phone. He’s a nice guy and he’s open and carefully considers everything and has a no BS grinder’s mentality that is common among Canadian distance stars. There also just hasn’t been that much good running news lately. I used to love interviewing our sports stars each time they crossed some historic milestone. Cam Levins broke the 43-year-old Canadain men’s marathon record in 2018; at STWM last October, Dayna Pidhoresky and Trevor Hofbauer qualified for the Olympics; Malindi Elmore, at 39, broke Rachel Cliff’s marathon record in January 2020. For a while, it seemed that records were falling every day like dominoes and that each new event bred another humble new running star. Well, we all know what happened next—races were cancelled and the Olympics were postponed and all I could cover were health updates and virtual events. Tristan Woodfine qualifying to run the marathon for his country is the feel-good story of our feel-bad year.
“At the end of the day, running is often cruel and there’s a lot more lows and downs than highs,” Woodfine says. “I think the most important thing is to find that happiness, gratitude and joy in the process of training. When you run, try and better yourself.”
Bettering himself has been an ambition since he was a triathlon star in his teens. Woodfine says that he didn’t know what would happen when he returned from Kenya or when he would race next. But he didn’t want to let his altitude training go to waste. He was always scheduled to race at the London Marathon. The world, however, was a different place when he returned home with his fiance to the Ottawa Valley. One thing he knew for certain was that he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Instead, he pivoted his training plans and tried to capture joy in his process.
“Kenya was a very big time and financial investment, so I decided to keep the training momentum going. If anything, we increased the training between April and June,” says Woodfine, who also recounts that his big Kenyan learning was not to sweat the small stuff.
He says he ran on dirt tracks in less than ideal situations and that Rift Valley athletes didn’t worry about making time adjustments. The point was to hit the effort level and get in the workout, and Woodfine brought that home with him for his COVID-19 training. Back at home and facing uncertainty, he took off his watch and ran by feel.
“Everything was based on effort and I could feel myself getting really fit,” he says, adding that he had only one real tune-up before his marathon, a 10K time trial that he ran in late August. Woodfine, in a sense, was prepared for his unorthodox training because he had pivoted his workouts before. In 2017, feeling frustrated as he raced with the Speed River group in Guelph, the young runner went back to his old triathlon coach to rebuild his stride.
“I had tight hip flexors and quads, along with weak glutes and hamstrings which caused me to overstride. When you overstride you are effectively putting on the brakes every time your foot hits the ground. By using stretching and soft tissue work on the hip flexors and quads, I was able to increase the mobility through my hips, allowing my leg to swing backwards much farther,” he explains. “Once I had this mobility, then increasing the strength and neuro-muscular function of my glutes and hamstrings allowed my body to generate much more power during extension. This translated to my body no longer reaching forward to attain a good stride length.”
Basically: his Guelph stride was ugly and his new stride was smooth.
With a new coach, new body, and new running form, Woodfine won the Montreal Half Marathon in 2018 and finished in 2:18:55 at the 2018 Ottawa Marathon—a 9-minute PB. At the 2019 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Woodfine finished second Canadian behind Trevor Hofbauer in a time of 2:13:16. From there, he traveled to Kenya, learned yet another component about training and life, and settled into his routine before finalizing his date with the London Marathon. Woodfine says the goal was to hit the Olympic Standard—at least. “I felt very good about where I was,” he says.
The morning of the event—London in fall—the weather was rainy and cold. Woodfine stayed focused on his goal. “In a lot of other marathons, you can mentally check out for the first half and tuck into a pace group, relax and cruise, but right off the bat, this was a grind,” he says, adding that he tucked behind 2-time Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah until 32K, and that his splits between 20 and 30K were too fast. He could feel himself breaking down, and hanging on. “With three laps to go, my legs just felt trashed, but I knew I was on track so I just said, One lap at a time.”
Woodfine finished his marathon in 2:10:51 and though he felt like blacking out, and says there were times near the end of his race where he felt more like swimming than running—just to give you a sense of the effort he put in—the Canadian distance runner had earned himself a berth to the Olympic Games. Of course, this being the age of uncertainty, the global pandemic, no one is entirely certain if the Tokyo Games will even be held. Currently, they’re scheduled for next summer and, as of today, only Woodfine and Hofbauer have qualified to compete for Canada in the marathon. Woodfine, however, is trying to enjoy his moment and take whatever happens next in stride. He was a star athlete growing up. He learned humility in the course of his career and gratefulness as he reached each new threshold of success. Today, the marathoner is happy to be where he’s at. “The whole idea of my training was to not stress too much about it or worry about what other people were doing,” he says. “I knew that if I could focus on my plan and enjoy the process, there would be good things to follow.”
Little did he know, he’d be the feel good story of the year.