Road to Rio: Pushing steeplechase to new heights

Sports Apr 16, 2016 by Greg Mercer Guelph Mercury

GUELPH — A miserable mix of freezing rain and snow is pelting Alex Genest, Taylor Milne and Chris Dulhanty as they blur past on the trail under a slate grey sky.

It's late afternoon on a weekday in March, and the three are running on a cross-country course near the University of Guelph campus. This kind of weather might scare most people indoors, but they're different. They're steeplechasers.

No one wants to be the first to back down.

Not when they're training for the same goal — running fast enough to be one of three Canadian men to race in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

The athletes train together regularly, but they're also competing against each other at a time when the steeplechase has never been more stacked with talent in Canada.

Four men, led by national record holder Matt Hughes of Oshawa, have already beaten the Olympic standard of 8:30. The other three — Genest, Milne and Chris Winter — are all teammates on Guelph's Speed River Track and Field Club.

Dulhanty, the youngest of the pack, is right behind them. He's knocking on the door, just three seconds off the standard.

And that's only on the men's side. Their Speed River teammate Geneviève Lalonde beat the women's Olympic standard of 9:45 by 10 seconds last season. Some think the 20-year-old is fast enough to make the final in Rio.

Last fall, Lalonde spent three months in the Arctic, but kept up her training for the Olympics despite the -40 C weather, wolves and other hazards of the Far North. With teammates running in those conditions, it's no wonder the guys aren't complaining about a little snow today.

Steeplechasers need to be tough because they compete in one of the most humbling events in athletics. Imagine racing 3,000 metres around a track, but with booby traps. Each race includes 28 hurdles and seven water jumps, and everyone around you is wearing spikes. Some describe it as NASCAR, but without the noise.

Genest, Milne, Winter, Dulhanty and Lalonde may share similar goals, but they all took unique paths to get here.

Genest, a 2012 Olympian, is considered the most technically sound of all of Speed River's steeplers. He won silver at the Pan Am Games last summer, and has been a mentor to many of the club's other athletes. He still holds the Canadian junior record in the event.

Milne, a 2008 Olympian, is a converted 1,500-metre runner who rebuilt his career in the steeplechase. He ran the fastest of any of his teammates last year, clocking 8:19.90 at a race in Belgium, which would have put him on the podium at the London Olympics.

Winter, who now trains in Vancouver, shaved about 17 seconds off his time since coming to Guelph after his college career with the NCAA's Oregon Ducks. He's the most consistent of the club's steeplechasers, in a sport where the constant change of pace can trip up even the best athletes.

Lalonde, a former understudy of Olympic steeplechaser Joël Bourgeois, has been on the Olympic fast track since the age of 13. She ran the fastest time of any Canadian woman last year, and has a good shot at setting a new national record this season.

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is coming off a strong 2015 season. He took a big leap forward in his progression, running 8:33.76 in Lapinlahti, Finland last July — the first time he'd ever run a sub-8:40 race.

A golden era

It's a special time for the steeplechase in Canada. As a country, we've never sent more than one athlete to the Olympics in the event.

Right now, there's four men and three women who've already beaten the Olympic standard for the 2016 Games, and more on their heels.

That means there will a fierce competition for those coveted spots on the Olympic team, and much of it will be among friends, since four of the top-five male steeplechasers in Canada are all teammates on the Guelph club.

Speed River's steeplers talk openly about that competitive tension between them. They say it's been mutually beneficial, and it pushes them to work harder.

"It's the best possible competition you could think of," said Milne, 34. "I want to destroy those guys in the race. But if I fail and two of my friends succeed, it means they've earned it. I'd much rather it be those two than two guys I don't like."

It's not just lip service. Both Milne and Genest were at Winter's wedding last summer. They care about each others' success, and share tips to help each other get better.

"We've all caused each other to raise the bar," said Winter, who works for Guelph's Inbox Marketer. "We set the bar really high among each other, and that filters down to every day at practice. You're always looking out of the corner of your eye to see what the other guy is doing."

Genest helped Milne polish his approach when he first switched over to the steeplechase in 2013. Now that Milne is putting up faster times than he is, the Quebec-raised steepler says it has lit a fire under him to step up his own game.

"It's inspiring to see the work he's putting into it. It's motivating. It's amazing to see what he's done to become a world-class steeplechaser," Genest said.

"I see where he's at, and that's the gap I have to fill in the next few months. But in the end, I'm going to try to be the best athlete I can. I can't compare myself to him."

Genest, a father of two young boys, is driven by his own goals, including putting up a new personal best before he leaves his sport. At 30, he says his window is closing, and he'll take it "year by year" after this season.

