Dayna Pidhoresky earned her spot on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Team with a breakthrough performance at the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
She was the top Canadian woman in the race that doubled as the national marathon trials and lowered her personal best by more than seven minutes (from 2:36:08 to 2:29:03) to go under the Olympic entry standard time...
Here is the 5th Episode of Ultra Distance about her marathon at the Tokyo Olympic Games !
A marathon of a journey
Although my quest to the Olympics began long ago, it was actualized at the Canadian Olympic Trials in October of 2019 when I won the marathon and secured my spot on the Canadian Olympic team. Before that, my journey towards the marathon was an arduous one.
After a very successful 2011 I planned to dip my toes into the marathon waters — I had been successful at the half marathon distance and knew that the marathon was the next logical step if I wanted to represent Canada.
Instead, injury plagued me off and on and delayed my debut for nearly 5 years. My body finally strong and stabilized, I toed the line at the 2016 Houston Marathon: GI issues early in the race prematurely ended my day (perhaps related to the food poisoning that struck many of the elite athletes).
Later that year I would try again at the Toronto Marathon and this time I did make it to the finish line as third Canadian — albeit hobbling in with a sacral stress fracture in a time of 2:40:38. The next year I qualified for the World Championship Team by running a personal best at the Ottawa marathon and although my marathon at Worlds was a bit disappointing, it taught me to keep learning and strive for more. The 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games had come and gone but my sights were now set on 2020 and the Canadian Olympic trials: you know how that went.
One step forward two steps back
Dealing with the uncertainty and the delay of the Olympic Games in 2020, which then shifted to 2021, was an unknowingly exhausting experience. Closures of gyms putting a stop to my regular strength routine would also have unforeseen consequences.
The Olympic marathon was the carrot I could never catch and then just as the date was finally approaching and we were close to shipping off to our training camp in the Gifu Prefecture, hours outside the bustling city of Tokyo, I developed an injury in my lower leg. To manage it we continued with workouts that I was still able to perform successfully, but in between those sessions I reduced my volume and spent time on the Lever (a suspension system on the treadmill) and on the indoor bike trainer. We were managing and hoping to calm down the inflamed tendon but the stress was mounting as the marathon date was approaching.
Things then just went from bad to worse. A few days after our flight over to Japan, my coach (also my husband) and I were identified as close contacts to someone who had later tested positive for Covid-19. We were quickly forced into isolation at our hotel and my training and heat acclimation, which I was hoping to gain by traveling there so early, came to a halt. I was relegated to an exercise bike they brought to our room for training, no fresh air, no outdoor time, no bonding with teammates. Our meals were delivered and thankfully I had a well stocked supply of Naak Protein Powder and Ultra Energy Bars to fill the gaps! Suffice it to say, my mental state was trending toward the gutter. This was not the Olympic experience I had envisioned.
I was transported to our Olympic venue several days later. I was permitted to travel to Sapporo for the event (on a separate island to the north known as Hokkaido) as my coach headed home to Vancouver. Training camp was over and this was as far as his credentials allowed. Eager to be reunited with my team, my dreams were quickly crushed. Upon landing in Sapporo we slowly realized my isolation was not over. I had separate transport from the rest of the team, a separate eating table, a separate hotel floor I was confined to – I felt more alone than ever and completely overwhelmed. The last thing I thought I could handle was running a marathon.
So while alone in my room: where I spent most of my time, I got to work. With the help of some incredible sport psychologists I was able to wrap my mind around the task still ahead of me and rewrite my goals to allow for the best chance of success -- which ultimately meant rewriting what success was going to mean. My new outlook became what can I gain from this experience? It might not be the Olympic experience I had in mind a month ago but there was still an opportunity to learn and to grow. So how could I get to the start line and what could I do to try my best to make it to the finish line? My new goal became: try to stay in the race as long as possible to learn as much as possible. Such a simple goal of putting one foot in front of the other but given the immense stress I had faced and the pain and weakness my tendon created with each stride, it would still be a challenge. That said, it was a challenge I could mentally handle.
Run until you can't
I started very conservatively, running beside a Dutch woman who knew the heat would be a huge factor for those who went out too hard. Early on though, my stomach started to churn – a symptom of the NSAIDs I had been on to combat the pain. I had to leave my running buddy as I rushed into a port-a-potty.
Unfortunately, this would not be my first stop. The dance continued as I would hop out, run another five kilometers and then end up having to hop back in. In the meantime, I rejected my planned carbohydrate fueling from my bottles on the race tables and focussed only on cooling via the bags of ice and water bottles provided. Even with all the cooling provided, as the race progressed I noticed more and more athletes on the sidelines receiving medical attention after they had dropped out of the race. I felt a boost that I was still moving forward but it was frustrating to catch up to my fellow racers and then lose all that time at the next "rest" stop.
After another inconvenient bathroom stop I knew I was at the back of the race. What a tough place to be. If I was going to persist I would have to put my ego aside. No long after my quads began to cramp -- likely due to the heat and lack of nutrition I was able to take in. Things were getting hard and my body was empty with still a ways to go to the finish line. I wished for collapse so I could tap out of this race from hell but my legs wouldn't completely give way. The finish line was a welcomed sight.
Through the looking glass
I was embarrassed to say that I was proud of myself. I had kept going when every part of me wanted to give up: my body, my pride, my mind (at times). Looking back on my Olympic experience I still grapple with the fact that I was LAST in the Olympic marathon (I suppose “last finisher” would be more exact). It's hard to feel proud about that. But perhaps my circumstances in the lead up can point to a story of strength – of resilience, that I hope I can continue to channel in my life and in my sport. My goal is that one day, on another Olympic marathon start line I can put all that experience to use and have an outcome higher up on the results list.
My healing journey has continued even now. As I tune in to the Beijing Winter Olympics I am reminded how much I admire the athletes that endure when everything is seemingly crumbling around them. They are the ones I am in awe of. It's easy to keep going when things are going well – when your success almost propels you forward. But true grit is having the strength and courage to persevere when the going gets tough, it's that dogged determination as you swim against the current.
So as I continue to pick up the pieces, my motivation looking ahead is brimming. I long for redemption on the world stage. I want to put all my learnings into action and channel those past experiences at future races. I’ve recognized my physical weak points and continue to address them in the hopes that injuries are more few and far between. But most of all, mentally, I know I can dig. I can persist when no one would blame me for giving up. So when I run into that “wall” in my next marathon, when the finish line couldn’t come fast enough, I’ll dig deeper, knowing that the well is vaster than I could have ever imagined.