UPDATE (DEC. 20, 12:45 p.m. EST):

Natasha Wodak and Ben Preisner have both qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at The Marathon Project in Arizona, and now presumably hold the third female and second male spots on the team. This story has been updated to reflect these big changes. We will periodically update this story as the complexion of the team changes.

The picture of which athletes will get to represent Canada in the 2021 Tokyo Marathon has long been blurry. This weekend's Marathon Project might give it a bit of resolution, but it also could further muddle the selection process.

In selecting its Olympic team, Canada is beholden to the World Athletics maximum marathon roster of three women and three men. The 2021 Olympics might also be the first time Canada has enough runners with Olympic standard to send a full team.

In this extended qualification period,  five women and three men already have Olympic marathon standard (more on that below). So, not only might Athletics Canada get to field a full team — they could have to choose who they want on the start line.

It's a terrific problem to have, but it's an issue nonetheless, because we still don't know who the chosen athletes will be for two distinct reasons:

The Qualification Window Is Open for 5 More Months

Obviously, the qualification period, which started on January 1, 2019, and extends to May 31, 2021, is still open. Races opportunities, however, are dwindling, as spring races continue to be cancelled. Key fast marathons like Houston have been pushed to after Tokyo, or cancelled altogether. So it's unclear how many shots Canadians will get to run a fast time in the winter and spring of 2021.

Selection Is Subjective

The team is not picked in an obvious way. Yes, Athletics Canada and their National Team Committee (NTC) make decisions based on the Olympic time standards (2:11:30 for men and 2:29:30 for women), but the selection process is not as simple as choosing the three fastest women and men. For us and, more importantly, for the athletes, trying to predict what the team will look like could invite a small aneurysm.

We try to sift through the ambiguity here.

How athletes qualify

Athletics Canada's website reads that they will select up to six athletes (three men and three women) to the team. First, the 2019 Canadian Marathon Champions will have priority and will automatically be nominated to the team.

Afterwards, athletes can qualify for the four remaining spots by achieving the World Athletics time standard OR by ranking high in the new World Rankings list and points system. If more than four athletes meet the criteria, the NTC will rank them in the order that they consider the athletes are likely to finish at the Games in the marathon, said Athletics Canada High Performance Director Simon Nathan in an email.  To make that decision, said Nathan, the NTC will be guided by but not limited to:

  • Current form and fitness
  • Proven ability to perform on demand
  • Finishing position at the 2020 Trials; and
  • Recent head-to-head record against other athletes under consideration.

The Bottom Line

The 2019 national marathon champions (Trevor Hofbauer and Dayna Pidhoresky) get the first men's and women's spots guaranteed, and then it could get sticky. In Canada, we have contenders who have Olympic standard, and then we have contenders who don't have standard, but who rank high in this World Athletics list (which you do by finishing on or near the podium of an international event.)

So, as we enter the Olympic year, we reflect on which players might eventually find themselves on Team Canada.

The Women

Guaranteed

Dayna Pidhoresky

PB: 2:29:03 - 2019 Canadian Champion

Pidhoresky is not the fastest runner on the list, but she owns the most important credential — a gold medal from the 2019 Canadian Marathon Championship, which doubled as the Canadian Olympic Trials (before COVID hit, of course). So she is the only woman with a guaranteed spot and an already booked plane ticket to Tokyo.

On the inside, hoping to stay there

Malindi Elmore

PB: 2:24:50

The 2004 Olympian in the 1,500m redefined Canadian distance running at the Houston Marathon in January by chopping more than two minutes off the previous national record. It's unlikely that two women run faster than her 2:24 inside the qualifying period, so she is a shoo-in for that second spot.

Natasha Wodak

PB: 2:26:19

Wodak's entry to The Marathon Project was auspicious - it seemed like just a matter of time before the Canadian 10,000m record holder and 69:41 half marathon runner converted those results to a fast marathon time. With her new nine-minute PB, Wodak has - at least presumably - leap-frogged Rachel Cliff and Lyndsay Tessier for the second discretionary and third overall spot.

Rachel Cliff

PB: 2:26:56

When Cliff became the first Canadian woman to run faster than 2:27 (and 2:28, for that matter) and set a national record in March 2019, she probably figured it would be more than enough to secure her spot on the Olympic team. Alas, 21 months later, she finds herself well under standard, but perhaps out of a ticket to Tokyo. To make the team, Cliff will probably have to outrun Wodak's time this spring. It's also unclear how the NTC will evaluate her against Lyndsay Tessier.

Lyndsay Tessier

PB: 2:30:47 - 9th at the 2019 World Athletics Championships

Tessier is more than a minute away from the magical mark of 2:29:30, but her top-10 finish at the 2019 World Athletics Marathon in Doha also counts as Olympic standard. Here's the complication: how will the selection committee quantify her ninth place finish, and will they see it as more valuable than, say, Wodak's 2:26:19?Or whatever Cliff might run this spring? We don't know.