Coach Dave Scott-Thomas admits it can be a challenge at times to manage the dynamic between fiercely competitive people, but his athletes genuinely want their teammates to do well, too.

"If you're a ruthlessly selfish person, you're not going to survive in our group," he said. "They understand that we get a great return if we all work together. The greatest likelihood of success happens if we collaborate."

On the women's side, Lalonde leads three athletes who've already beaten the Olympic cut-off time. The women are running faster than ever, with Lalonde clocking the fastest time by a Canadian last season at 9:35.69.

Women's steeplechase is relatively new to the Olympics, added only in 2008. Lalonde is at the forefront of close-knit group of young Canadian women who have grown up together in their sport.

"We are competitors, but deep down, if we were all to hang out in a room in ten years, we'd forget about the races and still be friends," said Lalonde, who won bronze at the Pan Am Games in July.

Lalonde knows she's on track to make the cut for Rio this summer, but says she makes a conscious effort not to obsess about that goal. As an athlete who suffered through countless stress fractures during her collegiate career, she's just happy to be healthy and to have everything clicking at the right time.

"Making the Olympics would be a dream come true. But if that doesn't happen, I'm still going to run because I want to be the fastest I can be," she said. "Ultimately, I want to make it to Rio and to the final, but if I keep thinking about every single step to get there, I'd be putting a lot of stress on myself."

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is focused on his progress this season over beating someone else out of an Olympic spot. He's spent seven seasons training around Speed River's veteran steeplers, and says he's benefited immensely from that environment.

The 24-year-old engineering student tried to absorb as much as he can from Genest, Winter and Milne, and it's starting to show dividends. Working with athletes who've competed at the Olympics and world championships helps demystify what it takes to get there, he said.

"It really makes something you're scared off seem that much more doable," Dulhanty said.

"This year, I'm hoping I can start off right where I left it off last season. I'm closer now than I've ever been. Every year, they've been way ahead of me, and I've been getting a little bit closer and a little bit closer."

To get a sense of the how much faster Canada's steeplechasers are running now, consider that Rob Watson, another Speed River alumni, won the 2008 Olympic trials with a time of 8:44.67. There are seven Canadian steeplers who beat that time last year.

Putting in the work

After failing to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012, Milne needed to make a tough decision.

He'd competed in the 1,500-metre race for years, but was frustrated that he seemed to be hitting a wall. As a multi-sport athlete who also played hockey and basketball in high school in northern Ontario, he was drawn to the unique challenge of steeplechase.

"I sat back a bit and asked, 'Do I really want to quit?' I knew I had hadn't reached my peak as an athlete," he said. "So I looked at the steeplechase. I saw the hurdling and I thought, 'OK, I can figure that out.' "

For help, he turned to Genest, whose expertise in the event is so deep even his coach learned about hurdling from him. Milne started by just walking over hurdles. Eventually he progressed to simulating jumping water pits by hurdling over sand traps. Over and over and over again.

"It was ugly at points," Milne admitted.

He learned the hard way that if you hurdle inefficiently, it can exhaust you, and leave you spent at the end of a race. Eventually, Milne started to figure it out. Injuries slowed his progress, but there were also breakthrough races that encouraged him to stick with it.

"He's worked his tail off to be here," said Chris Moulton, Speed River's manager.

Milne thinks it's in him to finish top six at the Olympics. It's not out of reach — he clocked 8:16 at a race last summer, which would have placed him ninth in the world, but was disqualified because his foot stepped out of the running lane.

Scott-Thomas said Milne is having success now because he's worked so hard, but also because he has the perspective of chasing a goal and failing. He's gotten beaten up by his sport, and that's helped him ride out the highs and lows of switching to the steeplechase.

"Most people would have gone through that cycle, finished 2012, and packed it in," the coach said. "There was no shame in letting it go. But to come back, and to see him getting better and better each year, it's a remarkable story."

Genest had his struggles, too. He battled back from professional burnout in 2014 with the help of Dr. Kim Dawson, a sports psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University. There were points where he didn't want to run anymore.

He took four months off from his sport, and slowly began to find some joy in running again. Today, he's at peace with whatever happens this year — his family already bought their flights to Rio, and they plan to enjoy the experience whether he makes the Olympic team or not.

If he does make the cut, Genest wants to race in the final, after missing that chance by half a second in London in 2012. It's been an exhausting journey back, with plenty of challenges along the way — kind of like the sport he's competed in since he was a teenager.

