The nerves usually calm for Malindi Elmore as soon as she starts a race, but the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon was a different animal. Yes, there was the prospect of the daunting 42.195 kilometres ahead in this debut marathon for the veteran middle-distance runner, but another worry occupied Elmore’s mind in the early going: How long could her seven-month-old son, Oliver, be happy without food? She hoped the answer was a good long while, since the only source of nutrition he accepted was out for a very long run.
When Elmore crossed the finish line, she didn’t even stop to catch her breath before wading through the crowd looking for her family, who she found about 15 minutes later. Dressed in a navy blue onesie, Oliver was mostly sleepy and calm during the time away from Elmore as his dad, Graham Hood, bounced him. But as soon as Oliver saw Mom, he burst into tears. Elmore sat down on the road, salty with dried sweat, and nursed him with a finisher’s medal dangling from her neck.
Elmore and Hood started to laugh then, thinking about what she had just achieved. The 38-year-old had crossed the finish line in two hours and 32 minutes, a mere four minutes and 11 seconds shy of the Canadian marathon record. Elmore had trained just three months for this race. She had been up twice the night before to feed Oliver. And still, she finished her first marathon thinking: “That was easy. I can run way faster.”
There are incredible facts you may already know about Malindi Elmore as she prepares to represent Canada in the women’s Olympic marathon, because hers is an incredible story. She is 41, the oldest member of Canada’s track and field team, and she retired from running nine years ago, after a career at the 1,500-metre distance. Elmore last competed at the Olympics 17 years ago — hers is the longest gap between Games for any track and field athlete in history. But those highlights are only part of what makes the marathoner from Kelowna, B.C., one of the most compelling Canadians competing at the Olympics. Her appearance represents a second act for an athlete who left running burnt out and broken hearted and, frankly, with no love left to give. And now, on the biggest stage in sports, Elmore is chasing a dream she’d given up on years ago.
In his many years of coaching at the Kelowna Track and Field Club, Mike Van Tighem had never sent a recruitment letter to the family of a kid in grade school. And then along came a 13-year-old with brown hair and piercing blue eyes named Malindi.
She’d been invited to a meet at his club after winning an elementary school race, which is how the club scouted new members. Usually, kids who won at that invitational meet stuck around to speak with coaches about their future. Not Elmore. She went straight home after winning her 1,500m race in 5:07, a time that caught Van Tighem’s eye as he went through results later that day. Elmore had run only about a minute slower than the gold medal-winning time at the 1992 Olympics a year prior. “For an untrained 13-year-old?” Van Tighem says. “That’s pretty good.”
Having missed the chance for an in-person pitch, Van Tighem sent a recruitment letter. When Elmore’s mom, Brenda, replied, she said her daughter was already playing soccer and field hockey, and theirs was a max-two-sports-at-a-time household. So Van Tighem waited until the day of field hockey finals before dropping another letter at the Elmores’. His persistence and patience paid off: Near the end of the track and field season, Elmore made running her second sport.
What Van Tighem couldn’t have known when he recruited Elmore is that she was not only fast, but fiercely competitive. Elmore’s parents would get their daughters to race one another to bed — a genius parenting ploy. There’s a photo of the girls getting ready to race, and while Elmore’s sister, Jeanette, is grinning with one hand playfully in the air, four-year-old Malindi is in the starting position, staring ahead straight-faced and waiting to hear “Go!” At school, Elmore’s favourite activity was one most kids dreaded, the Canada Fitness Test. Only one kid beat her in the test’s endurance race in Grade 2. “I had a grudge against him for a solid couple years after that,” she says, laughing. Elmore got her revenge when she beat him at a cross-country meet in Grade 8.
Elmore first made news on the track when she was 15 and entered into a senior-level meet with a couple of her track teammates. Elmore won her 800m B final in 2:09:93 and ran a 4:26:33 in the 1,500m, which placed her fifth or sixth in a final full of adults. After her last race, the team hustled out of the stadium, but one of the girls forgot her shoes and ran back to get them. When she returned to the group, she shared what she’d heard over the PA system: “Malindi, they announced your name. You set a record!” No girl in B.C. under the age of 16 had ever run either the 800m or 1500m that fast. Elmore responded: “Oh, cool. Where are we going to eat?”
