Running couple aim for victories in Canadian Cross Country Championships in Vancouver

Chris Winter, left, and Rachel Cliff would love to record victories in the Canadian Cross Country Championships on Saturday in Vancouver.



Chris Winter and Rachel Cliff have unfinished business before the Canadian Cross Country Championships pack up and move to Kingston, Ont.

The Vancouver running couple and aspiring Rio Olympians finished second in the men’s 10k and women’s 7k at Jericho Beach Park last year.

Neither has won a national cross country title — Winter was third in 2011; they were both fourth in 2012 — and this could be their last chance to win in their backyard.

They live 10 blocks from the picturesque course, which has hosted four straight Canadian championships, including Saturday’s.

“I could run it with my eyes closed,” said Cliff, a 26-year-old distance runner who won the Sun Run 10k in April.

“It has a special meaning for me. It was my first big cross country race my Grade 12 year. It’s where I really got into the sport. I’m going to be sad when it’s not here any more.”

Same goes for Winter, a 28-year-old steeplechaser who’s looking forward to the predicted frigid and muddy conditions on Saturday.

“A great mess,” he called it, although thankfully this year should be dry and mostly sunny for the fans.

Winter and Cliff met five years ago while training together in Guelph, Ont., where Cliff won CIS titles in the 1,500m and 3,000m in 2011.

He proposed to her in September, after he returned from the Commonwealth Games, where he was sixth in the steeplechase. Perfecting the ring design over email from Glasgow was cause for more nerves than race day.

“I was sweating bullets trying to figure it all out,” he said.

They’ll get married in Vancouver next September, while the weather’s still good and after the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Beijing. There are a few world-class runners on the guest list.

“We’re joking about having a beer mile after,” Winter said.

“It’s pretty cool. Our relationship only works because we’re doing the same thing: going to bed at 10 o’clock on Friday nights, and all the travel and training and dedication.

“We really rely on each other to be supportive and we get kicks out of going for a run together in Pacific Spirit Park. That’s our time together.”

Cliff’s the more competitive one, Winter claimed, and she’ll need every ounce of that on Saturday (1:40 p.m. start).

The women’s field is especially deep, with another local runner, reigning champion Natasha Wodak, among those vying for the win, or at least a top-six finish.

The top six men and women earn qualifying spots for the 2015 Pan Am Cross Country Championships in Colombia in February and 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in China in March.

Wodak, who won in 24:31 last year — three seconds ahead of Cliff — has been battling plantar fasciitis, so she’s not sure what to expect in her first “real” race in eight months.

Other women’s competitors in the now-8k event include Calgary’s Jessica O’Connell, who was 10th in the 5,000 metres at the 2014 Commonwealth Games; Olympic triathlete Paula Findlay of Edmonton; and Natasha LaBeaud, a San Diego native and dual citizen who calls Kelowna her Canadian home.

LaBeaud and Cliff returned from Tokyo on Tuesday. They were part of Canada’s Chiba Ekiden marathon relay team. Cliff was the alternate there and won a 5,000m race.

That’s the distance she figures is her best shot for Rio, although the 10,000m is a possibility, too. Either way, she knows there’s a ton of work ahead.

Her personal best in the 5,000m is 15:48. The ‘B’ standard for the 2012 Olympics was 15:30.

“I need to get a lot faster,” said Cliff, who trains under Chris Johnson at the Vancouver Thunderbirds and juggles that with graduate studies at UBC in occupational and environmental hygiene.

“It’s tough with training,” she said, “but it’s a cool environment to be in.”

Winter’s schedule is free from studies, but the former University of Oregon athlete and Nike intern works part time for a digital marketing company to support his training.

It’s a job that allows him to work from anywhere in the world, which is ideal. He’s also sponsored by New Balance and became a carded athlete this year.

Cliff has an Asics sponsorship.

“It’s great, because you don’t make a lot of money in this sport,” Winter said.

The men’s title is up for grabs Saturday (2:30 p.m. start) because Cam Levins, the running sensation from Black Creek on Vancouver Island and the three-time champion, isn’t here.

Instead, Winter will go for glory against defending champion Lucas Bruchet of White Rock; Sun Run winner Kelly Wiebe of Swift Current, Sask.; and a pair of Olympians: Taylor Milne of Guelph, and Quebec’s Alex Genest. Barry Britt of New Brunswick, Canada’s 10,000m champion, is also here.

Winter would love the victory Saturday, but there are certainly more important and bigger-pressure moments ahead.

Rio will surely be his last shot at an Olympics and Canada is four men deep in the steeplechase. Only three can go, so it’ll be about beating out Genest or Milne or Canadian record holder Matt Hughes.

To watch three of them battle Saturday should be a fun preview.

“Even now, you start feeling each other out,” said Winter, who’s working with sports psychologist Kirsten Barnes, the Olympic champion rower.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it will come down to one day (at Olympic trials). It’s crazy. I just hope I’m not sick or something.”