"By the end of the race when you're really tired, your legs are heavy and your lungs are burning, and you still have to jump over that obstacle, it's tough. It seems like the barriers are a little bit higher," Genest said.

Winter, meanwhile, is feeling strong as he enters his 20th season on the track after starting at age nine. Like most of his counterparts, competing in the Olympics has always been the ultimate goal. He's been waiting a long time for this moment.

He knows he'll probably have to shave a few seconds off his best time in order to make his dream happen. And Winter understands that might also mean replacing a spot held by one of his buddies.

"We're best friends until the gun goes off, then they're like any other competitor. I wish them well, but there's a lot on the line, for all of us," Winter said over the phone from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he's at a high altitude camp.

"Competing in the Olympics is something I've been building toward my entire career. If I make it, it would mean everything."

Training for Rio in the Far North

GUELPH — Elite distance runners take pride in training in challenging conditions. But it's a safe bet no one competing to get to the Rio Summer Olympics will be able to beat Geneviève Lalonde for true grit.

For three months last fall, she was doing research for her master's degree in Ulukhaktok, a remote community on Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. It's a tiny village of just 400 people far above the Arctic Circle, one of the coldest and darkest places on earth, where the temperature regularly plunges to -40 C.

But with the 2016 Olympics nearing, the 20-year-old Guelph-based steeplechaser couldn't take any time off. So Lalonde kept up her training, often going for 80-minute runs on the village's two roads, with a knife for protection in case she met a hungry pack of wolves or a polar bear.

To ward off frostbite, she wore three layers of pants, long johns, a wool sweater, an insulated jacket, windbreaker, a full face mask and tuque. Lalonde says she was admittedly an unusual sight in the Inuit village.

"No one runs there unless you're running away from something," said Lalonde, pursuing her master of arts in geography at the University of Guelph. "They thought I was really nuts. Like, 'Why the heck are you practicing running?' "

A self-professed "Arctic nerd," the Moncton-raised Lalonde was in Ulukhaktok studying how Inuit culture is preserved in the local education system and community.

When snowstorms forced her inside, she'd go to the community's school and help coach the kids' basketball practice, getting her workout by running around the gym. Mostly, she said, the locals couldn't understand why anyone would run unless they had to.

Few there had ever met an elite runner, and they had only a vague understanding that Lalonde was training for the Olympics, or at least something "on TV." Her runs made her something of a celebrity in the community.

"They live a different lifestyle. They use everything in their power just to survive. So if someone is doing something that doesn't correlate with survival, it just doesn't make sense," she said. "It's -40C, and why are you going out there running for 80 minutes? That makes no sense to them."

Back home, people were surprised, too. Some wondered why she'd move to the Arctic after her successful 2015 season, when she ran a personal best and beat the Olympic standard by ten seconds.

They warned her that she wouldn't be able to train in those conditions, that it would be too hard on her lungs, and too dangerous.

"It definitely shocked a few people that I was going to go up there for three months, after the year that I had," she said. "But I'm looking forward to going back."

—Greg Mercer

gmercer@therecord.com , Twitter: @MercerRecord

Road to Rio: Pushing steeplechase to new heights

Guelph club runners chasing Olympic berths

Sports Apr 16, 2016 by Greg Mercer Guelph Mercury

GUELPH — A miserable mix of freezing rain and snow is pelting Alex Genest, Taylor Milne and Chris Dulhanty as they blur past on the trail under a slate grey sky.

It's late afternoon on a weekday in March, and the three are running on a cross-country course near the University of Guelph campus. This kind of weather might scare most people indoors, but they're different. They're steeplechasers.

No one wants to be the first to back down.

Not when they're training for the same goal — running fast enough to be one of three Canadian men to race in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

The athletes train together regularly, but they're also competing against each other at a time when the steeplechase has never been more stacked with talent in Canada.

Four men, led by national record holder Matt Hughes of Oshawa, have already beaten the Olympic standard of 8:30. The other three — Genest, Milne and Chris Winter — are all teammates on Guelph's Speed River Track and Field Club.

Dulhanty, the youngest of the pack, is right behind them. He's knocking on the door, just three seconds off the standard.

And that's only on the men's side. Their Speed River teammate Geneviève Lalonde beat the women's Olympic standard of 9:45 by 10 seconds last season. Some think the 20-year-old is fast enough to make the final in Rio.

Last fall, Lalonde spent three months in the Arctic, but kept up her training for the Olympics despite the -40 C weather, wolves and other hazards of the Far North. With teammates running in those conditions, it's no wonder the guys aren't complaining about a little snow today.