Elmore went on to set school records at Stanford at both distances, and despite being hampered by injury for much of her NCAA career, she was also a five-time all-American. After graduating in 2003, she focused on the 2004 Olympics and moved to Calgary to train with Van Tighem. Back then, Canadian track athletes — unlike those in the rest of the world — were required by Athletics Canada to run the Olympic standard time or better not just once, but twice, to make the Olympic team. And so, Elmore grinded. The calendar year leading up to the Games, she ran the 1,500m standard with a 4:04 in Oregon, and then it took two separate trips to Europe before she hit standard again with a personal best of 4:02 in Rome.
In Athens at the Olympics, Elmore had a respiratory infection and she was exhausted from earning her berth. She felt strong in her race early on, but with 150m to go, everyone else in her heat kicked to the finish and she didn’t have another gear. “I was tapped out,” she says. Expected to make the final based on her previous times, Elmore was instead one and done.
“Not getting out of the heat was kind of devastating,” Van Tighem says. But the sting didn’t last too long for either coach or runner. After all, Elmore was just 24 years old.
“I’m going to be back here in four years,” she thought. “Now I know how to compete at this level. I can’t wait for my next chance.”
It’s two weeks before Elmore flies to Tokyo for her second Olympic Games, and the question of what has changed in the 17 years between appearances makes her laugh. She really has to think back to remember what the Canadian uniforms looked like in 2004, but other memories, like the party at the closing ceremony, are still vivid. “Oh gosh, it was so long ago,” she says. “It feels like a different life. I was a kid.”
Elmore now works as a running coach at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. She has already been for two short training runs today, and this afternoon she’s taking seven-year-old Jack and three-year-old Oliver to the beach. Her busy life, she says, has contributed to her recent running success.
“I think partly what’s helped me is my life revolves, for most of the day, around everyone else in my family. And that’s a good thing for me. I feel so fulfilled,” she says, while cutting potatoes so she and Hood don’t have to scramble to make dinner later. “Running isn’t all-or-nothing anymore.”
Coming off the Athens Games, all-or-nothing barely captured Elmore’s level of commitment. Her focus after her Olympic debut immediately shifted to being at her best for her next shot at the Games — and she succeeded: In 2008, no Canadian woman was faster at 1,500m. Elmore had achieved Olympic standard ahead of the Beijing Games, but she needed to hit it a second time, per Athletics Canada’s rule.
The Olympics opened in August, and Elmore spent July in Europe, chasing that standard. The closest she came was 0.7 seconds too slow. Though no Canadian female middle-distance runner cleared the double-qualifying bar, Athletics Canada made an exception. Instead of sending Elmore, though, they sent a rookie who hadn’t even achieved the A standard once, let alone twice. The official reasoning was to give the younger runner some Olympic experience.
“That was crushing,” Elmore says. “I was so frustrated, angry and heartbroken — and felt really robbed and really unsupported by our federation, to be honest. They didn’t understand what the top athletes in the world were doing, that we were being asked to do more than what other top athletes were doing for their preparation.”
Two weeks before the 2008 Games, three Russians favoured to sweep the 1,500m podium were among a group disqualified due to doping infractions. Van Tighem was in the stadium in Beijing for the race, having anticipated Elmore would be running. “I knew this was going to be the worst day to be there, to see all these girls on the track and know Malindi could be there and she’s not,” he says. “It turned out to be worse — there were no heats in the 1,500m. They didn’t have enough women after the doping scandal, so they went straight to a semi-final. Malindi could’ve shown up at the track and she would’ve been an Olympic semi-finalist.
“That was tough. It’s what she and I refer to as a soul-sucking experience.”
Elmore and Van Tighem weren’t done trying, though. Four years later, two months prior to Canada’s 2012 Olympic Trials, Elmore was trying to hit Olympic standard again. She’d raced in South Korea, Morocco, Jamaica, Norway and Switzerland. Her best finish was a little more than a second too slow. “I kept being close and just missing,” she says. “I needed a break, because it was getting too hard emotionally. It was robbing me of the joy of running.”
Elmore decided her final race would be the 2012 Olympic Trials, that June in Calgary. At the age of 32, she’d retire.
