LONDON – It’s been almost a week since Canada’s Eric Gillis doggedly ran for 30 kilometres before dropping out with a stomach bug that would become one of the biggest stories of the world track and field championships.
The 37-year-old is back home in Antigonish, N.S., where his wife is expecting their third child within a couple of weeks.
Gillis pulled out three-quarters into last Sunday’s 42.195-kilometre marathon with the viral gastroenteritis that would eventually wallop nine Canadian athletes and staff, including decathlete Damian Warner, and another 30-plus athletes staying at the same central London hotel.
“It was not heartbreaking, but it was very disappointing,” Gillis said. “And it was very different from Rio for sure, Everything went right with Rio.”
He was 10th at the Rio Olympics, Canada’s best finish since Jerome Drayton’s sixth place at the 1976 Montreal Games.
Gilis, co-captain of Canada’s team in London with hurdler Phylicia George, had high hopes for what might have been his world championship finale. But on Thursday night, two-and-a-half days out from the race, he began feeling unwell. He’d been up playing cards with several other Canadian athletes, and shortly after heading back to his room, he was sick. Within a few hours, several other Canadians were ill.
“And I hadn’t even seen those people that day,” Gillis said. “And the people I played cards with, I was worried they would get sick because I knew they were competing, but they never got sick.”
The Canadian team staff was well-prepared for any potential bugs going around, Gillis said. At one of their first teams meetings in Guadalajara, Spain, the staff outlined how easily germs can be passed between athletes staying in close quarters, and the importance of hand washing.
“Everybody was pretty on the ball,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. It just seems like one of those things where once it got in there, it was just bound to hit X number of people.”
Gillis, who was forced to withdraw from the Boston Marathon in April because of an Achilles tendon injury, is thankful London wasn’t his last marathon — he plans to run one next spring. And he’s satisfied that he at least stepped up to the start line.
“I was throwing up thinking ‘I am not racing,'” he said. “I’m glad that as soon as the symptoms were gone I didn’t think about that anymore.
“Even in the race, I thought ‘This is why I’m glad I didn’t self-destruct and say I’m not doing it. I’m glad to be out here, I’m happy to be racing. The crowds are good, the energy is good, it’s London, it’s world champs, I’m glad to be here and putting out the best effort I can.’
“I’ll take that away from it, and I think my maturity, my experience now allows me to focus on that more.”
Gillis and his family — wife Emily, daughter Heidi (7), and son Luke (3) — moved from Guelph, Ont., his home for more than a decade, back to Antigonish days before the world championships. Gillis has accepted a job as an assistant coach at St. Francis Xavier University, where he’d competed for five seasons earned a degree in human kinetics.
Gillis has long been interested in coaching, and in recent weeks has listened to “a ton” of coaching podcasts, reading up on different coaching philosophies, and “listening to a lot of people.”
He’ll work for one season under longtime StFX coach Bernie Chisholm, and then take over as head coach when Chisholm retires next spring.
While he plans to compete next season, once he becomes head coach, the plans aren’t clear — it depends on the logistics of juggling training and coaching duties.
“I hope to be just as competitive as I’ve ever been (next season), and I’ll have the time and the focus to make sure that that is up there in focus,” he said. “I don’t really know how serious it will be afterwards. I would like it to be something (in his life).”