Steeplechasers need to be tough because they compete in one of the most humbling events in athletics. Imagine racing 3,000 metres around a track, but with booby traps. Each race includes 28 hurdles and seven water jumps, and everyone around you is wearing spikes. Some describe it as NASCAR, but without the noise.

Genest, Milne, Winter, Dulhanty and Lalonde may share similar goals, but they all took unique paths to get here.

Genest, a 2012 Olympian, is considered the most technically sound of all of Speed River's steeplers. He won silver at the Pan Am Games last summer, and has been a mentor to many of the club's other athletes. He still holds the Canadian junior record in the event.

Milne, a 2008 Olympian, is a converted 1,500-metre runner who rebuilt his career in the steeplechase. He ran the fastest of any of his teammates last year, clocking 8:19.90 at a race in Belgium, which would have put him on the podium at the London Olympics.

Winter, who now trains in Vancouver, shaved about 17 seconds off his time since coming to Guelph after his college career with the NCAA's Oregon Ducks. He's the most consistent of the club's steeplechasers, in a sport where the constant change of pace can trip up even the best athletes.

Lalonde, a former understudy of Olympic steeplechaser Joël Bourgeois, has been on the Olympic fast track since the age of 13. She ran the fastest time of any Canadian woman last year, and has a good shot at setting a new national record this season.

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is coming off a strong 2015 season. He took a big leap forward in his progression, running 8:33.76 in Lapinlahti, Finland last July — the first time he'd ever run a sub-8:40 race.

A golden era

It's a special time for the steeplechase in Canada. As a country, we've never sent more than one athlete to the Olympics in the event.

Right now, there's four men and three women who've already beaten the Olympic standard for the 2016 Games, and more on their heels.

That means there will a fierce competition for those coveted spots on the Olympic team, and much of it will be among friends, since four of the top-five male steeplechasers in Canada are all teammates on the Guelph club.

Speed River's steeplers talk openly about that competitive tension between them. They say it's been mutually beneficial, and it pushes them to work harder.

"It's the best possible competition you could think of," said Milne, 34. "I want to destroy those guys in the race. But if I fail and two of my friends succeed, it means they've earned it. I'd much rather it be those two than two guys I don't like."

It's not just lip service. Both Milne and Genest were at Winter's wedding last summer. They care about each others' success, and share tips to help each other get better.

"We've all caused each other to raise the bar," said Winter, who works for Guelph's Inbox Marketer. "We set the bar really high among each other, and that filters down to every day at practice. You're always looking out of the corner of your eye to see what the other guy is doing."

Genest helped Milne polish his approach when he first switched over to the steeplechase in 2013. Now that Milne is putting up faster times than he is, the Quebec-raised steepler says it has lit a fire under him to step up his own game.

"It's inspiring to see the work he's putting into it. It's motivating. It's amazing to see what he's done to become a world-class steeplechaser," Genest said.

"I see where he's at, and that's the gap I have to fill in the next few months. But in the end, I'm going to try to be the best athlete I can. I can't compare myself to him."

Genest, a father of two young boys, is driven by his own goals, including putting up a new personal best before he leaves his sport. At 30, he says his window is closing, and he'll take it "year by year" after this season.

Coach Dave Scott-Thomas admits it can be a challenge at times to manage the dynamic between fiercely competitive people, but his athletes genuinely want their teammates to do well, too.

"If you're a ruthlessly selfish person, you're not going to survive in our group," he said. "They understand that we get a great return if we all work together. The greatest likelihood of success happens if we collaborate."

On the women's side, Lalonde leads three athletes who've already beaten the Olympic cut-off time. The women are running faster than ever, with Lalonde clocking the fastest time by a Canadian last season at 9:35.69.

Women's steeplechase is relatively new to the Olympics, added only in 2008. Lalonde is at the forefront of close-knit group of young Canadian women who have grown up together in their sport.

"We are competitors, but deep down, if we were all to hang out in a room in ten years, we'd forget about the races and still be friends," said Lalonde, who won bronze at the Pan Am Games in July.

Lalonde knows she's on track to make the cut for Rio this summer, but says she makes a conscious effort not to obsess about that goal. As an athlete who suffered through countless stress fractures during her collegiate career, she's just happy to be healthy and to have everything clicking at the right time.

"Making the Olympics would be a dream come true. But if that doesn't happen, I'm still going to run because I want to be the fastest I can be," she said. "Ultimately, I want to make it to Rio and to the final, but if I keep thinking about every single step to get there, I'd be putting a lot of stress on myself."

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is focused on his progress this season over beating someone else out of an Olympic spot. He's spent seven seasons training around Speed River's veteran steeplers, and says he's benefited immensely from that environment.

