On August 12th Dylan Wykes will line up at the start of a marathon just like he has many times before, but two things will be different. The first, it will be at the Olympic Games. The second, it’s a race he was never supposed to run.
The story starts long before London. Back in the fall of 2011, Wykes was in Toronto trying to qualify for the Olympics. But as he describes it, it wasn’t that he “just needed to get on the line and do it.” He had to beat his personal best by over a minute, which in the marathon world is akin to sprinting the last 50 metres of an Everest climb. A simple sounding proposition, but really a serious challenge. In the end, he fell an agonizing minute and a half short of the elusive qualifying mark that haunts Canadian runners in their dreams – 2:11:30.
For those not in the know, the marathon is truly an exercise in punishment. Bodies have been known to completely shut down metres from the finish. It’s been that way ever since Pheidippides ran straight back to Athens from the Battle of Marathon only to collapse and die on the Senate floor just after yelling “victory” – or so the legend goes. So needless to say, a recovery period is in order.
Unlike the daily grind of baseball or weekly slate of a football season, the marathoner spends months building up to a particular race, training their body to peak at just the right moment. Stride after stride, minute after minute their feet slap the pavement in anticipation of the finish line, knowing their opportunities to shine are few and far between.
So, after the race in Toronto, Wykes rested and regrouped before setting his sights on a race at Lake Biwa in Japan. But even worse than falling short in the big smoke, he ate something funny the day before and had to drop out around the 30 kilometre mark with abdominal problems. Not quite the tragedy that befell poor Pheidippides, but a crushing experience nonetheless.
With the window for qualification nearly closed, Wykes looked finished, and the dream of London looked over. Quietly though, Wykes was preparing to do something that caught the Canadian running community completely off-guard. He went on the hunt for any credible race that would take him.
“I just told people I was done, I wasn’t going to try and qualify anymore, then I changed my mind but decided not to tell people,” he laughs.
“I had to scramble to find another race, and the race I got into was Rotterdam. That was a last ditch chance – my third try at it.”
But this wasn’t a pick-up basketball game, it was a marathon. Not something meant to be run on a whim. Rotterdam started five weeks after the Lake Biwa debacle – not even close to the typical recovery time for a marathon, even if it had been cut short.
His former coach Steve Boyd recognized the unique nature of the situation. “It is certainly unconventional, and there is no way Dylan would have done it if circumstances had been different. The odds of successfully doing what he did are quite long.”
But the odds be damned. He went ahead and raced anyway. He just had no interest in talking about it, at least not with a media he felt had only suddenly taken interest.
“The publicity for distance running in Canada is not very big,” Wykes said. “I’ve grown up in the sport and got zero attention my whole life, and a little bit of attention was kind of this new dynamic. People were really interested in the race in Toronto and then when I was going to Japan, a bunch of people wanted to interview me before. I just like the performance to do the talking and not try and talk about what I’m going to do.”
So Wykes quietly stole away to Holland, telling nearly no one about his plans – at least not in English.
The day before the race, he and teammate (and fellow coffee aficionado) Rob Watson were relaxing in a Rotterdam café. Noted by only a few in the running community, Watson let word slip via Twitter:
— Dylan Wykes (@DylanWykes) April 13, 2012
Or if you can’t speak Dutch: “I’m here for the race. And that coffee was small.”
And so it began.
Incredibly though, even Rotterdam – his last ditch chance – started off on the wrong foot.
“It was kind of funny, I fell like two steps into the race, because we were super packed in there and I fell flat on my face and thought, oh this is not a good start.”
Funny in retrospect, but hardly believing his bad luck at the time Wykes picked himself up and started back on, trying to hang with a group of pace setters – or “rabbits” – that were leading out a Dutchman on his qualifying quest. Knowing these pace-setters represented his best hope of qualifying, he hung tough, pushing his body harder than he’d ever done, even despite fatigue taking hold of him.
Finally, after hammering the pavement for a couple hours, his weary body eventually crossed the line at 2:10:47. The journey was complete, the time achieved. Wykes, with a dogged determination, had fulfilled his dream of qualifying for the Olympics.
And so the mission was accomplished, and the only thing left was an attempted celebration with his teammate. “We tried to go out and party a bit afterwards,” Watson said. “But we were just too fried and tired from the race. So we had a couple beers then called it a night.”
Turns out there are some things the body just can’t handle after all.