In 2001, Manny Rodrigues established the Elite Athlete program at the Ottawa Marathon. Over the past thirteen years, Manny has grown the program, not just adding prize money but building the on- and off-course support required for elite athletes to perform at their best. The hard work has paid off. Last year, four men ran under 28 minutes in the Ottawa 10K, making it one of the fastest fields in the world. And in the men’s and women’s marathons, Tariku Jufar and Yeshi Esayias, both of Ethiopia, set course records running 2:08 and 2:25 respectively—fast, fast times.
So what’s next? We tracked down Manny on his lunch break from his day job as an engineer with a local telecom firm to chat about what it takes to bring the world’s best to Ottawa and his goals as Elite Athlete Coordinator over the coming years.
Let’s start with the basics. Are you a runner?
I am a runner. I started running way back in high school. I had a teacher who wanted people to come out for the cross-country team in grade 10. I was working at a restaurant that was 4 miles from my house. I told myself, if I could run home from work, then I would go out for the cross-country team. And I did. So from Grade 10 on, I was a runner.
And did you go on to run in university?
I did. I ran for U of A [University of Alberta] my first year there. But I was number 8 on the squad, so I got to go to the small meets but not the larger ones. And the following year they cut the program.
I was less serious about running for a few years after university. I was running a bit as part of the Nortel running club, and then around 1994 I got a coach who changed how I trained from running miles to time and effort, and I was able to drop my 10K time from a 34 to a 32 [minutes]. So I was able to get to a new level.
It sounds like that was a pretty serious club at Nortel.
Our top runner was actually John Halvorsen [current Race Director]. We had five guys who could all run under 16:30 [for 5K]. We went to the Chase Corporate Challenge in the U.S. and won, putting all five of our runners in the top ten. Then they had the rules changed so we couldn’t compete in the future [laughing].
Former Race Director, Jim Robinson, and Manny share a laugh at the Run Ottawa booth during this year’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
So, we had a very active club. And it was through the club I met Glendon Pye, who was in charge of the finish line at the race weekend. In 1999, Glendon wanted to run the marathon, so he needed someone to coordinate the finish line and he recruited me. And that’s how I got involved.
Why the switch from finish line guy to starting the Elite Athlete program?
We had elites coming to the races but we didn’t have a program. The incident that drove the point home was when Bruce Deacon [winner of the 2000 Ottawa Marathon] wanted to put some special water bottles out on the course. We said, “Put them behind that desk and we’ll try to get them out there for you.” And that was the extent of the program. Another year, Rachid Tbahi came and he slept in his car and then won the 10K the next day. That was the 90s.
So, at first the program was just a case of can we provide a few hotel rooms? Then it became, can we do a little bit of travel on top of the hotel rooms? Today we have a very good program with travel, accommodations, appearance fees and time bonuses.
Last year Boston Marathon record holder, Geoffrey Mutai, ran the 10K. How do you attract that kind of talent?
With the marathon we’re a stepping stone but with the 10K we’re not. To bring in one of the top athletes for the marathon is 10 times the cost because they can do 10Ks more frequently. A Geoffrey Mutai can run the London Marathon and five weeks later come and run the 10K in Ottawa. Our course record holder, Deriba Merga, won the Boston Marathon and then came and won our 10K a few weeks later. So they can get their big marathon payday and still run in Ottawa.
In terms of our marathon, athletes like Ottawa because it has a reputation for fast times. Like this year, with our 2:08. If it was a tough course, you couldn’t do that. So, athletes will come to Ottawa looking for a fast time that can then be a launching pad to bigger races. The 2:08 and the 2:25 we got this year will help us the future.
And in general, we’ve done a very good job of putting a good product out there. I always ask the agents and athletes what they think and they often say, ‘You’re as good as any of them’.
What do you think the elite competition adds to the race weekend?
Well, it can be a bit intangible. But one of the interesting takeaways I’ve had is that I’ve had non runners come up to me after the race, and they don’t necessarily recognize who Geoffrey Mutai is, but when those guys go by them and they see how fast they are running, it really leaves an impression. It is something special to see.
And what do you enjoy most about your role?
There’s a whole excitement about the weekend. I really enjoy it because I’m fully involved. And while it is a lot of work, it is also very different from what I do for my day-to-day job. Definitely one of the benefits is getting to watch the race unfold from the pace car.
Do you have a most memorable race?
One would have been 2004. We didn’t have the fastest time, I think it was won in 2:11, but it was a 3-man battle all the way from 30K. It was an Algerian who spoke French, a Guatemalan who spoke Spanish, and a Kenyan who spoke English and Swahili. So they couldn’t communicate with each other and they were battling each other the whole way. The winner, Elly Rono, got clipped, fell, got up, and caught up with the group again. It was a terrific race. Lots of drama. I’d love for us to find ways to better bring that drama to the spectator.
Speaking of that, what are some future goals for the Elite Athlete Program?
Every year we look at what we can do better. How we can spend the money more intelligently. That’s going to be ongoing. Next year, I want to get the finish line better aligned for the elites so they can do their interviews, and make sure we have the translator at the right place at the right time. I also want to use our press conferences to maximize visibility for the athletes.
Long term? I’d love to see us go for world records.
Many thanks to Manny for taking the time to chat. We can’t wait to hear what athletes he’ll be bringing to the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in 2014!
Le Mot de Joe
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