The 24-year-old engineering student tried to absorb as much as he can from Genest, Winter and Milne, and it's starting to show dividends. Working with athletes who've competed at the Olympics and world championships helps demystify what it takes to get there, he said.

"It really makes something you're scared off seem that much more doable," Dulhanty said.

"This year, I'm hoping I can start off right where I left it off last season. I'm closer now than I've ever been. Every year, they've been way ahead of me, and I've been getting a little bit closer and a little bit closer."

To get a sense of the how much faster Canada's steeplechasers are running now, consider that Rob Watson, another Speed River alumni, won the 2008 Olympic trials with a time of 8:44.67. There are seven Canadian steeplers who beat that time last year.

Putting in the work

After failing to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012, Milne needed to make a tough decision.

He'd competed in the 1,500-metre race for years, but was frustrated that he seemed to be hitting a wall. As a multi-sport athlete who also played hockey and basketball in high school in northern Ontario, he was drawn to the unique challenge of steeplechase.

"I sat back a bit and asked, 'Do I really want to quit?' I knew I had hadn't reached my peak as an athlete," he said. "So I looked at the steeplechase. I saw the hurdling and I thought, 'OK, I can figure that out.' "

For help, he turned to Genest, whose expertise in the event is so deep even his coach learned about hurdling from him. Milne started by just walking over hurdles. Eventually he progressed to simulating jumping water pits by hurdling over sand traps. Over and over and over again.

"It was ugly at points," Milne admitted.

He learned the hard way that if you hurdle inefficiently, it can exhaust you, and leave you spent at the end of a race. Eventually, Milne started to figure it out. Injuries slowed his progress, but there were also breakthrough races that encouraged him to stick with it.

"He's worked his tail off to be here," said Chris Moulton, Speed River's manager.

Milne thinks it's in him to finish top six at the Olympics. It's not out of reach — he clocked 8:16 at a race last summer, which would have placed him ninth in the world, but was disqualified because his foot stepped out of the running lane.

Scott-Thomas said Milne is having success now because he's worked so hard, but also because he has the perspective of chasing a goal and failing. He's gotten beaten up by his sport, and that's helped him ride out the highs and lows of switching to the steeplechase.

"Most people would have gone through that cycle, finished 2012, and packed it in," the coach said. "There was no shame in letting it go. But to come back, and to see him getting better and better each year, it's a remarkable story."

Genest had his struggles, too. He battled back from professional burnout in 2014 with the help of Dr. Kim Dawson, a sports psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University. There were points where he didn't want to run anymore.

He took four months off from his sport, and slowly began to find some joy in running again. Today, he's at peace with whatever happens this year — his family already bought their flights to Rio, and they plan to enjoy the experience whether he makes the Olympic team or not.

If he does make the cut, Genest wants to race in the final, after missing that chance by half a second in London in 2012. It's been an exhausting journey back, with plenty of challenges along the way — kind of like the sport he's competed in since he was a teenager.

"By the end of the race when you're really tired, your legs are heavy and your lungs are burning, and you still have to jump over that obstacle, it's tough. It seems like the barriers are a little bit higher," Genest said.

Winter, meanwhile, is feeling strong as he enters his 20th season on the track after starting at age nine. Like most of his counterparts, competing in the Olympics has always been the ultimate goal. He's been waiting a long time for this moment.

He knows he'll probably have to shave a few seconds off his best time in order to make his dream happen. And Winter understands that might also mean replacing a spot held by one of his buddies.

"We're best friends until the gun goes off, then they're like any other competitor. I wish them well, but there's a lot on the line, for all of us," Winter said over the phone from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he's at a high altitude camp.

"Competing in the Olympics is something I've been building toward my entire career. If I make it, it would mean everything."

Training for Rio in the Far North

GUELPH — Elite distance runners take pride in training in challenging conditions. But it's a safe bet no one competing to get to the Rio Summer Olympics will be able to beat Geneviève Lalonde for true grit.

For three months last fall, she was doing research for her master's degree in Ulukhaktok, a remote community on Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. It's a tiny village of just 400 people far above the Arctic Circle, one of the coldest and darkest places on earth, where the temperature regularly plunges to -40 C.

But with the 2016 Olympics nearing, the 20-year-old Guelph-based steeplechaser couldn't take any time off. So Lalonde kept up her training, often going for 80-minute runs on the village's two roads, with a knife for protection in case she met a hungry pack of wolves or a polar bear.

