Erin Gardiner races in Saskatoon.

Sask. Marathon training tips from 5-time champ Erin Gardiner

Erin Gardiner knows better than most how to find success at the Saskatchewan Marathon.

The 34-year-old speech-language pathologist started running competitively in high school and ran track with Canadian Interuniversity Sport (now USPORTS) for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for four years and the University of Alberta Golden Bears/Pandas for one year. She started training for road races as a way to keep motivated when university teams were on break in the summers.

Gardiner ran her first 42.2km race at the Saskatchewan Marathon in 2012, finishing second in a time of 3:14. She lowered her time at that fall’s Queen City Marathon and came back to win the Saskatchewan Marathon in 2013, which kicked off a five-year winning streak.

Gardiner has stepped away from racing the past few years — she admits it’s been a struggle to stay motivated since in-person races were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic — but is looking forward to running with her sisters at this spring’s Saskatchewan Marathon weekend.

With that race weekend less than 16 weeks away, Gardiner spoke with the Brainsport Times about how to train for, race, and find joy at the Saskatchewan Marathon.

Erin Gardiner races in Saskatoon.
Erin Gardiner (front left) races in Saskatoon.

Chase consistency, not perfection

Training through a Saskatchewan winter is tough, but getting out the door even when motivation is low builds habit, which will make it easier to get moving next time. “A big part of it is just really getting into a routine and not really giving yourself a choice,” Gardiner says. “The most important thing is to get consistent and get in your long runs.”

While all training plans are slightly different, many marathon runners will do a long run of at least 90 minutes every seven to 10 days during a 16-week marathon build, with longs maxing out at a little over 30 kilometres.

“It’s important to get in your long runs so you can make sure that your body can manage that. It doesn’t mean you need to run for five hours if you plan on running a five hour marathon, but you should feel confident you can make it through,” Gardiner says.

Find a community to train with

“The main motivator for me has always been to run with other people,” Gardiner says. “If I can turn running into something where I’m accountable to someone else and it’s fun, it’s social, and we can commiserate about running in the cold together, that always makes a big difference.”

Over the past few months, Gardiner has been running with her two sisters and is trying to see what she can convince them to race at the Saskatchewan Marathon. “I definitely didn’t see them as much as I do now that we’re running together and it’s something that is really valuable outside of the training as well,” Gardiner says.

Erin Gardiner (L) and friend Tina Cadrain at the 2017 Manitoba Marathon.
Erin Gardiner (L) and friend Tina Cadrain at the 2017 Manitoba Marathon.

Be honest with yourself

At least six weeks out from race day, do a gut check. “Let’s say you’re doing the build up to a full marathon and you’re just not feeling like it’s going to go well or you’re not feeling totally prepared, something threw a wrench in your training that’s OK,” Gardiner says. Instead of feeling pressure to run a marathon you’re unprepared for, she encourages people to modify their training to tackle a shorter distance (as long as they’re not injured).

“That’s the best training you can do,” she says. “Go out there and race. It doesn’t mean you can’t run your marathon; maybe you run your marathon a little bit later in the season, but get out there. Every race is the best training experience you can get. You’ll learn so much about where you’re at and what works for you and what doesn’t so it’s never a bad thing to get out there and just race.”

Prepare for any weather

Since the Saskatchewan Marathon moved to its late May date, race day high temperatures have ranged from 6C (2010) to 22C (in 2015 and 2018). Strong winds are common.

Gardiner says doing workouts — particularly long runs — in a variety of weather can prepare you for a range of race day conditions. Make sure you do some workouts in the clothes and shoes you plan to race in, perhaps after a long-range forecast is available.

“It’s good to practice wearing gear beforehand and practice layering — and removing layers — if that’s what the conditions on race day call for,” Gardiner says.

Erin Gardiner (centre) races in Saskatoon.
Erin Gardiner (centre) races in Saskatoon.

Recruit your own cheer squad

“One thing that is really nice about it being a local race for me or, if you’re from Saskatoon or Saskatchewan, is that you can have family and friends come out and spread themselves out through the course,” Gardiner says. “In a bigger race like Chicago, there are tons of people everywhere, but I don’t know any of them. It’s a huge motivator to see somebody that’s out there just to support you.”

Race route maps are available on the Saskatchewan Marathon website to help your personal cheer squad map out the best places to congregate.

Stick to your race plan (at least at the beginning)

In 2016, Gardiner travelled to race the Marathon Oasis Rock ‘n’ Roll de Montreal. Traffic was dreadful the morning of the race and she arrived at the start just after the gun went off. Gardiner, who had expected to start with the first wave, instead found herself sprinting through throngs of runners to get to the front.

“Logically, I should have just stuck to my race plan, stuck to my pace, knowing that’s the way I can have the most success,” Gardiner says. “But I panicked and I ended up trying to catch up within the first 10 kilometers. So by the time I hit the halfway point I was gassed and I had not a whole lot left.”

Have a range of race day goals

Going into races, Gardiner likes to set A, B and C goals. When she’s fit, her A goal is often to run a personal best time while her C goal is to focus on smart pacing. “If I know I’m not going to hit my goal time, one of the things I can take away from a race that didn’t go well is working on my pacing,” she says.

At that 2016 Montreal race, Gardiner stopped running at 26km and had a little cry. “But then I decided: You know what? I came all this way, I put in all the time to train for this. The only person that’s putting the pressure on me to run a certain time is myself. There’s lots of value in just getting through a race if you’re not injured — and I wasn’t injured. I had just not followed my race plan.”

So Gardiner started running again with the goals of keeping even splits to the finish and keeping a good mood. “I did it and I was happy to have done it in the end,” she recalls.

Be kind to yourself

“If you’re a competitive runner, or even if you’re not a competitive runner, we can be hard on ourselves if we set a goal and we don’t feel like we’re hitting it or if we told ourselves we were going to run six days a week and we’ve only been running five because life has come up,” Gardiner says.

“Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that one run, one training session, one race isn’t the be all, end all. Sitting there and beating yourself up or being critical isn’t going to move you forward in any way.”