It wasn’t unwelcome news to many around her. “At that point, it was almost a bit of a relief for me when it was time for her to retire, because she didn’t have to go through the heartbreak anymore, and I didn’t have to watch the heartbreak anymore,” says Hood, a 1,500m runner and two-time Olympian himself. “As much as I knew she could’ve carried on and there would have been some good times, there had been quite a bit of heartache for a number of years.”
A month out from the 2012 Games, Elmore won trials in Calgary. She beat two teammates who’d go on to represent Canada at the Olympics and then stepped off the track for good. Van Tighem was in tears after the race.
“To me, that’s probably the most impressive race I’ve seen her run,” he says. “It meant everything — and it meant nothing in a lot of ways.”
Goals change, and sometimes they change in a hurry. In the year leading up to the 2020 Houston Marathon, Elmore’s sights had been on hitting the 2:29:30 Olympic standard. But a couple of months before the race, it became clear she’d set the bar too low.
At the 10km mark in Houston, Elmore felt like she was out for a jog. “I could see my 3:25 splits [per km] coming up,” she says. “I knew I had so much more in me still.”
The pack splintered with five kilometres to go, and a headwind picked up. Elmore, a couple months away from turning 40, reminded herself she used to be a 1,500m racer and she had to kick to the finish. She sprinted across that line in 2:24:50, breaking the Canadian record by more than two minutes and all but assuring herself a berth in her second Summer Games.
Her return to running and rapid ascent in the marathon world has caught the eye of many Canadian teammates. “She is, in my eyes, the true definition of a super woman,” says 800m runner Melissa Bishop, who sustained an injury to her hamstring just before the Games and didn’t make it out of her heat in Tokyo. “Malindi can train for a freaking marathon at an amazing pace and then she can go out and snowshoe in Kelowna in six feet of snow and she can go cross-country skiing and go for another run later. It’s insane to me, and I’m so inspired by it.”
Even Hood uses the word “surreal” to describe the last three years of his wife’s career. “I knew very early in the training that she was a marathoner,” Hood says. “But for her to get back to this level? I think it’s still a bit shocking to both of us.”
After their first son was born, she’d gotten into Iron Man competitions to get back into shape, but Hood was happy to see her focus on one discipline rather than the more time consuming trio after Oliver was born. Hood designed Elmore’s marathon training program, and he’s also her coach, “[though] she doesn’t really need one, except occasionally to hold her back,” he says.
Elmore has had ample time to not only crush workouts, but to rest ahead of these Olympics — a first in her career. “She’s showing up at the top of her game as opposed to tired, and she’s really able to perform at her best,” Hood says. Elmore’s sights are set on a top-10 finish (the podium is the dream), and a big goal is to place better than ninth — that was Hood’s best-ever finish at the Olympics, 29 years ago. “I’ve got to beat him,” Elmore says. Well, of course.
Hood, who’ll be watching from home with Jack and Oliver, is hoping Elmore betters his best, but he also believes that wouldn’t be the most important result of her return to the Olympic stage.
“She’s at such a mature and good spot in her life that she’ll have a great day. I don’t know whether that means she’ll be fifth or 15th, but I think it’ll be a performance that she’ll look back on with a lot of positive thoughts at the end of this Olympics, significantly more so than the first one,” he says. “It’ll allow her to have a lifelong positive feeling and love for the sport that won’t be jaded. I think that’s just wonderful for her to have gotten to that place.”
While Hood won’t be at the Games, Van Tighem will, now as a marathon coach with Athletics Canada. He and Elmore are coming up on 30 years working together. When he saw her time in the Houston marathon back in 2019, Van Tighem called Elmore and told her: “You’ve got a new calling in life.”
The Olympics will mark Elmore’s third official marathon, and among the 99 women in the field, she’s the third-oldest. “I 100 per cent take pride in that,” she says. “There’s no expiration or best-before date on our bodies, right?
“Yeah, I’ve got my age side of it, but that means I have 20 years of aerobic training under my belt. A 22-year-old doesn’t have 22 years of running under their belt,” she adds, laughing. “And trust me, I’ve got my sights set on doing something cool at the Olympics.”
Elmore’s favourite city is Paris, and it happens to be the site of the 2024 Summer Games. “I’ll only be 44 at the next Olympics,” she says. “We definitely have our eyes on me making that team.”
Only 44, and competing in her third Games. Imagine that. But first things first: Running a race she’s happy with on the biggest stage — at last.
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