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The loneliness of the long-distance record holder

Canadian marathon record-holder Jerome Drayton, 66 poses for a photo at High Park, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Drayton set the Canadian marathon record of 2:10:084 in 1975 in Fukuoka Japan and it has held up for 36 years. Photo By Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It's a rainy Toronto Sunday, 6:30 a.m., and the old blue-collar neighbourhood of Mimico is cold, dark and deserted. Jerome Drayton is in his element.

The compact 66-year-old in the bright-red Canada road-racing cap became a morning person more by necessity than by nature. In his prime between 1969 and 1977, when running was its own reward and the marathon's highest ranks were populated by single-minded amateurs, extreme-sport ascetics and the odd barefoot African, he'd already have had eight kilometres under his belt by this hour – part of a rigorous training program that demanded up to 45 kilometres of daily roadwork sandwiched around a 9-to-5 job.

Now it's a slow coffee in a brightly lit McDonald's. An arthritic knee has left him with a limp, and cataracts cloud his vision.

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The prime of Jerome Drayton seems far away in a world where the marathon has been redefined as a mass-participation sport and top-ranked athletes can afford to race rarely and live comfortably. Yet there's something timely about the quiet retiree leafing through the free morning newspaper in the corner booth: Thirty-six years after he ran 2 hours 10 minutes 9 seconds in bad shoes on a rainy day in Fukuoka, Japan, he remains the Canadian marathon record holder.

It's a paradox that puzzles even him.

"Why is my record still around after all these years?" he asks. "It doesn't make any sense."

The organizers of Sunday's Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon agree. They're offering a $36,000 prize for any Canadian who can beat Drayton's best time. And they've found a taker in Reid Coolsaet, a gregarious 32-year-old distance runner from Hamilton who ran 2:11:23 in last year's race and talks confidently of reaching 2:09:55 this year.

Years of finely tuned physical preparation and scientific calculation have gone into this assault on the record. Coolsaet will be led out by a personal pacemaker instructed to deliver him to the half-marathon point at precisely the 64:40 mark. Double that, allow a few seconds for fatigue, balance the spectre of hitting the dreaded late-marathon "wall" against the adrenalin rush of being cheered on by thousands of fans – and voila, a Canadian record.

When Drayton turned to marathon running before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he had to undertake his own research, searching for clues in the latest scientific periodicals.

The running boom was in its infancy, and marathoners were still a rare breed of loners who perfected their techniques through trial and error. When Drayton won the 1977 Boston marathon in conditions he calls "brutally hot," there were no water stations on the course.

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"I literally thought two or three times in the race that I was going to drop dead," he says. Never the diplomat, he damned the race organizers from the winner's circle, and helped push marathoning into the modern world.

His illustrious career – including three victories at Fukuoka, the unofficial world championship – was filled with examples of mismanagement that would astonish today's well-treated professionals. Officials thought nothing of making him run and rerun races to prove his fitness, in an era before marathoners were acknowledged to run faster by competing less frequently.

His worst experience at the hands of others came in the Canadian trials for the 1972 Munich Olympics: He ran a time far slower than his norm, only to discover that the Montreal course was a kilometre too long.

"They were nice enough to invite us back to run it again the next week," Drayton says with four decades' worth of stored-up contempt. "I declined, and missed out on Munich."

It was a huge disappointment, but not just because he forfeited his chance at a medal. Munich was also his home, the city that imbued him with the mental toughness of the true marathoner.

He was born in war-ravaged Germany in 1945. Before he Canadianized himself as Jerome Drayton, he was Peter Buniak, the only child of young, impoverished Russian-Ukrainian parents who fed him frozen potatoes and icicles when he was an infant and placed him in a foster home at 6.

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"I learned how to fight, how to throw stones when it was three against one, and how to keep to myself," he says, repeating the few memories he's willing to share.

His mother left his father, immigrated to Canada in 1955 and found a job as a hospital worker in Toronto. A year later, she sent for him.

Drayton speculates that he might have joined a street gang if he hadn't found the disciplined escape of running as a teenager.

And yet in an event where the psychological component of putting up with agony and tedium and disappointment is essential to success, his hard upbringing comes across as an advantage.

"I never really liked the marathon to begin with," he says. "But when it really felt like a chore, I'd just say to myself, 'Somewhere in the world, one of my competitors is out there running right now. He's got to do it, so I've got to do it.'"

When Drayton considers why his record has stood for 36 years, he focuses first on the reluctance of younger runners to train as hard as he did; he was running upward of 300 kilometres a week while working as a sports administrator for the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation.

Coolsaet thinks his peak of 230 kilometres a week is sufficient. Distance isn't everything; his prerace preparation also includes sleeping in a generator-fired altitude tent and calculating his per-kilometre carbohydrate requirements from a personalized lemon-lime Ironman Perform drink.

But he agrees that motivation has been lacking for Canadian marathoners over the last few decades, particularly as African runners came to dominate the sport and brought the world record down to a seemingly unreachable 2:03:38.

"I think a mental shift needed to happen, to change what Canadians perceive as fast and doable," Coolsaet says. "Somewhere in the 1990s, it just got lost. You'd look at the Kenyans who had so many advantages of running as young children and living at altitude for generations and generations. Our guys weren't working hard enough, and somehow 2:15 became a fast time."

What makes Drayton's record seem even more remarkable is that he set it in spite of an uncharacteristic blunder: He raced in untested, custom-made shoes he'd been given by an eager Japanese firm.

"These guys who are talking about beating my time are lucky that I only ran 2:10:09, because my shoe fell apart in the last three kilometres," Drayton says. "The arch support came loose, it drifted under my toes, and I had to slow down in order to work it back where it belonged. I probably lost a good minute there."

No present-day marathoner would take that kind of ad-hoc approach to a competition. The modern runner's body and mind are trained to recognize the slightest fluctuations in racing speed, hydration, carbohydrate needs. Still, if the weather turns extreme, or Coolsaet's pacemaker is off by even a second over each kilometre, 2:10:09 could stay in the books for another year.

Coolsaet has studied Drayton's career. He knows what can go wrong, even when the best runners are at the peak of their form. But as the day of reckoning approaches, he's not backing off – he's set his goal at 2:09:55.

"If you're aiming to beat 2:10:09, you might as well aim for a sub-2:10," Coolsaet says. "I'm definitely going for it … if it happens, it's not going to be by chance."

Trash talk like this is music to Jerome Drayton's ears. He doesn't need the renown of a record any more. He'd rather be the competitor who's driving Coolsaet's dreams. "I wish him luck," Drayton says, happy to hand over the laurels to a rival he's never met. "Tell him, enjoy the $36,000 if you get it. And if you don't, try, try again."

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