Interview #8 - Rob Denault

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Rob Denault interview by Steve Weiler, Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Steve Weiler: Hey Rob, tell me something nice!

Rob Denault: Hey Steve! Early last year, I’d gotten my girlfriend a stuffed avocado as a present. We’d seen it in a shop window while we were walking through downtown Victoria, and kept the idea in the back of my mind as a future gift. She was feeling pretty under the weather one day, so I snagged it when I went out to get some medicine at the drug store. If you see the photo attached, there’s pretty much no way you can’t not feel happy when looking at this little guy. When he’s not lounging around on the bed, he comes along with me on big trips where I have to be away for a while. He’s a good reminder to be happy, and stay positive, even when the world is going through a rough patch.

Photo: Pea, the friendliest Avocado you’ll ever meet

SW: How did you first get into competitive running?

RD: My brother, Alex, was the first one to really get into running in our family. He was a real good all around athlete pretty early on in his life, and he won a couple races right off the bat. I remember him qualifying for OFSAA cross country in Grade 9, and I went to Kingston to watch him run. That was the first time I really kind of realized how exciting the sport was since that was a completely different scale from anything I'd witnessed up to that point for a race. Shortly after I joined the Newmarket Huskies, and things continued to grow from there for me

SW: I was fortunate enough to shadow Hugh (Cameron, Newmarket coach) at some workouts, during the Sheila Reid era - good times! Can you write a bit about the team aspect of that group and benefiting from the leadership and legacy of previous athletes like Reid and Megan Brown?

RD: Yeah I'd say the team aspect of things is heavily influential on creating a bond within the group. Hugh, and now Derek Hackshaw and all of the coaches at Newmarket, do a great job of inspiring any level of athlete to strive to be their best, and that definitely carries forward to the athletes in the club, regardless of whether you're a minor or a masters athlete. Having role model's like Sheila and Megan definitely played a big role in showing us that anything is possible in the sport. I've only ever had a few encounters/chats with Megan, but the first thing that comes to mind is the enthusiasm and positivity that came off her was like a ray of light. My brother ran with her at UofT and would tell us how focused and dedicated she was to the craft, which definitely inspired me to knuckle down at times to do the extra little things.

When Sheila was winning NCAA's, it was baffling more so because she was this kid from Newmarket, Ontario of all places, taking down the best in the states! I think her influence on us not only in the club, but to so so many female runners from my era in high school are still so inspired by her. I was lucky enough to cross over with her in my freshman year at Villanova when she was doing her fifth year, and witnessed first hand how much she wanted to succeed. Her competitive drive is probably one of the strongest I've seen in an athlete

Both Megan and Sheila remind me of how we all have an influence on each other at the Huskies, and how much the community cares about each other and wants you to succeed. It's definitely something that pushes me forward through hard times in the sport

Photo: Victoria Marathon 8k, pre social distancing (Rob on left, Rebecca on right)

SW: Can you share one or two highlights from your Villanova days?

RD: I'm fortunate to have had a great NCAA experience at Villanova. I still look back at those days fondly and have a lot of good friends from there. Personally, being part of the Penn Relays 4 by mile winning relay in 2015 was probably the most electric sporting moment I've ever been a part of. Myself and Sam McEntee, Pat Terinan, and Jordy Williamsz were just on a zoom call with Marcus O'Sullivan two weeks ago recapping that race for a Villanova media piece. Penn Relays is the most important race of the year for Villanova track and field athletes, so there's a high level of accountability to get things done since the legacy and culture of the program is so intertwined with the meet. That race was during my last year of outdoor eligibility, and I'd gone 0-3 at the relays prior to that one, so to help get it done on that day is something I'll always cherish. Another big running highlight was having our cross country team come 7th at NCAAs in 2014, which was also a hugely gratifying moment for all of us to be able to break into the top 10 with a team that a lot of people just thought was a bunch of milers that couldn't hang in real 10k XC.

SW: You're a bit further West these days; how long have you been involved with the Athletics Canada West hub?

RD: It's approaching 4 years this upcoming fall, which is pretty crazy to say out loud on here; seems that the time has flown by! I moved out here in the fall of 2016 after graduation to train with the West Hub under Heather Hennigar, who I'd known since 2012 from the Canadian World Junior team. We'd kept in touch since that team, and when I was graduating it lined up where her and the team were starting to look at bringing in some athletes to train in Victoria to create a larger training group. It's been awesome to have the opportunity to make running my primary focus these past few years, and really try to empty my tank as an athlete and see what I'm capable of.

SW: How have you been keeping yourself busy of late?