To ward off frostbite, she wore three layers of pants, long johns, a wool sweater, an insulated jacket, windbreaker, a full face mask and tuque. Lalonde says she was admittedly an unusual sight in the Inuit village.

"No one runs there unless you're running away from something," said Lalonde, pursuing her master of arts in geography at the University of Guelph. "They thought I was really nuts. Like, 'Why the heck are you practicing running?' "

A self-professed "Arctic nerd," the Moncton-raised Lalonde was in Ulukhaktok studying how Inuit culture is preserved in the local education system and community.

When snowstorms forced her inside, she'd go to the community's school and help coach the kids' basketball practice, getting her workout by running around the gym. Mostly, she said, the locals couldn't understand why anyone would run unless they had to.

Few there had ever met an elite runner, and they had only a vague understanding that Lalonde was training for the Olympics, or at least something "on TV." Her runs made her something of a celebrity in the community.

"They live a different lifestyle. They use everything in their power just to survive. So if someone is doing something that doesn't correlate with survival, it just doesn't make sense," she said. "It's -40C, and why are you going out there running for 80 minutes? That makes no sense to them."

Back home, people were surprised, too. Some wondered why she'd move to the Arctic after her successful 2015 season, when she ran a personal best and beat the Olympic standard by ten seconds.

They warned her that she wouldn't be able to train in those conditions, that it would be too hard on her lungs, and too dangerous.

"It definitely shocked a few people that I was going to go up there for three months, after the year that I had," she said. "But I'm looking forward to going back."

—Greg Mercer

gmercer@therecord.com , Twitter: @MercerRecord

Road to Rio: Pushing steeplechase to new heights

Guelph club runners chasing Olympic berths

Sports Apr 16, 2016 by Greg Mercer Guelph Mercury

GUELPH — A miserable mix of freezing rain and snow is pelting Alex Genest, Taylor Milne and Chris Dulhanty as they blur past on the trail under a slate grey sky.

It's late afternoon on a weekday in March, and the three are running on a cross-country course near the University of Guelph campus. This kind of weather might scare most people indoors, but they're different. They're steeplechasers.

No one wants to be the first to back down.

Not when they're training for the same goal — running fast enough to be one of three Canadian men to race in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

The athletes train together regularly, but they're also competing against each other at a time when the steeplechase has never been more stacked with talent in Canada.

Four men, led by national record holder Matt Hughes of Oshawa, have already beaten the Olympic standard of 8:30. The other three — Genest, Milne and Chris Winter — are all teammates on Guelph's Speed River Track and Field Club.

Dulhanty, the youngest of the pack, is right behind them. He's knocking on the door, just three seconds off the standard.

And that's only on the men's side. Their Speed River teammate Geneviève Lalonde beat the women's Olympic standard of 9:45 by 10 seconds last season. Some think the 20-year-old is fast enough to make the final in Rio.

Last fall, Lalonde spent three months in the Arctic, but kept up her training for the Olympics despite the -40 C weather, wolves and other hazards of the Far North. With teammates running in those conditions, it's no wonder the guys aren't complaining about a little snow today.

Steeplechasers need to be tough because they compete in one of the most humbling events in athletics. Imagine racing 3,000 metres around a track, but with booby traps. Each race includes 28 hurdles and seven water jumps, and everyone around you is wearing spikes. Some describe it as NASCAR, but without the noise.

Genest, Milne, Winter, Dulhanty and Lalonde may share similar goals, but they all took unique paths to get here.

Genest, a 2012 Olympian, is considered the most technically sound of all of Speed River's steeplers. He won silver at the Pan Am Games last summer, and has been a mentor to many of the club's other athletes. He still holds the Canadian junior record in the event.

Milne, a 2008 Olympian, is a converted 1,500-metre runner who rebuilt his career in the steeplechase. He ran the fastest of any of his teammates last year, clocking 8:19.90 at a race in Belgium, which would have put him on the podium at the London Olympics.

Winter, who now trains in Vancouver, shaved about 17 seconds off his time since coming to Guelph after his college career with the NCAA's Oregon Ducks. He's the most consistent of the club's steeplechasers, in a sport where the constant change of pace can trip up even the best athletes.

Lalonde, a former understudy of Olympic steeplechaser Joël Bourgeois, has been on the Olympic fast track since the age of 13. She ran the fastest time of any Canadian woman last year, and has a good shot at setting a new national record this season.

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is coming off a strong 2015 season. He took a big leap forward in his progression, running 8:33.76 in Lapinlahti, Finland last July — the first time he'd ever run a sub-8:40 race.

A golden era

It's a special time for the steeplechase in Canada. As a country, we've never sent more than one athlete to the Olympics in the event.