On the outside, looking in

Emily Setlack - PB: 2:29:48 - Setlack finished second behind Pidhoresky at the 2019 Canadian championship and missed standard by a mere 18 seconds. More recently, she pulled out of The Marathon Project due to an injury. Her bid for the team will hinge on a healthy build and a perfectly executed spring marathon.

Kinsey Middleton - PB: 2:32:09 - Middleton was training at 2:26 pace in preparation for the Marathon project, but she dropped out of the race with an achilles issue. As time runs out, and the barrier of entry to the team gets higher, Middleton's bid for the team increasingly appears like a long shot. She may have enough talent to challenge others on this list, but to do so she will also need enough health.

The Men

Guaranteed

Trevor Hofbauer

PB: 2:09:51 - 2019 Canadian Champion

Like Pidhoresky on the women's side, the 28-year-old Hofbauer is the only man with a sure spot on Team Canada, for having won the 2019 Canadian marathon championship.

On the inside, hoping to stay there

Ben Preisner

PB: 2:10:17

Preisner, a 24-year-old who trains mostly by himself, made a massive statement at The Marathon Project by running the second-fastest official marathon debut in Canadian history. Whether or not he races again in the spring will probably depend on how Levins, Linkletter, Woodfine and perhaps others perform in later marathon. Unless two men run faster than 2:10:17 by the end of May, Preisner will probably go to Tokyo.

Tristan Woodfine

PB: 2:10:51

Woodfine surprised many by lowering his personal best by nearly three minute at the London Marathon and becoming the second man to run faster than standard inside the Olympic period. Preisner's Marathon Project run, however, relegated Woodfine to third on the depth chart and robbed him of a safety net. If Woodfine ends up battling for that last spot, we might learn more about whether or not a performance at a larger profile (and more pressure-filled) event, like London, carries more merit than a time run at a smaller domestic marathon. For now, this is unclear.

On the outside, looking in

Cam Levins

PB: 2:09:25 (Canadian record)

Levins set his Canadian record in the fall of 2018, but that time is outside the qualifying window, and he has yet to replicate that performance. This year, he proved similar fitness in a half-marathon time trial, but then he dropped out of the London Marathon in October, and ran to an underwhelming 2:12:15 at The Marathon Project. Levins will most certainly tackle one (or two) spring marathon(s). If he does lower his Canadian record, he would still remain as the number two pick, behind Hofbauer (who soundly beat Levins in Toronto in 2019), as winning the Trials was more valuable than running the national record.

Rory Linkletter

PB: 2:12:54

All the signs of a continued, solid progression are there for Linkletter: a blazing-fast half-marathon (61:44 in January), a slew of 2:09 to 2:11 training partners, a 2:12:54 at The Marathon Project, and workouts that indicate tremendous fitness. If he puts it together on the right day in 2021, he will contend for a spot. But like the others, he's running out of opportunities for this Olympics.

Other Athletes Potentially Looming in 2021

Reid Coolsaet and Dylan Wykes, both Olympians, have transitioned into coaching, but pre-Pandemic, each did attempt to see if they could get back to the Games one last time.

Justin Kent has run 62 minutes over 21.1k in a time trial this fall. He also set the Canadian 20,000m on a track record. His 2:17:22 at The Marathon Project was a bit of a blunder, but it was also his debut.

Sasha Gollish ran a very promising marathon in early 2019 (2:32:54) and represented Canada at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. But she has yet to replicate that performance during the qualification window.

Melanie Myrand also repped Canada at the World Championships last fall, but her personal best of 2:33:20 is a reach with just one shot left this spring. Of course, she's been understandably a bit busy working as a nurse in Montreal during the pandemic.

Andrea Seccafien has quietly been crushing half-marathons while living and training in Australia. She is the current 21.1K national record holder, and it's unclear if she's considering moving up in distance, or staying on the track for Tokyo.

Lanni Marchant once held the Canadian marathon record, but a nasty hip injury forced her away from the roads for years. Lately, she is back racing, and posted a 1:14:07 half-marathon in the fall. She certainly has the talent to improve on that time and enter the mix - but for that she will need to stay healthy.

An eye towards the spring

Regular qualification hubs like Houston Marathon in January have been cancelled, and others like the New York City and Chicago Marathons have been postponed to next fall.

At best, runners who are still chasing standard in 2021 might resort to a B-level event like the Eugene Marathon in Oregon, or try to escape to whichever country is COVID-free by the Spring (like, say, Australia) and hope for a lucky race entry.

At worst, they might be forced to places like the Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas or the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. Are either of those races certified Olympic qualifiers? We have no idea.

The bottom line is that, if the world races calendar remains shaky, finding fast fields could prove to be nearly as difficult as running Olympic standard.

And the frustrating bottom bottom line is that, regardless of what happens over the next few months, nobody will really know what the NTC's decision will look like until Athletics Canada posts the roster on Twitter at some point.