RD: I've scaled back the specificity of my training, since there's no foreseeable upcoming race yet and really just getting back to the joys of running. I've been heading out without a watch most of the time, and have also been mixing it up with some long bike rides to top up aerobically. It's a biker's dream here in Victoria with the amount of bike lanes and paths, as well as just cool nooks and hidden gems that you wouldn't think of checking out by car. My girlfriend actually just got me a fishing license as well for my birthday, so it's given us another excuse to check out some of the little lakes around here and is also a pretty easy activity to do while social distancing.

SW: Do you have any favourite ‘conversations on the run’ or any memories that you’d like to share before we get into the Finishing Kick?

Photo: I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing coaches in my life (Heather Hennigar, Rob Denault, Derek Hackshaw)

RD: Ah man, there's so many good conversations and stories from over the years, but one that immediately comes to mind is from the group pictures that's on here. Those pictures were after 2016 cross country nationals. Because of my prior Villanova racing commitments for the cross country season, I hadn't raced ACXC for 4 years. A lot of my friends from home were planning on racing, and we actually had a real solid team heading into the race. Sami Jibri always brings it in XC, Kevin Tree is an aerobic monster who was finishing up his season for Lakehead, and we'd had a slew of huskies who were chomping at the bit to take a shot at the team title. One of my best friends, Tyler White, had one of the best races of his career as our 4th man, Sami finished in the top 10, but unfortunately I didn't have the day I was hoping for and a persistent injury kept Kevin from performing to his best, and we lost out on the team title to Laval by 1 point. You'd think we'd look back at that moment with disappointment or an 'only if' mentality, (well, Tyler still does, sorry buddy! aha), but now when we look back, we just remember how fun of a weekend it was just all of us being back together. At least for me it was a reminder that these moments were going to be fewer and fewer between for us, since life was starting to pull us in other directions and that we really had to cherish an occasion like this. We still owe Tyler those two points to take the W, and the dream of reuniting a high school huskies team from our era, along with the boys who are coming up through the system now, at XC nationals is still something we all hold onto


SW: Thanks for sharing! What is your favourite running route?

RD: Well, Thomas Riva and Cole Peterson would tell you that the 10k Elk and Beaver Lake loop in Victoria can't be beat, the boys at Nova would tell you Long Runs at Valley Forge, and the Huskies love the Holland Landing Marsh for a good tempo, but honestly I've gotta say it's a tie between two: Sheppard's Bush Conservation Area in my hometown of Aurora Ontario (that one is pure nostalgia and one I've run countless times), but also the Walnut Canyon Trails in Flagstaff, Arizona. Once you get past the first kilometre in there, you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere on soft, red gravel. The silence of the woods is the best part!

SW: Leafs, Canadians, or completely ignore the sport of hockey?

RD: HA Auston Matthews would have potted 60 this year if COVID didn't hit. I'm probably one of the biggest fair-weather fans for the Leafs, but the Canadiens are you serious buddy!?!

Photo: The year we lost Canadian XC by one point

SW: Don't worry, I'm squarely in the 3rd category! I want to congratulate you on submitting a very wide range of musical preferences for this next part, I respect that! Okay, complete the song lyrics:
1. There will be light after dark, someday when
a) we’re having a nice time with our friends
b) we aren't six feet apart
c) the sun will come out, tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar

RD: As much as I want to say c), I know Luke Combs hit home with b)

SW: Yes, C was an unrelated song in which Annie hit it out of the park!
2. Brother let me
a) be your fortress
b) pass you on the inside
c) be your shelter

RD: Love me an inside pass (pretty much in the instruction manual of track racing, don't give up the rail!), but NEEDTOBREATHE has me going with another c) answer

SW: I had to get a bit more creative with this group, to keep it family friendly:
3. (Blank) them jewels fast, (blank) them
a) Run
b) Throw
c) Jump

RD: Wow, you found some Run the Jewels lyrics that was permissible for this interview? I'm going to go with b), even if it's incorrect, since saying 'throw the jewels fast' will now be stuck in my head the rest of the month

SW: Not quite, but I'll accept it as you gave me an excuse to work through some of their catalogue. Bonus points if you noticed the order of the answers (R, T, J) aligned with the group name. Final question, what is the most valuable kind of ship?

RD: You got me there! I just giggled and was distracted by my brain associating Run the Jewels with AC's Run Jump Throw Wheel program.

Kyle Penny taught me this one way back in high school: There are wood ships, and there are steel ships, but there ain't NO SHIPS LIKE FRIENDSHIPS


(SW: Readers, please note this interview took place first thing in the am for Rob)

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