OTTAWA — Steeplechase is one of track and field’s most treacherous events, but Canada’s Matt Hughes has always managed to stay on his feet.
Instead, it was a fire hydrant that derailed the 27-year-old’s season.
Hughes won the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Canadian track and field championships on Thursday, and booked his spot on the world championship team. And it was Hughes’ first race since last summer’s Rio Olympics.
Hughes crashed into a fire hydrant while on a training run in March in Portland, Ore., and injured his patellar tendon in his right knee, which shelved his training until just six weeks ago.
“It was so stupid,” Hughes said. ”We were just on a training run, and I train with about 10, 12 other guys, most of them are American guys (with the Bowerman Track Club), and I was just at the back of the pack, and I just wasn’t looking and ran right into it.”
The man vs. fire hydrant incident occurred near the start of the two-hour run, and he still managed to complete it, believing the injury wasn’t serious. He woke up the next morning to a knee that had “ballooned up.”
Needing to run eight minutes 32 seconds to achieve the world championship standard, Hughes crossed in 8:30.91 on a breezy night at Terry Fox Stadium.
His focus in training these last few weeks was all about strength. In a 3,000-metre steeplechase, runners jump over wooden barriers — 28 in all — plus seven water jumps. Hughes, who has never fallen during a steeplechase race, hadn’t done any steeple-specific training until last week, when he did a trial run simply to see if he could go over the barriers pain free.
Genevieve Lalonde of Moncton, N.B., won the women’s 3,000 steeplechase in 9:37.45, clinching her spot on the world team.
Mo Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., won the 5,000 metres in 14:02.36, while Justyn Knight of Toronto was second in 14:03.16, both booking world berths.
Andrea Seccafien of Guelph, Ont., and Jessica O’Connell of Calgary secured their spots on the world team in the women’s 5,000. Seccafien captured the Canadian title in 15:39.66, while O’Connell was second in 15:40.91.
Hughes, who won the Pan Am Games in 2015 and was sixth at the 2013 world championships, wasn’t in top form at the Rio Olympics either. He finished 10th, Canada’s best finish in the event at an Olympics, despite straining his right calf muscle six weeks before the race.
The injuries, he said, have given him a new appreciation for the sport.
“I think it’s made me a stronger athlete, it’s made me appreciate the runs when I can go out and have fun with the guys, and just go through a normal training run and have fun,” he said. ”It’s brought back the enjoyment for me.”
And that fire hydrant?
“I give it a love tap every time I go by, make sure I don’t hit it,” he said, laughing.
Ahmed, a 26-year-old who also trains with the Bowerman club, was a thrilling fourth in the 5,000 at last summer’s Rio Olympics, Canada’s best-ever finish in the event. Still, the result was a big blow to the runner who believed a medal was within his grasp.
“Ever since I stepped off the track in Rio, I’ve been thinking about London,” Ahmed said. ”What Rio showed me was I can be there to the end. …I’ve been there with a lap to go and saw them accelerate away from me. But I was there to 50, 100 metres (to go).
“To close that hard in a fast race, it’s just experience. And it’s a little bit of belief, rubbing elbows with guys like (Olympic champion) Mo Farah and the best of East Africa, it’s an experience that you don’t forget. It forces you to say ‘OK, think big.’”
Big, he said, would be a medal next month in London.
Knight, who was third at the recent NCAA championships for Syracuse, was making his 5,000 debut at a senior nationals.
“It was fantastic out there, I went in just trying to qualify and I did what I had to do,” said Knight. “It warms my heart. I was close to making the Olympic team last year, and I know what it feels like to be right on the cusp of making it… I was one second off twice (from qualifying for Rio). Ugh.”
The world championships are Aug. 5-13 in London.