Busy days at St. Francis Xavier for Olympian Eric Gillis

Busy days at St. Francis Xavier for Olympian Eric Gillis

 

By: Monty Mosher

Three-time Olympian Eric Gillis has become really good at multi-tasking.

If you want a piece of his time these days, you might have to share him with his morning run.

The former all-Canadian runner at St. Francis Xavier has returned to his native Antigonish after years of living in Ontario, assisting X-Men head coach Bernie Chisholm with the cross country and track and field teams. When Chisholm retires at the end of this season, the 37-year-old Gillis will take on Chisholm's duties.

It was assumed that the significant life change might mean the St. F.X. sports hall of fame honoree would be stepping back from his own athletic endeavors.

Not so fast.

Gillis ran the men's marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, placing 10th in the best finish for a Canadian in 40 years.

He qualified for this summer's world track and field championships in London and was running well through 30 kilometres when a stomach virus, one that plagued the entire competition, knocked him out of the race.

He has relocated his family from Guelph, Ont., where he competed at the Speed River Track Club for many years, and welcomed a third child, a son, this month.

So there is plenty to do around home, which came with the added responsibility of a 23-year-old horse. There is plenty to do around campus, where he often runs with the X-Men and X-Women athletes.

On Monday, he made time to be interviewed over the phone while completing a 20-kilometre training run around Antigonish. He squeezed in a quick meeting at the university and also completed an errand or two.

It's not just to prove to friends and neighbours that he still can move his feet. He'll compete for Canada at a half-marathon in Havana on Nov. 19.

He is contemplating a marathon run in the spring of 2018, although he hasn't said which one. He's missed two chances to run the Boston Marathon due to injury.

"I'm running to stay fit, but I also want to keep competitive," Gillis said as he ran and talked, the sound of his feet hitting the pavement and cars whizzing past in the background. As for another marathon: "Yeah, a spring marathon is still the goal."

Gillis moved into coaching without much experience, although he took on a mentoring role at his track club in Ontario. He anticipated 2017-18 to be a learning year, but there's been more to it than that.

"I've been a little busier than I thought I was going to be," he said. "Maybe I should have seen it coming. We had a couple of coaches step down last year."

In particular, he'll take on duties with the sprinters and jumpers. The work has already begun.

"I'm jumping in with two feet there. I'm enjoying it a lot working with them. But it's new. Everything is new. A lot of it is just getting to know the athletes right now and trying to facilitate what they need and help them out."

Chisholm and assistant coach Kevin Grant handle most of the duties with the cross country program, but Gillis observes and attended a race in Halifax last weekend.

"So for me it's mostly the indoor stuff," he said. "I'm kind of the go-to guy for that right now. Bernie is still the head coach, but I'm learning lots. It's a good opportunity for me to learn, but it's been extra busy."

It's been a sweet reunion with his home community. He said many who stop to chat assume he has retired as a competitor and are surprised to find out he's still tucking away the miles on the roads.

He competed for the X-Men from 1999 to 2004. His last year as a cross country competitor was 2003 and his final year in indoor track was 2004.

He was the Canadian varsity cross country champion in 2003. He was a four-time all-Canadian in cross country, made an an all-Canadian team in track and was twice selected the male athlete of the year at St. F.X.

He made his Olympic debut in 2008 in Beijing, placing 33rd in the 10,000 metres. He switched to the marathon, qualifying for the London Olympics in 2012 and placing 22nd.

"There have been a surprising number of familiar faces," Gillis said of the return home. "Some things don't change. Small towns, universities -- some of the patterns and the culture don't change.

"I always enjoyed the culture within the St. F.X. athletic department. And the town really gets into the X spirit once the university comes back. I'm really enjoying taking that in again."

He'll stop any number of times to speak to friends and neighbours while out on his runs.

"Yes, people are curious," he said. "They see me running, so they know I'm not done with running, but they are curious to know how I'm going to keep it going.

"We just had a new baby, our third, so there's been lots of change. But it's all been good change."

Can there be too much of a good thing?

"I told Bernie the other day that I'm enjoying everything," Gillis said. "The only limiting factor is the number of hours in a day, so I think that's just something any busy person deals with.

"I definitely have the energy, it's just picking and choosing what I take on right now is probably the most difficult part."

It's matter of finding a routine.

"This 20 kilometres is going to take a lot longer than it normally does," said Gillis, unfazed by the errands and the chit-chat while on his rounds. He even brought his bank card so he could buy a drink along the way.

"As long as I keep my attitude up and be smart about it, I'll still get my training in and get the other stuff done I need to do. I'm just figuring it out right now."

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