© Copyright – 2013 – Athletics Illustrated

Matt Hughes is a Canadian middle-distance runner who specialises in the 3000-metre steeplechase. On August 15th, at the 2013 IAAF World Track and Field Championships, in Moscow, Russia, he broke the Canadian steeplechase record of 8:12.58, which was set in 1985 by Graeme Fell. Hughes finished in the time of 8:11.60. While competing in the finals, he finished sixth overall.

Hughes, originally from Oshawa, Ontario, competed in the NCAA for both the Clemson Tigers as well as the University of Louisville Cardinals. For Louisville, he twice captured the 3000-metre steeplechase national championship (NCAA Division 1) title at the 2010 and 2011 Outdoor Championships. He is a Canadian champion and owns the Louisville school record of 8:24.87.

The 24-year-old is currently coached by Wynn Gmitroski. Hughes made the national team to represent Canada at the world championships by running better than the Canadian A-standard twice, in 8:21 as well as 8:25. He capped off his excellent season by winning the 2013 Canadian Track and Field Championships that took place in Moncton, New Brunswick, on June 22nd. The B-standard is 8:32, while the A-standard is 8:26. Athletes can represent Canada with a B-standard coupled with the national championships win, which he accomplished on the day, to further cement his status as Canada’s best steeplechase athlete.

Christopher Kelsall: “Canadian record holder, Matt Hughes”. How does that sound?

Matt Hughes: Ha-ha I’ve been dreaming of hearing that beside my name for a long time, ever since I was a little kid just getting started in the sport.

CK: What age was that?

MH: I remember as far back watching the 96′ Olympics when Donovan (Bailey) won the 100-metres and then anchored the 4 x 100-metre relay team to gold and telling my parents that one day I would beat Donovan Bailey and run the World record. Ha-ha (which to think about now it is pretty funny and outrageous). I’m a pretty big fan of watching old race footage and I’ve probably watched every major championship, world record and attempt of the distance and middle-distance events from the past 30 years. If it’s on YouTube, chances are I’ve probably watched it (more than once ha-ha). I guess I’m a little off-topic here but, I think ever since I started to get serious in running (which wasn’t until about grade 10) I started to dream of breaking records and competing on the world stage. Which I have to thank my High School coach Kevin Dillon for helping me believe I could become great with hard work and determination.

CK: How many times have you watched Paul Tergat and Haile Gebreselassie race each other in the 10,000-metre on YouTube?

MH: Ah, that one’s a classic! Just a straight battle to the very finish, so quite a few times as you can imagine. There’s actually a video of just the final 100-metres in slow motion that is pretty cool.

CK: Yes, seen that, and Saif Saaeed Shaheen?

MH: Shaheen videos are a little bit harder to track down. A year or two ago I stumbled upon his world record, with British commentary (which for anyone who watches races online knows that’s hard to come by). So if anyone knows the link to that video, let me know, ha-ha.

CK: What made you choose to specialise in this distance?

MH: Well when I was in high school, we (my old coach Kevin Dillon and I) were planning out the season and making the Pan Am junior team was one of our goals. We knew it was going to be extremely difficult for me to make the team in the 1500-metres because there were two very good athletes at that time in Justin Duncan and Matt Leeder, who both had PBs that were a lot faster than mine. So we figured the team for the steeplechase was wide open. I started steepling that year (2007 I believe) and ever since that year I’ve stuck with the event.

CK: Was the 8:11.64 roughly a five-second personal best?

MH: Yes, I came into the year with a PB of 8:24 from 2011. I ran 8:21 at Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford earlier in the year, then ran 8:20 at the London Diamond League meet before the world championships. And at the championships I ran 8:16 in the preliminary heat, and 8:11.6 in the final.

CK: In the previous seven Olympic finals, the average time for those seven gold medallists was 8:10.12 and the average time for a medal was 8:11.98. You are right there and 8:11.64 puts you about 20th all-time in the list of best Olympic times. Has it sunk in yet?

MH: Well, I don’t really look at it that way. Definitely breaking Graeme’s (Fell) record was a big goal of mine and placing high at a major championships event was an awesome consolation prize. But the way I look at it is that, although I did those great things, I still only finished sixth. I’ll enjoy where I’m at for a little bit, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t one of the three on the podium. So there is still work to be done.

CK: Can you take me through the race?

MH: Well, going into the final Wynn and I had a discussed my chances of finishing in the top 10 and that they were great and finishing in the top five was pretty good as well. We never ruled out the chances of a medal, but knew I’d have to have the race of my life and a little luck for that to happen. I think the race went about exactly as we thought; with the Kenyans pushing the pace early and a fast final 600-metres. Through the start of the race, I just tried to find the rail early and stay out of trouble. Once the real race started with about a mile to go we knew we wanted to be in contact with the main pack. And I was right where I needed to be at that point. I feel like I fell asleep a bit after 2K, because when the push was made with 500-metres to go, I wasn’t quite where I needed to be. I’m not sure I would have finished any higher, but I think it cost me two or three seconds.

CK: Did you actually discuss the odds of winning a medal beforehand? Or does that get a little taboo?

