As 25,000 participants prepare to hit the road in Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, organizers trumpet the event’s growth from a race for the not-quite elite to a destination for world-class performers.
In 2015, the event earned the IAAF’s gold-label designation, reserved for prestigious big-city road races. But this year’s edition is missing a key feature we’ve seen in the past: a clear-cut favourite.
Organizers say that’s by design.
While the waterfront race has never splurged on appearance fees for super-elite performers, organizers say this year they were able to spend on depth. For the first time, the women’s marathon features an athlete — Ethiopia’s Amane Beriso — with a personal best faster than two hours, 21 minutes. And the men’s event will field eight runners who have run faster than 2:10, including course record-holder Philemon Rono and 2012 Olympic champ Stephen Kiprotich.
Canadian long-distance track star Cam Levins, a three-time national champion and record-holder over 10,000 metres, will also make his marathon debut Sunday.
Most other years a runner such as Jake Robertson, who ran 2:08:26 in his marathon debut in March, would easily qualify as a favourite to finish on the podium. But the Kenya-based New Zealander says this year’s deep field means he’ll likely need to smash several records for a top-three finish.
“Everybody in this elite field has come here ready for this course record,” said Robertson, who will race in Toronto for the first time. “If the weather’s right, it’s going to take a course record to win.”
This weekend’s event fits in midway through a busy fall season. Preceding it came major races in Berlin, where Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge set a world record, and Chicago, where Mo Farah — a four-time Olympic gold medallist on the track — achieved his first marathon win. Next month comes the New York Marathon, which will feature heavy-hitters Geoffrey Kamworor and Mary Keitany.
Outside those events, Toronto functions as a second-tier major race. In soccer terms, it’s the Championship to Britain’s Premier League. It typically draws from a different pool of elite runners than Chicago and Berlin, but competes for talent with the Amsterdam Marathon — also on Sunday — and Frankfurt Marathon, held next Sunday.
Toronto race director Alan Brookes says this year’s event built stronger-than-usual fields thanks to new airline sponsor KLM, which cut the cost of flying runners in from training camps in places such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Brookes says that instead of pocketing those cost savings, organizers invested them in appearance fees. Where in past years organizers might have had to choose from among Robertson, Kiprotich and Rono, the KLM deal allowed them to sign all three, and more sub-2:10 runners.
“There’s the long-term sustainable (talent) base that we’ve grown a little bit every year,” Brookes said. “But there could be six or seven guys at 30 or 35 kilometres, battling it out. That’s the difference.”
The link between money and an elite field isn’t specific to Toronto. Indeed, Kipchoge’s world record was the culmination of a decade-long assault on marathon standards fuelled by economic factors including appearance fees, which increased for marathoners just as they dried up for distance runners in track events. The trend prompted some track veterans to cross genres and other young runners to cut short their track careers, allowing both groups to concentrate on marathoning.
Since September 2008, the men’s record has dropped from 2:03:59 to the 2:01:39 Kipchoge ran last month. The course record in Toronto has improved by two minutes and 38 seconds — to 2:06:52 — over that span. But the Canadian record — Jerome Drayton’s 2:10:08 — has held up since 1975, even as Waterfront Marathon organizers offer ever-increasing bonuses to any runner who breaks it.
The B.C.-born Levins hasn’t targeted a specific time, but says if he executes his race plan, Drayton’s record could fall.
“I’m going out at a fairly decent pace, Canadian record (pace),” the 29-year-old Levins said. “I feel as prepared as I can be. I feel ready. I feel like I can do this.”
Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell