Humbling lessons learned at track worlds spur Canadians Brown, McBride to be better in Tokyo
Elite competition teaching both how to better run their races and aim for Olympic podium
Promising Canadian track stars Aaron Brown and Brandon McBride might have come home from the recent world championships without a medal, but they believe the lessons learned in Qatar could lead to a podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Brown, the Canadian champion in the 100 and 200 metres, made the decision to also run both races in Doha, but quickly learned how mentally and physically draining that can be at a world-class competition, having to race a heat, semifinal and final in each event with no off days.
"In the semifinal at a world championship, you're going to get at least two people who are fast," Brown said recently prior to embarking on a post-worlds cruise with his fiancée. "Even in the  heats, I [ran against Great Britain's] Miguel Francis, who had run a season-best 19.97 entering worlds, so I didn't have a round where I could coast."
At the Canadian championships in July, where the few elite sprinters were spread across three semifinals, the Toronto native was able to relax and run 21 seconds in the 200 to qualify for the final.
In the 200 at worlds, Brown was pitted against Adam Gemili of Great Britain and 2017 world champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey in the semifinals. He says Gemili's speed on the curve at Khalifa International Stadium "threw me off and put my transition out of whack" and found himself muscling through the final 90 metres.
WATCH | Brown: 'I know I'm right there' in the 100 and 200 metres:
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"I was still second and pretty clear of the field [off the curve] but I panicked and that [created] an opening for Guliyev to get me at the finish [line]," said Brown, who clocked 20.20 seconds to secure the eighth and last spot for the final. "Had I stayed relaxed, I probably would have been under 20.10 and first or second going into the final. It's lessons learned."
Brown's coach, former U.S. sprinter Dennis Mitchell, knew he was dejected and tried to pick up his spirits after the race.
"He said, 'We're not going to be sad, we're in the final. We've made a lot of progress [making two world finals] and we should celebrate that,'" Brown said. "I have to manage my emotions better in a semifinal and final."
After feeling "gassed" in the semifinals, Brown "emptied the tank" on the curve in the final and held on for a sixth-place finish in 20.10. Three days earlier, he placed eighth in the 100 final in 10.08.
It wasn't until the beginning of September when Brown had some success in the 100 at IAAF World Challenge events in Berlin and Zagreb, Croatia, that he decided to double up at worlds. The 27-year-old had been hampered by a right hip flexor injury since early August that raised some doubt about his ability to race two events but Brown was able to put aside the injury aside in Doha, thanks to regular visits to his physiotherapist.
"Minor adjustments for next year will have me prepared to run my best at the Olympics if all goes according to plan and I can stay healthy," he said. "The biggest step forward in 2020 will come from experience and mental growth. It's not a finished product, but there has been tangible progress made each of the last few seasons."
Brown has already spoken to sports psychologist and former Canadian Olympic track runner Penny Werthner, and plans to talk with Mitchell and Olympic medallists about how to remain mentally strong during the grind of the summer race season.
McBride said he and his coach, Kurt Downes, prepared for all race scenarios entering the world championships, including a slow and tactical race the 25-year-old had not encountered for a few years.
Early in his 800 semifinal heat in Doha, McBride knew it wasn't the style of race he wanted and described it as a "shock to the body" as he didn't anticipate certain moves by his opponents.
Midway through the race, leader Ngeno Kipngetich of Kenya slowed and other runners went around McBride. With an opening to the inside, McBride chose not to attack — "If I could change things, I would have taken the inside and control of the race" — so Amel Tuka of Bosnia pounced.
McBride eventually worked his way around Kipngetich and was neck-and-neck with Tuka until around the 700-metre mark. But Tuka had the advantage running on the inside and more energy and sped down the straightaway for a first-place finish in one minute 45.63 seconds.
McBride, on the other hand, had used significantly more energy passing others and was overtaken by American Bryce Hoppel and Alvaro de Arriba of Spain over the final 20 metres, finishing fourth in 1:46.21. A month earlier, McBride had run a season-best 1:43.51 at the Diamond League Final in Brussels.
WATCH | Tactical errors lead to McBride failing to qualify for 800m final:
"The final was the fast-paced race I had been training for and was comfortable running. I was in the best shape of my life," said McBride, who ran 1:43.20 in July 2018 to break Gary Reed's Canadian record. "You have to make several moves in a slow and tactical race, I made the wrong ones and it cost me.
"It was a tough lesson but I now know what I need to do in order to be better."
The Doha experience was a role reversal from the 2017 worlds in London, where McBride made the correct decisions to finish first in his semifinal heat but faded down the stretch and placed eighth in the final in 1:47.09.
WATCH | McBride runs season-best 1:43.51 at Diamond League Final:
McBride, who spent seven days vacationing with Downes in Dubai and Egypt after worlds, noted he would make some of his races in 2020 slow and tactical. He will also consider entering a couple of 1,500 events early in the season to get a feel of being in the lead pack off a slow pace and see the moves others make.
Looking back, the native of Windsor, Ont., said he would have run a race this season in which he went out fast and led from start to finish and another similar to Doha to gauge how his body reacted.
"Once I figure out how to get through a tactical race," he says, "I'll be the type of runner that can bring Canada home a medal [from Tokyo]."