MH: Of course! Yeah, we knew I was a long shot, but what is the point in lining up if you don’t think you have a shot (if only a small one) at winning a medal? I’ve never been one to count myself out, if you go into a race thinking there is no possible way you can win, you are already defeated. We knew I’d have to run out of my shoes and have some luck, but sometimes you get those breaks and if you don’t put yourself in the race to take advantage of them you’ll never accomplish your dreams. The race played out as we thought, and I was happy I put myself in it.

CK: Is there much in the way of surging going on in the steeple final at that level, or is it just fast throughout with a faster finish?

MH: The steeple is known to be more of an honest race when it comes to the championships, but typically the finals are won in around 8:05 – 8:10. With a steady, but not too fast first two kms and a fast final km where the last lap is usually run significantly under 60 seconds. The prelims, however, are a little more ‘Cat and Mouse’ usually there will be one fast section and the others will come down to a kick.

CK: Is there a sense of snobbery amongst the steeple community, towards those who just merely run?

MH: Ha-ha I’d have to say it’s the other way around, I feel like most distance and middle-distance athletes think the steeple is for runners who can’t make it in the other events. I’m not going to be the one to say one event is harder than another, but I feel everyone has strengths and weaknesses and I’m just exploiting my strengths by running the steeple. And let’s be honest the steeple is just more fun, exciting and cooler event than all the rest!

CK: Of course it is.

What did you think of all the PED news leading into the world’s, like Turkey and Jamaica’s issues – did you think there was going to be some big names taken down during the meet?

“I have no sympathy for athletes that get caught using PEDs, it has no place in sport and I strongly believe it should be a one and done system.”

MH: Obviously it’s disappointing to have the only news our sport gets from traditional media to be about athletes being caught on PEDs. But, I think the thing a lot of people overlook is that this is good. Finally it seems the testers are catching up with the drugs. Finally they are testing harder and more often, and the results are speaking for themselves. It’s unfortunate that some athletes feel that they need to turn to PEDs to be competitive or to stay competitive or to gain an advantage.

I have no sympathy for athletes that get caught using PEDs, it has no place in sport and I strongly believe it should be a one and done system. No slap on the wrist and six months later you can compete again, none of this, two years off and then back to doing it all over again. What kind of example are we setting for kids? If you are caught taking PEDs then you should never be given the opportunity to compete again, simple as that. I don’t think that athletics will ever be clean of this type of behavior, but testing harder and more often definitely showed in these championships.

I heard from a few coaches and former athletes that have been around the sport for a while and they said that these were the cleanest championships in a long time. You know it sucks to have big names in the sport go out, especially because we need all the big names to keep athletics moving forward. But if you are not playing the game by the rules, you don’t deserve to play!  

CK: What are your plans for the fall?

MH: After Zurich, I’ll take some time off. Then slowly start up again sometime in late September. I plan on being in Boston (Boston College) for a bit where my girlfriend Madeleine Davidson goes to school to visit her and train a bit. But for the most part, the fall will be pretty relaxed, just building the mileage back up slowly into the spring.

CK: Does Madeleine run?

MH: Yes, she runs the 5k mostly, which I think will end up being her best event, but runs 1500-metres and 3K (indoors) as well. She made regionals in the 5k this past season after only about 2 months of training due to injury (so she definitely has the talent, she just needs to stay healthy). We actually met at Louisville. After Brice (Allen) left (due to family reasons) she transferred to BC. Did I mention she is Canadian as well, so you know she’s cool, Ha-ha!

CK: Canadian eh, so no cross-country and no indoors?

MH: No, because the spring and summer are so intense, the fall is usually spent recovering and building back up. I’ll probably jump into a few road races here and there, but like I said the fall will be fairly relaxed. I’ve never been a huge fan of indoors, I like to be logging in the mileage at that point of the season rather than be racing.

CK: What volume of mileage will you get up to during the fall?

MH: I don’t imagine I’ll get much higher than 80 or 90 miles-a-week (130 – 145 kms-per-week) in the fall. I don’t like to get too crazy with the mileage in the fall; I look at the fall as just a bridge to one track season to the next, building upon the gains you made the past summer. I think too often kids have great seasons and then try to really get after training in the offseason and just end up getting injured. So I really try to just focus on building up slowly and staying healthy and fresh. Really I just try to have fun with training in the fall.

CK: Do you plan on competing in the Pan American and Commonwealth Games? What are your goals for those meets?

MH: Oh yeah, for sure. Those games are definitely not as big a deal as Worlds or Olympics, but Pan Ams being in Toronto in 2015, there will be quite a bit of pressure to do well and perform. I haven’t thought much in the way of goals leading into those two championships yet, but there’s no reason I can’t compete for a medal if I have a good lead up to them. Those two meets should be really fun and a good way to gain some more experiences leading into 2016. I am looking forward to them!

CK: What are your goals for the Rio Olympics?

MH: Being the Olympics you know everyone is going to be on the top of their game. It doesn’t really matter how fit or prepared you are, at this level everyone is good, and to achieve something like an Olympic medal also comes down to a little bit of luck on the day, as well as being fully prepared. Obviously the fitter and more prepared you are the less luck you’ll need. Realistically, Wynn and I think if we can improve by two-to-three seconds each year, I will be right in the hunt come 2016.  

Saif Saaeed Shaheen incredible world championships:

Poetry: Tergat and Gebreselassie:

The actual Sydney 2000 Olympic 10,000 metre:





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