Marathon record holder Rachel Cliff plans her next move
2020 Tokyo Olympics, here she comes
Vancouver runner Cliff hasn’t been running the marathon all that long, but you wouldn’t know it from her recent performances culminating in the setting of a new Canadian marathon record last month in Nagoya, Japan.
The 30-year-old Vancouver runner finished the race in 15th place with a time of two hours 26 minutes and 56 seconds breaking Lanni Marchant’s record of 2:28 set in 2013.
But, she is far from done and has her eyes set on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Cliff grew up on the West Coast, as did her parents and all four of her grandparents. When she was a youngster, the took to running and started competing in Grade 4 when she was nine years old, but it wasn’t until high school when she started identifying it as her sport.
“I got serious towards the end of high school,” she says. “And then I went to the University of Guelph and competed there.”
At the University of Guelph, she was coached by Dave Scott Thomas and continued to run with the team a year graduating. In 2011, she won gold at the Canadian Interuniversity Championships in both the 1500m and the 3000m.
As has consistently happened over her career, Cliff often finds herself at crossroads wondering which way to turn, and inevitably something comes along to convince her to stay on the running path.
Upon returning to Vancouver, she again hit a crossroads and some challenges before deciding to attend graduate school at the University of British Columbia.
“While I was at UBC, I switched coaches,” says Cliff. “He was a really good guy who coaches at the university and was really good about re-establishing that I love the sport. There was pressure when I was away from home from competing and when that happens you start to lose sight of why you’re doing it.”
For a while, Cliff simply balanced grad school with running on the side.
In 2015, she ran a 5k to open her season in 15:33.
“It was about 10 seconds of the Olympic standard, which was happening the following year,” she says. “It was a pretty big moment to be just 10 seconds off.”
At the end of 2015, she switched coaches and started working with Richard Lee who had worked with a lot of Olympians in the past.
“Really staring at a big goal like that, it’s nice to work with someone who's seen it before,” she says. “It becomes normalized.”
Unfortunately, although she ran the Olympic standard along with two other women, the Canadian Olympic brass decided to only take two runners to the Games, and Cliff stayed home.
“That was an interesting thing to go through,” she says. “They could have taken three. It forced me to reevaluate what I wanted to get from the sport, and why I was in the sport.”
She has mixed feelings about how the turn of events impacted her, but one thing is certain, hitting the Olympic standard was a powerful motivator.
In 2016, Cliff says she began to realize that the 10,000m was probably more her calling than the 5,000. “It’s always been that the longer I’ve gone, the better I’ve gotten," she explains. "I’ve got a good cardio engine and I’m able to find that pace and hold it a long time.”
In 2017, Cliff had herself a year.
She established herself as one of the top distance runners in the country while competing at the 2017 IAAF World Championships as well as becoming the 2017 Canadian 10k Road Race Champion and running a 1:12:07 at the New York Half Marathon.
“It was my second-ever half and my first where I was really focussed,” she says. “It was a really good result.”
Her future was long distance and in 2018 she took another huge step towards her ultimate goal of the Olympic Games by breaking the Canadian half-marathon record and edging closer to the full marathon record with her performance in Berlin. She ran 2:28:53 just shy of Marchant’s mark of 2:28.
“What stands out is how efficient she is at that pace," her coach, Richard Lee, told the CBC following the race. "We call it having great running economy, a smooth, fluid stride and not wasting energy. I get a sense she can go a long way at that effort level."
Cliff liked the idea of competing in Japan this year as it is the Olympic location for 2020, and is known for its quality races early in the season, which was when she was interested in logging another ace.
“It’s a great place to do road races, the weather is great, they love it and it’s a really fun environment to be competing,” says Cliff, who also travelled to Japan with her father in February to do a half marathon in Tokyo and do an early check on the city, the culture, the food.
Although she didn’t make it into the elite field for the Tokyo Marathon, her coach discovered a women’s only marathon in Nagoya slated for March 10 that appeared to be a very good option.
“It was really helpful having gone to Japan in early February,” she says. “There was more familiarity with everything and it removed the novelty of being in Japan. And Nagoya was a big city but nothing like Tokyo, it wasn’t overwhelming.”
Although she was nervous about it being a women’s only marathon, primarily because she might not have enough bodies to draft off of, but it clearly worked out.
She went out with a fast pace group, and she says it felt very easy and she was in control. Her coach mapped out the route and would be able to see her at strategic points.
“Every time I would see him, I would feel good, but he was also saying I looked good and in control,” says Cliff. “We talked about backing off the pace, somewhere between 15 and 25 kilometres, and just run on my own.”
She started doing the calculations in her head, and by the time she was nearing the end of the race, she already knew the Canadian record would fall.
“With 5K to go, I knew that even if I really blew up I would still get it,” she says. “So I was aware of it, but also not too fixed on it. I know chasing records is something you should avoid doing too much because it can also limit.”
So, she just ran as fast as she could towards the finish line.
“I realized I could get under 2:27 and that became my goal the last few hundred metres,” she says.
With a time of 2:26:56, Cliff set the new women’s Canadian marathon mark, and looks good to make her Olympic debut in 2020.
The race was won by Helalia Johannes of Namibia in a time of 2:22:25.
Now, Cliff is returning to the track this summer to compete in the 10K with an eye to the world championships and Pan-Am Games this year.
It is quite possible that she could qualify in both the 10K and the marathon for Tokyo in 2020, and then she will face another in a long line of crossroads.
No matter what path she takes, this is one athlete sure to continue to make Canadians proud.
(Main photo: Miles Clark, Article photos: Rob Smith and from Instagram)