Island training a big plus for Pan Am race winner Genevieve Lalonde

The Island lifestyle appears to be suiting Genevieve Lalonde just fine. That she is fitting in might be the understatement of the running season. The Olympian used home-turf advantage to grind her competitors into the Bear Mountain Valley golf course to celebrate her adopted hometown on a hemispheric level.

Lalonde ran away with the women’s title Saturday in the 2020 Pan American cross-country championships by traversing the difficult 10K course in 37 minutes, 37 seconds and well ahead of silver-medallist Carrie Verdon of the U.S. (38:09) and Lizaida Thalia Valdiva of Peru (38:12). North Vancouver’s Natasha Wodak of the Prairie Inn Harriers, the 10,000-metre gold-medallist from the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games, gave Canada two of the top-four women’s placings at 38:24.

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Lalonde was also busy at the Pan Am Games, winning bronze in the 3,000-metre steeplechase last summer at Lima, after becoming the first Canadian woman to make the Olympic final in the steeplechase at Rio in 2016.

Lalonde, the two-time defending Canadian women’s cross-country champion and 20th last year at the world championships in Denmark, has chosen to train on the Island to advance her career as she prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the steeplechase.

“I made the decision to move to Victoria and have had time to adapt to the local climate and become a local,” said Lalonde.

She said she far prefers the rain here to the snow elsewhere in the country. This is just the latest part of her journey that has taken her from Montreal, Moncton, N.B., and Guelph, Ont., to the Island.

“I’ve even trained and run in the Arctic. But I love the West Coast and am proud to now call it home,” said Lalonde, who trains at the Western Hub national training centre located at PISE on the Camosun College Interurban campus.

She has come to the Island to train in a running community that includes former two-time Olympic 1,500-metre runner Hilary Stellingwerff of Victoria, who was the Canadian team coach for the Pan Am cross-country meet on Bear Mountain.

“I want to keep this rolling into the Olympics,” said Lalonde, who has already made standard in the 3,000-metre steeplechase in Canadian-record time.

Lalonde said athletes can’t be concerned about talk of possible cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus, something that is far more speculation than fact five months out.

“We just keep training like we’re training. We keep going like we’re going. We’re not going to stop training because of rumours,” she said.

“I hope the Games happen. If not, there will be other competitions. Anyway, we’re here more to inspire youth and people in general. There was such a good crowd today cheering us on. That raised everybody’s momentum. The course was tough, but beautiful. I wasn’t planning on going out so early, but I kept my rhythm and ultimately the gap kept growing.”

Johnatas De Oliveira Cruz of Brazil won the Pan Am men’s elite cross-country championship, also over 10K on the Bear’s Valley course, in a pulsating photo-finish with three-time NCAA champion Anthony Rotich of the U.S.

Both men were across in 32:50, with Cruz pipping Rotich by the narrowest of margins as he hurled himself across the finish line.

Paul Ramirez of the Peru was the bronze medallist in 33:11 and former U Sports national champion Connor Black of London, Ont., and 2019 world championships-competitor John Gay of Kelowna the top Canadians in fifth and seventh spots at 33:25 and 33:35, respectively.

“We [Brazilians] ran as a team early, and in the third lap, I pushed out on my own,” said Cruz, in Portuguese.

“It was hard training that achieved this. And I want to thank the public [fans] here. A dream has come true.”

Both the men’s and women’s elite Pan Am races covered the two-kilometre loop course five times. It included a challenging climb that Canadian competitor Gay described as a “meat-grinder.”

The successful staging of the Pan Am championships has enhanced Greater Victoria’s case for hosting the 2023 IAAF world cross-country championships. The worlds are held every two years. The 2017 world championships were in Kampala, Uganda, 2019 worlds in Aarhus, Denmark, and the 2021 worlds will be in Bathurst, Australia.

“The dream is to someday host the world championships,” said two-time Olympic marathoner Bruce Deacon of Victoria, general manager of the Pan Am championships.

That became a more realistic ambition Saturday.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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