An Interview with Simon Bairu, the Greatest Distance Runner in Canadian History

The following interview by Christopher Kelsall was originally published on Flotrack and re-produced here with permission.

© Copyright – 2010 – Christopher Kelsall

Simon Bairu of Regina, Saskatchewan is the greatest distance runner in Canadian history.

Amongst the vast wealth of athletics prognosticators, it appears that it is a foregone conclusion that he will take down the long-standing and slightly soft by today’s standards…

, Canadian marathon record time of 2:10:08 set by Jerome Drayton at the 1975 Fukuoka Marathon.

Bairu does own the Canadian 10, 000m record, which he recently accomplished at the Stanford University track during the annual Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational. He ran the race in 27:23’63, finishing behind his Kimbia Athletics training partner Chris Solinsky who took the American 10, 000m record with his 26:59.3.

Bairu caused as much of a stir amongst the sleepy Canadian running community accomplishing his newly-minted Canadian record as he did a few years ago when he pronounced that the record of 6 Canadian Cross-Country Championships won by the legendary Paul McCloy is as good as gone. He was good on his word, as he surpassed the 6 national titles. His streak ended in 2007 at 5, just like McCloy, which includes 1 junior title (stopped due to injury) before reigniting the streak a year later, which includes two more wins in 2008 and 2009, for a total of 7 Canadian Cross-Country Championship titles.

Does his dominance suggest something about the state of Canadian distance running? No it doesn’t. He is just that good. For example, he accomplished a 13th place finish at perhaps the most competitive foot race on the planet, the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships; Bairu was 44 seconds from gold.

Bairu, coached by Jerry Schumacher is on a hot streak. He also won the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon in Arizona with his finish time of 62:47. Some suggest that this would be a good time for Bairu to attempt to take all Canadian records from 5000m to the half marathon and perhaps even the marathon however, he has bigger fish to fry. Perhaps that fish will come garnished with a big apple.

The Interview

Christopher Kelsall: What was the sports scene like growing up in Regina? In your youth, I assume hockey and curling’s Sandra Schmirler dominated the local news.

Simon Bairu: Yup, that’s pretty much it; curling and hockey with some love for the Saskatchewan Roughriders (Canadian Football League) during the summer and fall. I on the other hand couldn’t skate ‘till maybe 7th grade and even then I would just fall over every time I wanted to stop because I didn’t know how to slow down and stop; I got banged up pretty quickly. I played baseball from the age of 8 to about 14.

CK: What positions did you play?

SB: Shortstop and pitcher mostly. The coach would throw me in the game as a closer and I would strike everyone out because my pitch was slower than the usual pitcher and they couldn’t get the timing right and would swing early. Plus half the time the ball would land right on home plate so I’d like to think I had a mean sinker pitch!

CK: Ever had the mound charged, by an angry batter?

SB: No one ever did, which really surprises me thinking back, even though I was one of the smallest guys on the team, I used to heckle the opposing team a lot. I believe it’s called “Little Man Syndrome”.

CK: How old were you when you discovered running?

SB: I was probably 9 or 10 when I discovered running. Every year in early spring we would have a school meet and I would do everything from shotput to the 800. But back then you would drink a root beer and eat a bag of chips 15-20min before you competed, it was awesome! The summer going into 9th grade was probably when I really started to be involved more with running. It all started because I got into a fight the spring of my 8th grade year. I punched a kid in the face and my 8th grade teacher pulled me aside and gave me a choice: either I get suspended for a week or I join a track club for two weeks. For a second I actually thought about taking the suspension because in my mind getting the belt would have been a lot less painful! However, I decided to try the track thing and so I decided to go out and buy a pair of shoes to run in and I knew if I was going to be the best I needed the best shoes out there and that’s why I got my dad to buy me a pair of Air Jordans to run in! One minor injury and $150 later I bought a pair of running shoes.

That first week had me regretting my choice, but I made it through the two weeks and by the end of the second week there was an 800m race in which I finished second. I was excited with my finish I thought I was hot stuff for getting second but my dad just said to me “Bairu’s don’t finish second!” and so I promised myself I would stay with it ‘till I beat that guy. Eventually I beat him and then my dad and club coach told me the goal was to win provincials and the rest is history. Come to think of it there’s probably a good chance I wouldn’t be in the sport right now if I had won my first race.