Right now, there's four men and three women who've already beaten the Olympic standard for the 2016 Games, and more on their heels.

That means there will a fierce competition for those coveted spots on the Olympic team, and much of it will be among friends, since four of the top-five male steeplechasers in Canada are all teammates on the Guelph club.

Speed River's steeplers talk openly about that competitive tension between them. They say it's been mutually beneficial, and it pushes them to work harder.

"It's the best possible competition you could think of," said Milne, 34. "I want to destroy those guys in the race. But if I fail and two of my friends succeed, it means they've earned it. I'd much rather it be those two than two guys I don't like."

It's not just lip service. Both Milne and Genest were at Winter's wedding last summer. They care about each others' success, and share tips to help each other get better.

"We've all caused each other to raise the bar," said Winter, who works for Guelph's Inbox Marketer. "We set the bar really high among each other, and that filters down to every day at practice. You're always looking out of the corner of your eye to see what the other guy is doing."

Genest helped Milne polish his approach when he first switched over to the steeplechase in 2013. Now that Milne is putting up faster times than he is, the Quebec-raised steepler says it has lit a fire under him to step up his own game.

"It's inspiring to see the work he's putting into it. It's motivating. It's amazing to see what he's done to become a world-class steeplechaser," Genest said.

"I see where he's at, and that's the gap I have to fill in the next few months. But in the end, I'm going to try to be the best athlete I can. I can't compare myself to him."

Genest, a father of two young boys, is driven by his own goals, including putting up a new personal best before he leaves his sport. At 30, he says his window is closing, and he'll take it "year by year" after this season.

Coach Dave Scott-Thomas admits it can be a challenge at times to manage the dynamic between fiercely competitive people, but his athletes genuinely want their teammates to do well, too.

"If you're a ruthlessly selfish person, you're not going to survive in our group," he said. "They understand that we get a great return if we all work together. The greatest likelihood of success happens if we collaborate."

On the women's side, Lalonde leads three athletes who've already beaten the Olympic cut-off time. The women are running faster than ever, with Lalonde clocking the fastest time by a Canadian last season at 9:35.69.

Women's steeplechase is relatively new to the Olympics, added only in 2008. Lalonde is at the forefront of close-knit group of young Canadian women who have grown up together in their sport.

"We are competitors, but deep down, if we were all to hang out in a room in ten years, we'd forget about the races and still be friends," said Lalonde, who won bronze at the Pan Am Games in July.

Lalonde knows she's on track to make the cut for Rio this summer, but says she makes a conscious effort not to obsess about that goal. As an athlete who suffered through countless stress fractures during her collegiate career, she's just happy to be healthy and to have everything clicking at the right time.

"Making the Olympics would be a dream come true. But if that doesn't happen, I'm still going to run because I want to be the fastest I can be," she said. "Ultimately, I want to make it to Rio and to the final, but if I keep thinking about every single step to get there, I'd be putting a lot of stress on myself."

Dulhanty, meanwhile, is focused on his progress this season over beating someone else out of an Olympic spot. He's spent seven seasons training around Speed River's veteran steeplers, and says he's benefited immensely from that environment.

The 24-year-old engineering student tried to absorb as much as he can from Genest, Winter and Milne, and it's starting to show dividends. Working with athletes who've competed at the Olympics and world championships helps demystify what it takes to get there, he said.

"It really makes something you're scared off seem that much more doable," Dulhanty said.

"This year, I'm hoping I can start off right where I left it off last season. I'm closer now than I've ever been. Every year, they've been way ahead of me, and I've been getting a little bit closer and a little bit closer."

To get a sense of the how much faster Canada's steeplechasers are running now, consider that Rob Watson, another Speed River alumni, won the 2008 Olympic trials with a time of 8:44.67. There are seven Canadian steeplers who beat that time last year.

Putting in the work

After failing to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012, Milne needed to make a tough decision.

He'd competed in the 1,500-metre race for years, but was frustrated that he seemed to be hitting a wall. As a multi-sport athlete who also played hockey and basketball in high school in northern Ontario, he was drawn to the unique challenge of steeplechase.

"I sat back a bit and asked, 'Do I really want to quit?' I knew I had hadn't reached my peak as an athlete," he said. "So I looked at the steeplechase. I saw the hurdling and I thought, 'OK, I can figure that out.' "

For help, he turned to Genest, whose expertise in the event is so deep even his coach learned about hurdling from him. Milne started by just walking over hurdles. Eventually he progressed to simulating jumping water pits by hurdling over sand traps. Over and over and over again.

