The Power of Patience
THERE WAS A stretch in the Olympic marathon when a suffering Malindi Elmore sought inspiration from all those counting on her.
But, really, she was counting on them.
The heat shimmered off the miles of pavement and the humidity weighed heavily on Elmore's shoulders as she churned mile after mile on the streets of Sapporo on August 6. It was 77 degrees at the 6 a.m. start with 82 percent humidity. It got worse.
Still, Elmore clung to her pace … thinking of the reasons she was enduring this agony. If she didn't find her 'why,' she might never finish.
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ELMORE, STANFORD CLASS of '02, is a 41-year-old mother of two. Among the 54 Stanford affiliates competing in Tokyo, the next oldest was Jeremy Bleich (baseball, Israel), 34, and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson (women's volleyball, U.S.), 33, from the class of '09.
This was the second Olympic Games for Elmore, 17 years after her first, when she ran the 1,500 meters in 2004. She assumed Athens wouldn't be her last Olympic Games and she was right, though not in the manner she expected.
Growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, Elmore played soccer and field hockey and wasn't a runner when she won a 1,500-meter race in 5:07 at age 13. A coach with the Kelowna Track and Field Club, Mike Van Tighem, recruited her, only to receive a polite rejection because Malindi already was at her family's two-sport limit. But persistence paid off and Elmore developed into a top runner on only three or four days a week of training.
She intended on going to college in Canada, but during a recruiting visit to Stanford, where she was hosted by Julia Stamps, Elmore was wowed by the experience and canceled the rest of her trips.
"I just wanted to be part of that energy and could see that it was a really special team," Elmore said.
Stanford did not offer Elmore a full athletic scholarship, but her mind was made up, despite the expenses for her family.
"You don't ever have to buy me another Christmas present the rest of my life if you help me go to Stanford," she told her father.
The sense of bliss quickly disappeared. Elmore wasn't used to the mileage and intensity of training and suffered four stress fractures in three years. She either was injured or not fit. She arrived with big goals, but grew frustrated in her inability to even attempt to attain them.
"If I hadn't loved being on the team, I wouldn't have kept with it," Elmore said.
Malindi took her bike out for rides up Page Mill Road to Skyline Boulevard to "get lost for a few hours," savoring the forests and the mountains. But the running itself was almost too agonizing to bear.
One evening, after being diagnosed with yet another stress fracture, Elmore called her father.
"I don't know if I can keep doing this," she said.
Malindi Elmore, 2003. Photo by David Gonzales/Stanford Athletics.
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DESPITE THE DOUBTS, Elmore realized she wasn't ready to give up. If she could grind through the rough patches, Malindi was convinced she would be rewarded down the road.
A turning point occurred in the fall of 2001. As part of her international studies major, Elmore was required to go abroad. She chose to go during cross country season.
"I was at the peak of my frustration," Elmore said. "I needed to take a step back in order to take a step forward. I recognized that I needed some space on my own terms."
Without a running agenda, Elmore ran through the streets of Paris at her whims, sometimes twice a day. And loved it. She regained her passion and her health.
Elmore views her college career as two parts: Before Paris and after Paris. When she returned, she was ready.
Elmore took fourth at the 2002 NCAA indoor championships in the mile, earning the first of five All-America honors in her final two years. In 2003, she won the conference indoor mile and set school outdoor records in the 800 (2:04.35) and 1,500 (4:10.42).
"I started to taste that I could be good," she said. "I realized that if I was going to be good at running, I had to focus and renew my commitment to the sport. I need to commit to being an athlete now."
Upon graduation, she moved back to Canada to train with Van Tighem, her coach since high school and a mentor. She faced a Canadian requirement that track athletes had to earn the Olympic 'A' standard twice to make the team. In 2004, she did so, but was weaker for the grind. Running the 1,500 with a respiratory infection at Athens, she was unable to advance past the first round.
In 2008, she was among two Canadians to reach the 'A' standard once, chasing times around the world to reach it a second time. Ultimately, Canada Athletics chose only one woman runner in any distance event over 800, and that was someone in the 5,000 with a 'B' time.
"That was crushing," Elmore told Kristina Rutherford of Sportsnet. "I was so frustrated, angry and heartbroken — and felt really robbed and really unsupported by our federation, to be honest. They didn't understand what the top athletes in the world were doing, that we were being asked to do more than what other top athletes were doing for their preparation."
In her quest for the 2012 Olympics, Elmore, 32, failed to reach the 'A' standard at all and decided to retire at the Olympic trials, which she won, beating the two who would represent Canada in London.
Malindi Elmore, 2007. Photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport.
