Dylan Wykes: overcoming challenges in the new era of road racing
“One of the great things about running in Ottawa is you’re rarely forced to battle vehicle traffic, because of all the great pathways.”
If you’ve followed his career, you already know Dylan Wykes isn’t the type to get pigeon-holed in one pursuit, adapting instead to new challenges in his journey as a professional runner. This 37 year-old has routinely reinvented himself in the running world ever since he first started winning OFSAA Championships in secondary school, which led him to achieve milestones many athletes only dream of. Represent Canada at the 2012 Olympics? Check. Start a 5-star rated coaching program? Check. Win the Canadian Men’s 10K Champion title in 2019? Check.
It’s tough to get him to brag about it, though. Easy going and jockular about his latent “imposter syndrome”, this Canadian athlete could get away with being arrogant for all the éclat he brings to running and coaching, however it’s obvious there’s something much more important and optimistic on his mind.
It’s that every step of the way, his journey with sports brought him closer to his running community, and to his family – the greatest rewards of all.
The Olympic moment
You could say the road to Wykes’ most impactful experience as an elite athlete all started with what is arguably the most important PB of his life, when he finished 7th at the Rotterdam Marathon with a time of 2:10:47. At the time it was the second fastest marathon time for a Canadian, finally catapulting him to the 2012 Olympics – which Wykes marks as being the most memorable in his professional running career.
“I’ll never forget that rush of adrenaline, and emotion from the roar of the crowds,” he says, adding that the start line experience didn’t exactly begin that way at the Olympic Marathon in London.
“The way the course was set up, we started essentially in front of Buckingham Palace.
So, because of security, there weren’t fans at the start. It was a weird start,” he explains.
After half a mile, he went through an archway into the next leg, moving beyond where the security was so high, and then WHAM.
“It was crazy,” he recalls. “It went from being empty – no crowd – to ten, twelve people deep.
And I just laughed. It was so overwhelming, my only reaction was to laugh. It was kind of like that for the rest of the race.”
It was a source of pride and motivation, he explains, to see so many Canadian flags in the hoards of cheering spectators. But there was one person in particular that meant the most – his girlfriend, now wife, waving from the sidelines.
“Seeing a loved one gives you a boost,” he sighs. “She told me the day before she’d scoped out a spot, and told me she’d be there, so the first loop I looked and looked around… And saw her. It meant so much.”
Coaching as the next chapter
After the 2012 Olympics, Wykes found himself being invited to give talks at events, running clubs and athletic organizations. Other runners who looked up to him wanted to hear how to train, how to achieve their own goals, and it opened up a passion Wykes hadn’t explored before.
“I just gobbled up those opportunities, whereas in the past I would have put training first,” he explains. “I shifted things after the Olympics, and it opened my eyes to the recreational running community, the other 20,000 people in these races, and how important that community really is. I knew that my reach could be bigger, and my community could be bigger.”
That’s when the idea of coaching became a nagging and insistent ambition. Then, runner-turned-pro-cyclist Mike Woods convinced him to try coaching full tilt, and soon after they founded Mile2Marathon together in 2013.
“You’re not just writing a basic training plan to help someone work towards a race anymore. Coaching in 2020 is about investing in the person, getting to know the individual, and knowing what makes them tick. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.” He points to the fact that in recent years people have more access to (and more often seek out) mentors.
“People are willing to invest a lot in their goals – all kinds of goals,” he explains. “Coaching has evolved into more of a shared journey.”
That shared journey is looking vastly different this year. The global pandemic has altered the lives of all athletes, and populations worldwide are in various stages of quarantine to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“It’s really strange,” Wykes admits. “I get a lot of enjoyment in coaching from seeing people and leading them in workouts in person, but there is still value in exploring and sharing in a virtual setting, too.”
Family and community make it matter most
Many people incorrectly assume that Wykes and his family picked up and moved to Ottawa from Vancouver in 2018 for his running career, when actually it was because his wife took on a big challenge of her own: as a faculty member for Health Sciences at Carleton University.
“Life here is good for our family,” he says. “Our daughters are 3 and 5, and they are enjoying that they can see their grandparents more often. There’s tons to do outside while social distancing,” he says. That’s right, for now, he’s at home with his family just like the rest of us!
Getting to share more of his experiences with his wife and two daughters has also been a highlight. Wykes says they support him on his longer runs, and they were out cheering for him on the course for the Ottawa 10k last year when he became the Canadian Men’s Champ. “That was a really fun moment for me to see them with about 1 km to go, near the Pretoria bridge,” he beams.
One of the things he’s most struck by when it comes to Ottawa is the running community.
“People here embrace winter,” he says, sounding truly impressed. “They still do their thing and everyone maintains a positive attitude, even while training in minus 30 degree weather and surrounded by snow. In Vancouver, when there’s a few snowflakes everyone kind of freaks out, and the city shuts down.”
If you’ve wanted to try training like Wykes, he recommends what he calls his “bridges run” that incorporates both flat and hilly running stretches – and some amazing views of iconic Ottawa landmarks. “One of the great things about running in Ottawa is you’re rarely forced to battle vehicle traffic, because of all the great pathways,” he emphasizes.
His loop starts on the canal path near Lansdowne, running towards Parliament, then follows along the Ottawa river, over the Champlain Bridge into Quebec where the path becomes more sheltered by trees. Once you’re behind the Canadian Museum of History, you climb up to the Alexandria Bridge and head back along the canal path towards Old Ottawa south.
“Being from outside the Ottawa area, there is also something novel about being able to do a single run that covers two different provinces.”
A new role in running
At the start of 2020, Wykes stepped into some big shoes, replacing Manny Rodrigues as the Elite Athlete Coordinator for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend for Canada’s largest marathon weekend. For Wykes, taking on this role was another way to give back to the running community, and connect more deeply with Ottawa. It’s proven to be one of his biggest – and most rewarding – challenges yet.
“I’ve been to so many races across Canada and the world as an elite athlete, but never really got a good appreciation for everything they do,” he says. “When I signed up for the job, I really wanted to be able to contribute to the elite side of our sport in some way other than competing, and this role seemed like a great fit. It was fun to recruit and build a field of elites. I was so excited and invested,” he explains.
At first, it felt short lived. In March, COVID-19 hit and suddenly there was a “new normal”. Race weekend had to be cancelled, and Wykes shared in the massive disappointment felt by all runners who had been training for the May 23-24th weekend. Instead of getting defeated, Wykes was up for trying something entirely new… And now history will be made on July 1st!
With the support of Athletics Canada and the participating elite runners, the Canadian 10K Championships will be going ahead – as the Virtual Canadian 10K Championships, a first in the 46-year history of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend (and first in Canadian history!).
“It’s unknown territory,” he says of the early days when the virtual event was just a hopeful idea. “A virtual race for a national championship? It hasn’t been done! Luckily, Ian Fraser, our race director was very receptive and open to the idea.”
Despite the setbacks faced by the running community, Wykes sees an opportunity and a whole new way to get runners connected to events and each other, even under COVID-19 restrictions.
“For one thing, people can compete without having to travel. They can run the same virtual events with us here in Canada. There are some advantages to the virtual components we’re applying in 2020 that would be interesting to maintain in 2021. “Real” races may have to look different in the future.”
One thing we know for sure, Dylan Wykes is up to the challenge.