CK: Why did you punch the other kid in the face and did he go down?

SB: Long story short we were on the two-hand touch football team and he wouldn’t pass me the ball, so I decided the next logical step was too punch him in the face. It would be fair to say I wasn’t a well-behaved child. He didn’t fall, but I made him cry! I still remember kids in the neighborhood telling me they can’t hang out with me because their parents don’t want them mixing with the wrong crowd. Funny related story, while I was at Wisconsin my parents would get random calls from parents from the “old neighbourhood” asking if the Simon Bairu in the paper is the same Simon Bairu they use to know. My parents always got a kick out of that.

CK: To quote you from a Canada.com article, “I’m definitely a mud runner and that made it easier for me,” Bairu said. “You have to go through the same thing as everyone else but running in the mud is my strength. I just seem to have that extra gear at the end of a race.”

Is your strength in mud, born from the sheer joy of running in mud – something as organic as that or do you train specifically for challenging conditions?

SB: I’m from Regina, Saskatchewan; 9 out of 12 months consists of running in “challenging conditions”. I think my childhood just made me tough, I still remember doing workouts in Madison in mid-October and the entire team would be all dressed up in full tights and a couple of long sleeve shirts, while I would be running in just shorts and gloves. But a part of it is definitely me just enjoying running on grass and mud.

CK: You are on quite a roll over the previous 12 months, with your 13th placing at IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Canadian 10, 000m record with your 27:23 and a 62:47 half marathon win – a personal best. Which of these are you most proud of?

SB: I would say I am most proud of the record for two reasons; The first reason is the fact that 3 or 4 years from now nobody is going to remember who won the Rock & Roll Half Marathon or who got 13th at World XC. The second reason is that it was the hardest of the three for me. Running on the track has always been my weakness compared to XC and road racing. I hope this doesn’t come off as arrogant but Jerry and I knew going into the two other races I would do what I did or come close to it. Whereas with the record, even though I knew I was fit enough to get it I knew there was a good chance I would start off over my head and blow up. Last year I thought the record was in the bag but not only did I not get the record but I didn’t even qualify for Worlds.

CK: In your Flotrack video interview with Ryan Fenton, directly after your Canadian record performance at the Payton Jordon Cardinal Invitational 10, 000m, you said that the result came from consistency in training and getting the mileage in. Did the consistency come from being injury free or was it more about working with Jerry Schumacher and getting all the right direction?

SB: The turning Point for me was the Payton Jordan race of last year when I ran 27:50 and missed going to worlds where as my training partner Tim Nelson ran great winning by 15 seconds. I was the only guy in our group not to qualify for worlds and I was pretty down about it for a few days. A few days after the race Jerry called me out and challenged me to train harder. He basically told me that all season I had been getting completely out-trained by the rest of my teammates and I needed to change that if I wanted to accomplish great things in this sport. One of the things that make Jerry a great coach is he knows exactly how to push certain buttons to get us to where he thinks we should be in our training. He has six different ways for six different athletes and for me he said and did exactly what I needed to hear. Jerry made me realize that if I wanted to be one of the best I had to start training like it. Being the best at something isn’t supposed to be easy and it isn’t.

Jerry use to joke (at least I think he was joking) that I was semi-pro because I wasn’t doing all the little things. I wasn’t doing everything I could to get the best out of my training. I was going out a bit too much, had an okay but not a great diet, and I wasn’t getting enough sleep. My training has been absolutely amazing and consistent ever since that conversation, and yeah I was definitely able to avoid injuries for the first time in three years. Last year’s 10k race was definitely a big turning point for me.

CK: Sounds like between not winning your first race as a child and missing the Canadian team with your 27:50 and being ‘told’ sort of speak by Jerry – it seems you respond well to adversity.

SB: I’ve always responded well to adversity, I love a challenge; it feeds my hunger to want to be the best.

CK: Canadian Cross Country Championships will be shortly after NY. Any chance we will see you there, taking another national title?

SB: I really want to do World XC next year, so I’ll discuss things with Athletics Canada and see what my options are, so yeah there’s a chance I’ll be doing it.

CK: Have you had a chance to meet Paul McCloy?

SB: To be honest, I don’t think I have met him, if I had it would have been really early in my career before I would have known who he was or how great his accomplishments were.

