North Vancouver’s Chris Winter outsprints Kelly Wiebe in a thrilling duel to finish the Canadian Cross Country Running Championships held Nov. 29 in Vancouver. Winter picked up his first senior men’s national cross country title with the win. Photo Vid Wadhani/WCSportography.com
A brain perched atop an exhausted body after an intense exertion — throbbing with pain and excitement and terror and joy — can go to some interesting places.
Moments after he won his first ever Canadian Cross Country Running Championship Nov. 29 in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park, North Vancouver native Chris Winter was asked how he was able to catch up to rival Kelly Wiebe in a frantic finish and pull away for the win. His response: “I unleashed the bear.”
Recalling the quote later, Winter says he has no idea where it came from.
“After you run 10 kilometres you’ve got a lot of adrenalin and endorphins going,” he says with a laugh while trying to come up with a few more exact words to describe how he chased down Wiebe in the final kilometre, sprinting through sloppy conditions to earn a narrow victory. “Honestly, I dug deeper than I ever have before. . . . I knew that was my chance right then and there — if I put in that surge, was able to dig deeper, I was going to win that national championship, something I’d never done before.”
The race was an important one for the Handsworth grad. This was the last year that Vancouver was scheduled to hold the annual championships following a four-year run. Next year’s race will be held in Kingston, Ont. In the three previous Vancouver-hosted championships Winter finished fourth then third then second. A mathematician might argue that the logical next step would be a first-place finish, but Winter knew he’d need more than a simple number sequence to take that final step to the top of the podium.
“You can kind of see it all lining up there, but I knew that this was actually probably going to be one of the deeper fields since we’ve been there,” he says. “It was no foregone conclusion that I was going to win it. . . . It’s a grind of a race. It’s all kinds of tough.”
On the morning of the race Winter awoke to a welcome sight: snow.
“I was pretty excited when I saw that,” he says. “I am one that benefits from running in muddy and sloppy conditions. The more rain, the more snow, the better.”
By the time the senior men lined up for the final race of the day, the two- kilometre course had been chewed up by 600 runners in earlier competitions. That’s just what Winter wanted to see.
“You want it to be muddy,” he says. “It’s not a track race. You want those obstacles.” Winter battled with a pack of elite racers through much of the five-lap race but by the time it came down to the final circuit it was just Winter battling it out with Wiebe, a 25-year-old up-and-comer who already has a Vancouver Sun Run championship under his belt.
“You couldn’t script a better race,” says Winter. “The crowd loved it, there was just two guys hammering each other.”
Wiebe made his move with about a kilometre to go, pulling ahead on one of the sloppiest parts of the course. Winter could see his championship title running away from him.
“When he made that move I was thinking that might be it,” he says. “I was trying my hardest and hoping to hang onto him.”
With 600 m to go the runners were emerging from the sloppy course onto the grass of the home stretch where cheering fans, including a vocal crew of Winter’s family and friends, were waiting. Winter realized that he wasn’t out of reach and was, in fact, starting to reel Wiebe in again. It was at around this point that Winter got a little grizzly, metaphorically speaking.
“I just dug super deep and found a little extra gear there,” he says. By 500 m they were even again, and then Winter took the lead and held on, crossing the line in a time of 32 minutes and 17 seconds, four seconds ahead of Wiebe.
“I crossed that line and there were people who’d been supporting me for 20 years, throughout my running career,” says Winter. “It was pretty emotional to be able to do that.” Winter also gave credit to Wiebe for bringing out the best in both of them.
“He’s a great runner,” says Winter. “I’ve definitely got to give it to him — he ran a great race.”
The win earned Winter a berth in the cross country world championships scheduled for March 28 in Guiyang, China, but he won’t be going to that race — he’s got bigger fish to fry. With the Canadian Cross Country Championships out of the way he is now switching fully into track mode and his No. 1 mission: the steeplechase. His sights are set squarely on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
For the last few years Winter has been pushed by the disappointment of missing out on the 2012 Olympic Games. Coming off an injury, he finished third at the 2012 Canadian trials which would have earned him a spot on the Olympic team except he fell just a couple of seconds shy of the international qualifying standard. He’s broken that barrier a number of times since, most notably when he finished sixth at the Commonwealth Games last August.
“That was probably the best race of my life,” says Winter. “I felt like I moved to a new level that day.” At the heart of Winter’s decision is the fact that steeplechase is an Olympic sport while cross country is not.
“I need to focus on what I need to do to line up for 2016,” he says. “It’s an important year just to make sure that you’re healthy, you’re running well. The momentum you build this year will carry on into the Olympic year.” There are also two big dates on the steeplechase 2015 calendar: the Pan Am Games scheduled for Toronto in July and the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August. “The one thing missing from my resumé right now is an Olympic team,” he says. “That’s what I’m going for.”
Watch out Rio — there’s a bear chasing you.
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