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OVER THE YEARS, Elmore embraced the idea of "stress + rest = growth." It's understanding your body, not forcing things, and being OK with not being fit all the time. With two children, and after a stretch as an Ironman-distance triathlete, Elmore was ready to give running another try.
In 2019, she ran her first marathon, finishing within 2 1/2 minutes of the Olympic standard, which gave her a goal and motivation. A year later, she broke the Canadian record by more than two minutes, running 2:24:50, easily bettering the standard.
Her training regimen for the marathon wouldn't wow anybody: "People would be surprised because it's nothing spectacular," she said. "It's just consistent. It's stacking days, weeks, and months, year after year. Someone could read my training log and be like, 'Huh, that doesn't look that hard.'"
But when nearing a big race, once or twice a year, Elmore increases the intensity and is healthy enough to handle it. Such was the formula heading into the Olympics.
Elmore wanted a top-10 finish, with ninth even better. That was the family standard set by her husband, Graham Hood, ninth in the 1,500 in Barcelona in 1992. The wild card was the heat. The race was in Sapporo, 500 miles north of Tokyo, supposedly for better conditions. But there was no escape for Japan's August heat.
Elmore arrived 15 days early to acclimate. Because of Japan's COVID precautions, her family was unable to come and Elmore mostly would be confined to her hotel, except for training and daily walks with teammate Natasha Wodak and American Molly Seidel, whom they just met.
"I knew from having watched other world and Olympic marathon championships, including Doha and Rio, that patience really pays off when you're running in those hot conditions," Elmore said. "My motto leading into the race was Patience is Power. I knew the longer I could be patient, the better the outcome would be."
With help from Van Tighem, Canada's Olympic marathon coach, they worked on prerace cooling and race strategy. On pacing, hydrating, and refueling.
"We pretty much had it dialed," Elmore said. "I knew what pace I could do based on my fitness and the conditions. I knew if I ran faster than 3:30 per kilometer (5:38 per mile) in the first half of the race, I would dearly pay for it in the latter half."
Malindi Elmore, 2021, Olympic Games. Photo by Getty Images.
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EVEN WITH THE early start, the temperatures soared to 104 degrees on the humidex, which measures how the combination of heat and humidity feels to the average person. Elmore was comfortable in the front pack, but when the leaders increased the pace at 18 kilometers (the 12th mile), she knew to back off.
"I needed to not go with it," she said. "Partly from experience in having done Ironman races, I learned that people will come back to you in the last 5-7 kilometers. You can move through them if you don't blow up."
Don't blow up. That was the measure of success. Many of her competitors did not heed the same warning and suffered for it. One exception was Seidel, who chose to hang with the frontrunners as long as possible.
"I actually felt fine," said Elmore, who cooled off by putting ice in her hat and shirt.
Immediately, everything changed. At 36 kilometers (23rd mile), the conditions fought back.
"I went from doing great, to the next step, feeling like stopping," she said. "It hit me so hard and so fast. It wasn't a slow decline it was literally, just a step."
Elmore felt like throwing up. Oh my God, she thought to herself. I want to be done.
She took account of her options. An aid station was coming. She could grab water, ice, and suck on a gel pack. But, above all, she just needed to put one foot in front of the other.
Keep going, she told herself. Keep going and you will get there.
For the next four kilometers, Elmore mined her conscience. She thought of those she loved, those who helped her along the way, those who offered her encouragement on Okanagan Lake at home, and those who recognized her in the grocery store.
Each step came with inspiration. And that's what kept Elmore going.
By 40K, she recovered somewhat, and continued her pursuit to the line.
Seidel hung on for a valiant third, becoming only the third American to medal in an Olympic women's marathon. But Elmore wasn't done yet. The final half-mile seemed an eternity.
"The finish line just kept getting farther and farther away," she said. "My legs just didn't want to move anymore."
Elmore finished ninth. She passed 10 runners in the final half and ran the second half faster than the first. She ran a strong 2:30:59 in a race where 15 of the 88 runners failed to finish.
Elmore returned to Kelowna and to her family, but she is far from done. Elmore rested about a month, raced a 10K in Essen, Germany, and began coaching again at University of British Columbia Okanagan. The 2024 Olympics in Paris are in her sights.
Upon reflection, "Stanford was a great chapter," she said. "Stanford was definitely one of the learning experiences. As I look back, a lot of things make sense to me now. It was setting me up for success long term."
At Stanford, Elmore learned patience. It continues to drive her today. After all, there's no rush to Paris.
Sapporo, Japan, 2021. Olympic marathoners Natasha Wodak, Molly Seidel, and Malindi Elmore. Photo courtesy of Malindi Elmore.
Note: Some information in this story was taken from this profile on Elmore: "The Long Run" by Kristina Rutherford, for Sportsnet (2021).