CK: Was your father an athlete in his day?

SB: My Dad was a body builder. As a kid I remember my dad taking me to 3 or 4 different doctors trying to figure out why I was so skinny. The doctors kept telling him nothing was wrong with me but he refused to listen and he just decided to take matters into his own hands and bought me a weight set and made me drink muscle milk and other protein shakes after dinner so that I could gain weight. Lucky for me, none of that worked, I maintained my skinny frame. My brother on the other hand is a 21-year-old, 205lbs, 6’1 Linebacker, so my dad ended up getting his wish!

CK: Is your brother getting a sniff from the pros?

SB: My brother plays in the Canadian Junior Football League (Regina Thunder). It’s a bit like the transition league from high school to university football. He definitely has a good chance of going pro; look for him in the CFL in a few years.

CK: Has Jerry (Schumacher) given you and indication of what the major changes in your training will look like, preparing for the marathon?

SB: We haven’t really discussed that yet, but I think I’ll be doing a lot of what I’ve already been doing this past year, but with a bit more volume and on an even more consistent basis.

CK: What have you been doing this past year?

SB: We don’t really like to go into details on specific workouts and training cycles. It’s not because we’re arrogant or think we have some sort of secret to success. Truth is on a fundamental level all we do is run hard and run a lot, but as far as details go it would be like asking Bill Belichick to reveal his playbook. We would rather not give the competition that kind of information.

CK: Ok what have you been up to this past year outside of running?

SB: This past year I’ve been involved with the Big Brother program mentoring a 10-year-old kid. It’s been a lot of fun and some of the guys on the team really like hanging out with him. It gives me an excuse to hang out at the arcades and go watch animated movies in the theaters, besides that, I’m training-sleeping-eating. When I actually get some downtime I like to just hang out with some of my friends I’ve made out here in Portland. Sometimes it’s nice to hang out with people who don’t know anything about running.

CK: You PWN at which video game?

SB: NBA street; I’ll make grown men cry!

CK: Your all-time favourite movie is?

SB: Training Day.

CK: Ok. Eastwood or Schwarzenegger?

SB: Eastwood is just a bad ass.

CK: What music are you listening to – especially on runs?

SB: I’m listening to Kanye West (my favourite for runs), the Beatles, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings as well as some Michael Jackson and Kid Cudi right now.

CK: Ok nice choices – I just downloaded Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings song, ‘I Learned the Hard Way’. It comes across as very Stax and Motown sounding, lots of soul. Is it Kanye for steady-longer runs, Sharon Jones for recoveries?

SB: I don’t really listen to music on recovery runs. I only listen when I’m running hard and I don’t have anyone to run with.

CK: NHL or NBA?

SB: Sorry Canada, but I’m going with the NBA, I love watching team Canada compete in international hockey tournaments, but not a fan of the NHL.

CK: Nash or Bryant?

SB: Nash is a warrior and Kobe is the best in the league, but I’ll go with Dwayne Wade.

Back to running

CK: Your favourite training run is?

SB: Long tempo runs that are so painful that it makes you hate running.

CK: How many West Hills 22-mile loop workouts did you put in, in advance of last season?

SB: Those loops are killer, but we do them to get strong and it works.

CK: Can you take me through the loop?

SB: Like most teams we don’t like to reveal details on what we do on specific workouts. Sorry.

CK: Root beer and chips it is then. So the word on the street is that you are running the New York City Marathon. I am guessing that you chose NY because; being a strength runner a rolling course may suit you more?

SB: The truth is I’m planning on doing NYC but it could change, we don’t really know yet. I love the course because you just grind it out for 26.2 miles. I’ve always been a strength runner so I feel a course like this would suit me more and plus I don’t think it’s a big secret that I want to break the Canadian national record in the marathon before it’s all said and done. The last thing I want to be doing in my debut marathon is looking at the clock chasing a time. That doesn’t mean I don’t think I can’t get the record in NY, but it just means I wont be focusing on it as much. If I accomplish my very lofty goal for NY, the record will fall in conjunction. It doesn’t get any loftier than aiming for the win in your debut marathon on one of the biggest stages in the world! I love the challenge, in fact I thrive on it; it’s what is going to get me through the next 6 months of training.

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