Matt Hughes will be bidding to shatter his Canadian record in the men's 3,000-metre steeplechase on Tuesday (CBCSports.ca, 4:10 p.m. ET) while training partner Evan Jager could become the first-ever American to collect a world championship medal in the event.
Hughes, 28, believed his personal-best time of eight minutes 11.64 seconds was within reach at a Diamond League track and field in Monaco on July 21 after a series of strong workouts that followed his Canadian title (8:30.91) in early July at Ottawa.
However, the Oshawa, Ont., got tangled up with a couple of runners on the first lap and hit a hurdle for the first time in competition, sending his mind racing for the remainder of the race. He finished 11th in a field of 12 in 8:38.72.
After taking a few days to recover from the frustration and disappointment, Hughes had some good workouts in London before finishing third in Sunday's qualifying heat in a season-best 8:24.29.
"Coach told me to go in relaxed and let your instincts take over and that's what I did," he told CBC Sports over the phone Monday. "I didn't put too much pressure on myself and took the lead when I felt I needed or wanted to."
'I don't wish badly on anyone'
'On a good day, I could beat most of the people in the field. I just have to not put too much pressure on myself.' — Canadian record holder Matt Hughes on Tuesday's steeplechase world final
Hughes noted he ran much of Sunday's qualifier at London Stadium in front of Conseslus Kipruto, the 22-year-old Kenyan, who won Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro last August but was forced to withdraw from the Monaco event with ongoing ankle soreness.
However, Kipruto has won both races he's entered this season, including a 8:04.63 at Diamond League Rome on June 8, and kicked hard over the final metres on Sunday to win his heat in 8:23.80 and qualify 10th overall.
"I don't concern myself with talk an athlete might be hurt. I look at it like he's one of the greatest athletes," said Hughes, who has only raced twice this season after injuring his right knee in March when he ran into a fire hydrant during training. "I don't wish badly on anyone but if [the ankle] affects him during the final, it helps me.
"The plan [Tuesday] is to finish as high as possible and put myself in a good position with two or three laps to go. On a good day, I could beat most of the people in the field. I just have to not put too much pressure on myself."
A Kenyan man has won the last 21 Olympic and world titles in the 3,000 steeplechase dating to 1988, with its athletes sweeping the podium at the 2015 worlds in Beijing and also occupying the fourth spot.
Jager, a six-time U.S. champion and 2016 Olympic silver medallist, could be the first global champion in the event from the States since Horace Ashenfelter captured the lone U.S. Olympic gold medal in 1952.
Mental strength 'huge component' to success
The 28-year-old Illinois native is coming off a world-leading time of 8:01.29 at Monaco — the first-ever Diamond League victory by a non-African man — and looking to redeem himself after the medal favourite faded down the stretch and placed sixth at worlds two years ago.
"I think it's just a confidence thing [with Evan]," said Hughes of his fellow Bowerman Track Club member. "I think there are a lot of athletes capable of winning [Tuesday] but mentally they're probably not there. In long-distance running, it can be a huge component to having success."
Hughes said he is a beneficiary of Jager's "focus, drive and determination" and has admired the latter's ability to stay "entirely focused" since last year's Olympics.
"Learning from that is key," Hughes said. "Evan is super-fit now and can take on anyone in the world. The medals are there for the taking [Tuesday] and Evan, in particular, has a great chance."