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Memoir

“When I left an elite US running group to train in Toronto, I worried I’d made a huge mistake. Then I broke a record”

How moving back to her hometown helped track-and-field star Lucia Stafford become the top 1,000-metre runner in North America

By Lucia Stafford, as told to Alex Cyr
"When I left an elite US running group to train in Toronto, I worried I'd made a huge mistake. Then I broke a record"

Track and field was not my first love. Growing up near Yonge and Davisville as the second of three children, I spent my energy Irish dancing with my older sister, Gabriela. But it was just a matter of time before we both realized that running was in our blood. My dad had represented Team Canada at four world cross-country championships, and my aunt on my mom’s side also raced on the international stage. 

Running was never pushed on me. In Grade 4, I joined my school’s cross-country team and discovered that the sport came naturally to me. I won the Ontario provincials by a large margin, without any formal training. My school gave me a rising star award, and from then on, I was hooked. I loved the feeling of being good at something, and I wanted to discover my limits. 

In Grade 8, I decided to make running my main extracurricular activity and joined the University of Toronto Track Club. I started training with running coach Terry Radchenko. We clicked, and I eventually chose to study civil engineering at the University of Toronto—in part because I love math and physics but also to stay in Terry’s group through my varsity career. In university, I trained six days a week and won cross-country and indoor track and field national championships, but I also kept up with a demanding class schedule. In my spare time, I went to yoga classes with friends, Mariachi’s for tacos, Massey Hall for concerts and family trips for chocolate mousse at Delysées Luxury Desserts. 

Staying home for university paid off. By the end of my varsity career, I was running fast enough to hit the time standards to compete against other professional runners across the country and in the US. Those bigger races helped me improve in the 800-metre and the 1,500-metre, which became my specialty races. 

Then, at 22, one year after graduating, I represented Canada at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. I’d achieved my biggest goal: qualifying for the games validated all of the work I’d put in and the sacrifices I’d made from a young age, and it meant I had cemented myself as one of the world’s best athletes. I finished 14th in the 1,500-metre semi-final, with a personal best time of four minutes and 2.12 seconds. Only four Canadian women have ever run faster—including my sister Gabriela, who is also a professional runner—and it landed me a professional sponsorship with Nike. That’s when it hit me: I’m a professional runner now. What does that mean?

It’s common for pros in North America to move to the west coast because of the mild winters and mountainous landscapes that allow for altitude training. Gabriela was living and training in Portland, and having spent my whole life in Toronto, I became curious about taking that leap too. Then, in November 2021, I was recruited to join the Nike Bowerman Track Club—one of the top training groups on the planet. There, I met a group of amazingly talented and driven athletes, many of whom had national titles and world records under their belts.

Nike originated in Oregon, and we were based on the iconic brand’s campus. We ran in nearby parks and on the campus’s beautiful track encircling a forest, and we used its elite gyms and workout facilities. It was a runner’s dream: around-the-clock coaching and recovery services like athletics therapy rooms and weight gyms. But still, I didn’t feel at home. For starters, a former team member who was serving a four-year doping ban was still training with our coaches. Even though she had been given permission by the Athlete Integrity Unit to do so, the situation made me uncomfortable. I always believed that her infraction was an isolated event and that the group was clean and ethical. I still think that way—but, as a first-year professional, I couldn’t risk being associated with doping in any way. The situation was black and white for me, and training alongside someone who was serving a doping sentence seemed like a grey area.

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I struggled with other parts of my new life. The routine of a professional athlete started to seem one-dimensional. I felt isolated in a community that was solely focused on training, teammates and coaches. While at practice, I still put everything I had into running, but I realized that I thrive when I’m doing other activities too, like drawing, yoga, playing music, and hanging out with family and friends. So, in March 2022, I made the difficult decision to leave the group and move back to Toronto, trading Portland’s sunny weather and endless trails for southern Ontario’s brutal winters and concrete jungle. Part of me felt like I was abandoning what many would consider an ideal life for a professional runner.

It may not have seemed like a great career move, but it came with a major perk: reuniting with my lifetime coach, Terry. I jumped back into his training plan, which I had followed throughout university: 90-minute runs on Mondays, interval workouts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, easy one-hour runs on the days in between, and resting on the seventh day—all of it totalling up to 100 kilometres a week. 

I live just west of Trinity Bellwoods, so I do a lot of my runs on Lake Shore. It’s busier than my Oregon routes, but it has its own charm, and I like that I encounter all kinds of runners. While on a long run last fall, I passed a guy, and then he sprinted by me at top speed five minutes later. It was clear that he wanted to race. I didn’t bite, but I still ended up passing him ten minutes later. He threw himself on his hands and knees and gave me a puzzled look. I just said, Hey man, good job!” and kept on running.

I spent much of 2022 trying to strike a balance between professional running and the rest of my life. I started studying music at Seneca College, where I’m dabbling in singing and songwriting. I’m also spending time at my old haunts with family and friends. Pursuing other hobbies while being a pro runner is a double-edged sword: travelling to races on weekends, catching up on courses during the week and maintaining a social life can be draining. I’m often short on sleep, but the balance helps me enjoy my training and maintain my mental health.

In February, I returned to race in the US for the first time in months, at the Boston University Terrier Classic. As I walked up to the start line of the 1,000-metre—five laps of the 200-metre indoor track—my heart was pounding. I did my best to visualize the race, thinking about what I would tell myself on every lap. The field included many internationally competitive athletes, and living away from elite training groups, I felt far removed from the professional runner’s world. At the same time, I had felt strong during training runs, and I wondered if I could have a special day. 

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The race began, and I tucked behind the leader. She was running at a world-record pace of 30 seconds per lap. It was breakneck speed; anybody who could hold on to that pace would shatter the Canadian record of two minutes and 37 seconds by seven full seconds—a lifetime. My plan was to hold on until I couldn’t. I reached the 800-metre mark in the lead at two minutes and three seconds. Usually, by that point, your quads feel shredded and you’re gasping for air. But, somehow, I felt really good. I knew I had one more fast lap left in me. I made eye-contact with Terry on the side of the track, and he lowered his hands, instructing me to stay focused and keep my composure. I increased my pace, rounded the last bend of the track and crossed the finish line in two minutes and 33.75 seconds—a North American record and the best time in the world this year. I was ecstatic, not only because of the time but because I had achieved it from home. To celebrate, I had my favourite dessert in the world: chocolate mousse cake.

Life has been hectic since then. I’ve received a lot of media attention, which is odd because I’m used to sharing the spotlight with Gabriela. This year, she’s recovering from an injury, but she remains my top supporter. The media has covered our story as "Lucia following in her sister’s footsteps,” but we’re quite different. Gabriela feels fulfilled when she’s putting all of her energy into running, whereas I thrive when I’m focusing on multiple things. 

Next, I plan to represent Canada at the 2023 World Athletics Championships, in Budapest in August, and then I want to make the Olympic final in Paris in 2024. To get there, I’m putting my trust in Terry and following his training plan. Most importantly, I want to keep having fun with it: I found a way to love running as much as I did when I was a Grade 4 kid winning a ribbon. I love the feeling of pushing myself and being in tune with my body. When I’m running hard, my brain quiets down and goes into a meditative state, drowning out all of the background noise. I also enjoy spending time outside with good friends and being part of an amazing running community.

For now, I’m learning that I thrive in balance, and that there is no right or wrong way to do this sport. Part of the fun is in allowing myself to live in limbo sometimes.

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