"It was ugly at points," Milne admitted.

He learned the hard way that if you hurdle inefficiently, it can exhaust you, and leave you spent at the end of a race. Eventually, Milne started to figure it out. Injuries slowed his progress, but there were also breakthrough races that encouraged him to stick with it.

"He's worked his tail off to be here," said Chris Moulton, Speed River's manager.

Milne thinks it's in him to finish top six at the Olympics. It's not out of reach — he clocked 8:16 at a race last summer, which would have placed him ninth in the world, but was disqualified because his foot stepped out of the running lane.

Scott-Thomas said Milne is having success now because he's worked so hard, but also because he has the perspective of chasing a goal and failing. He's gotten beaten up by his sport, and that's helped him ride out the highs and lows of switching to the steeplechase.

"Most people would have gone through that cycle, finished 2012, and packed it in," the coach said. "There was no shame in letting it go. But to come back, and to see him getting better and better each year, it's a remarkable story."

Genest had his struggles, too. He battled back from professional burnout in 2014 with the help of Dr. Kim Dawson, a sports psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University. There were points where he didn't want to run anymore.

He took four months off from his sport, and slowly began to find some joy in running again. Today, he's at peace with whatever happens this year — his family already bought their flights to Rio, and they plan to enjoy the experience whether he makes the Olympic team or not.

If he does make the cut, Genest wants to race in the final, after missing that chance by half a second in London in 2012. It's been an exhausting journey back, with plenty of challenges along the way — kind of like the sport he's competed in since he was a teenager.

"By the end of the race when you're really tired, your legs are heavy and your lungs are burning, and you still have to jump over that obstacle, it's tough. It seems like the barriers are a little bit higher," Genest said.

Winter, meanwhile, is feeling strong as he enters his 20th season on the track after starting at age nine. Like most of his counterparts, competing in the Olympics has always been the ultimate goal. He's been waiting a long time for this moment.

He knows he'll probably have to shave a few seconds off his best time in order to make his dream happen. And Winter understands that might also mean replacing a spot held by one of his buddies.

"We're best friends until the gun goes off, then they're like any other competitor. I wish them well, but there's a lot on the line, for all of us," Winter said over the phone from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he's at a high altitude camp.

"Competing in the Olympics is something I've been building toward my entire career. If I make it, it would mean everything."

Training for Rio in the Far North

GUELPH — Elite distance runners take pride in training in challenging conditions. But it's a safe bet no one competing to get to the Rio Summer Olympics will be able to beat Geneviève Lalonde for true grit.

For three months last fall, she was doing research for her master's degree in Ulukhaktok, a remote community on Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. It's a tiny village of just 400 people far above the Arctic Circle, one of the coldest and darkest places on earth, where the temperature regularly plunges to -40 C.

But with the 2016 Olympics nearing, the 20-year-old Guelph-based steeplechaser couldn't take any time off. So Lalonde kept up her training, often going for 80-minute runs on the village's two roads, with a knife for protection in case she met a hungry pack of wolves or a polar bear.

To ward off frostbite, she wore three layers of pants, long johns, a wool sweater, an insulated jacket, windbreaker, a full face mask and tuque. Lalonde says she was admittedly an unusual sight in the Inuit village.

"No one runs there unless you're running away from something," said Lalonde, pursuing her master of arts in geography at the University of Guelph. "They thought I was really nuts. Like, 'Why the heck are you practicing running?' "

A self-professed "Arctic nerd," the Moncton-raised Lalonde was in Ulukhaktok studying how Inuit culture is preserved in the local education system and community.

When snowstorms forced her inside, she'd go to the community's school and help coach the kids' basketball practice, getting her workout by running around the gym. Mostly, she said, the locals couldn't understand why anyone would run unless they had to.

Few there had ever met an elite runner, and they had only a vague understanding that Lalonde was training for the Olympics, or at least something "on TV." Her runs made her something of a celebrity in the community.

"They live a different lifestyle. They use everything in their power just to survive. So if someone is doing something that doesn't correlate with survival, it just doesn't make sense," she said. "It's -40C, and why are you going out there running for 80 minutes? That makes no sense to them."

Back home, people were surprised, too. Some wondered why she'd move to the Arctic after her successful 2015 season, when she ran a personal best and beat the Olympic standard by ten seconds.

They warned her that she wouldn't be able to train in those conditions, that it would be too hard on her lungs, and too dangerous.

"It definitely shocked a few people that I was going to go up there for three months, after the year that I had," she said. "But I'm looking forward to going back."

—Greg Mercer

gmercer@therecord.com , Twitter: @MercerRecord