John MacKinnon: Hometown win even sweeter for Edmonton Marathon champ


Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.

Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.

Photograph by: Brady McDonald, Edmonton Journal

Tom McGrath crossed the finish line at the Edmonton Marathon waving his arms in victory formation, cut loose with an exultant ‘Yes!’ and wrapped his brother in a sweaty bear hug.

When the brothers unclinched, McGrath let out another ‘Yes!’ as he lunged to deliver a fist pump to underscore his elation.

“That’s a dream come true to win your hometown marathon in front of friends, family — my dad came up from Canmore to cheer me on,” McGrath said, his voice cracking with emotion. “There’s about no feeling in the world that beats this one.”

McGrath has had plenty of marathon moments since he ran his first one, in Edmonton in 2006. He was second at the Edmonton Marathon in 2014 and top Canadian at the fabled Boston Marathon last year, where he has competed three times. He has run the New York City Marathon, competed at Chicago three times, run Vancouver. He ran his first overseas marathon in Tokyo in February.

Where would he situate Sunday’s effort?

“No. 1,” McGrath said.

He works the 2:30-to-11 p.m. shift for Baker Hughes, a Leduc-based oil services company, so his schedule permits him to put in his 145 kilometres a week of training, pounding the river valley running paths in the mornings before he goes to work.

He’s serious about his running, but he didn’t entertain realistic thoughts of winning in his hometown until relatively recently.

“Good friend Brendan Lunty won this race back in 2010,” McGrath said, providing context for his quest to win in Edmonton. “I got to watch him win the marathon.

“It was really special, a sort of unexpected win. You see a friend like that win this thing, you wonder, maybe there’s a chance, one day, (that) you’ve got a shot at winning.

“Today, it happened.”

McGrath’s win also was a tad unexpected. He reeled in pre-race favourite Thomas Omwenga, a four-time Vancouver Marathon champion, about halfway through the 42-km course, and won in 2:28.48, three seconds faster than his previous best time.

Omwenga, a native of Kenya who now lives in Hamilton, Ont., was second in 2:33.44, about 10 minutes off his best time.

“He’s got some pretty respectable times,” McGrath said. “That’s a pretty good (opponent) to beat on the way to winning.

“There were rumours he might be going for the course record (2:23.33, set in 2011 by Kenya’s Jacob Mewngich). That’s a long way up the road from where I’m at, so it was a bit unexpected.”

Emily Potter of Alexandria, Va., was the female champion, running a time of 2:42.56 that also qualified her for the U.S. Olympic trials next February in Los Angeles.

Daniel Kipkoech won the half-marathon, finishing the 21-km distance in 1:03.36, ahead of Reid Coolsaet of Hamilton, who finished in 1:04.09. Coolsaet, one of Canada’s top marathoners, used the race as a training run. He plans to run the Berlin Marathon this fall.

Organizers estimated 4,100 runners and walkers took part on Sunday, with about 1,900 taking on the half-marathon and 685 the full 42-km distance. About 500 volunteers supported the race.

As things turned out, Lunty, McGrath’s friend and inspiration, finished third in 2:34.50 on Sunday, to brighten McGrath’s already glorious day a little more.

As the race unfolded, McGrath and Omwenga ran together for five or six kilometres, but McGrath gained the lead about 26 kilometres in as the Kenyan “just sort of dropped off.”

“Even at halfway, he didn’t have that big of a lead,” McGrath said. “I was catching him fairly quickly, so I thought, maybe there’s a chance that we could make it happen here. It all came together.”

As Omwenga faded, McGrath’s smile widened as the finish line got closer and closer.

“The great thing about running the Edmonton Marathon is, I know most of the people in the running community, most of them know who I am. They’ve been extremely supportive over the last couple of years, of everything I’ve done.

“You see all these people out on the trails and you get to recognize (them). You run big marathons in New York and Boston and those types of things and there are millions of fans on the course.

“But I feel more support here in Edmonton, the emotional support you get from the people who know you and who you see out there training. You get your parents here and all that type of thing, it makes it real special.”

Potter, a 36-year-old former modern pentathlete, was thrilled to qualify — “barely” — for the U.S. Olympic Trials. The American standard is 2:43, so she nailed that with four seconds to spare. She also demolished the Edmonton course record of 2:47.17, set by Ellie Greenwood of Banff in 2011.

Quite a package deal for a woman who was shopping around for a late-summer marathon and happened to find Edmonton.

“It was kind of last-minute,” Potter said. “I don’t think I committed until July, maybe.

“My husband has always wanted to go to Glacier National Park (in Montana), so we decided to make it a family vacation, once we looked at it on the map.”

Potter, her husband and their two young daughters were off to Banff before moving on to complete their combination athletic destination/family vacation caper.

McGrath has sports tourism plans of his own.

His goal is to complete the New York, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, London and Berlin marathons all in less than 2:30. At 29, he has a few years to check off those boxes.

“I’m one down, I’ve got five more to go,” McGrath said.

That’s the way it is with marathoners — always another race to run.

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Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.

Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.

Photograph by: Brady McDonald, Edmonton Journal

Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.
Runners take off from the start line for the half-marathon, in Edmonton on August 23, 2015.
Edmontonian, Tom McGrath, wins the Edmonton Marathon, on August 23, 2015.
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