Track and Field·Preview

Record 1,303 athletes eye world berth at track and field nationals

Olympians Andre De Grasse, Melissa Bishop and Matt Hughes, along with wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos and fellow Paralympian Jason Dunkerley are among the record 1,303 athletes vying for Canadian titles at this week's track and field nationals in Ottawa.

3-time champion Matt Hughes looks to regain 3,000m steeplechase title after knee injury

Matt Hughes has yet to race outdoors this season after a training mishap in March but is confident he can regain his Canadian title this week in the men’s 3,000-metre steeplechase and show well at the world championships in August. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/File)

Few middle-distance runners could win a national title if they hadn't competed in four months. Matt Hughes believes he can.

Two months ago, the 2016 Olympian was anything but confident while recovering from a right knee injury suffered in March when he ran into a fire hydrant during a workout with his Bowerman Track Club teammates in Portland, Ore.

"It was touch and go for a while in April," Hughes said over the phone recently from Park City, Utah, where he has lived and trained at altitude for the past five weeks. "I wasn't sure if I was going to have to can the season, but luckily I have a lot of good support staff and we got it figured out."

Hughes, who has been training pain-free since mid-May and is working out two to three times per week, is among the record 1,303 able-bodied and Paralympic athletes competing at the Canadian track and field championships this week in Ottawa.

The 27-year-old will race in the men's 3,000-metre steeplechase final at Terry Fox Athletic Facility on Thursday at 7:50 p.m. ET.

Sprinter Andre De Grasse and fellow Olympians Melissa Bishop (800), Lanni Marchant (5,000) and Damian Warner (decathlon) along with wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos, fellow Paralympian Jason Dunkerley and many others will be competing throughout the week for the honour of being crowned Canadian champion.

"It has been a while since Ottawa hosted the national championships. To have it in the nation's capital for Canada's 150th [birthday] is special," said Bishop, who prepared for nationals by running the 800 in one minute 59.70 seconds at a Diamond League meet in Stockholm on June 18.

Those athletes who finish first or second in their event also earn a spot on the Canadian team for the world championships set for Aug. 5-13 in London, England, provided they have met the qualifying standard. A third spot would be determined by the National Team Committee (NTC).

Guinean-Canadian hurdler Sekou Kaba believes people should flock to see Olympians and rising stars compete for the "privilege" of representing Canada at worlds.

The standard is eight minutes 32 seconds for Hughes, who has yet to race outdoors this season since his knee injury occurred shortly after running two indoor events in February.

"I'm a very competitive person and I've been focused on [regaining] my title as the national champion," Hughes said. "I'm excited."

I'm very confident that I'm in shape that I can go to Ottawa, hit the [world qualifying] standard and win the race.— Canadian middle-distance runner Matt Hughes on competing at track nationals

The Oshawa, Ont., native won back-to-back-to-back national titles from 2013-15 before missing last year's event in Edmonton, which doubled as the Rio Olympic trials, after straining his left calf in a workout. However, Hughes was later added to the Canadian squad by the NTC and finished 10th in 8:36.83 in his Olympic debut.

On Thursday, he'll try to unseat 2016 national champion Taylor Milne of Callander, Ont., who was fifth, second and third, respectively, during Hughes' three-year title reign. His time of 8:36.50 a year ago was nearly five seconds slower than Hughes' 8:31.95 winning performance in 2015.

"Judging by my last two or three weeks of workouts," Hughes said, "I'm very confident that I'm in shape, that I can go to Ottawa, hit the standard and win the race. I'm not going to put a ton of pressure on myself.

"I don't mean this as a slight to any of my competition, but I think I'm going to approach it as a workout."

At the 2013 worlds in Moscow, Hughes ran 8:11.64 to finish sixth and shatter Graeme Fell's 28-year Canadian record. Hughes won gold two years later in 8:32.18 at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

"I feel like I've been knocking on the door of sub-8:10 fitness the last couple of years," said Hughes, a two-time NCAA champion in the steeplechase while at the University of Louisville, where he graduated in 2012 with a degree in sport sciences.

"I don't know where I'm at this season, but I know my body and I know I can get to that sub-8:10, 8:05 fitness, and that's right with the best guys in the world. I'd be pretty disappointed that by the end of this year, if not at worlds or a couple of races after worlds, I'm not under 8:10."

Two months ago, all that mattered for Hughes was getting a proper diagnosis. An MRI in May revealed a buildup of scar tissue, so Hughes was given a cortisone shot to reduce swelling in his right knee. He resumed workouts at the end of the month after receiving regular treatment from Athletics Canada physiotherapists in Victoria and others in Portland.

"Some days I could run for an hour and feel fine and the next day, 10 minutes into the run, it would be stinging pain like someone was shoving a knife into the side of my knee," he recalled.

"I'm glad I didn't give up, but this sport doesn't give back a lot. I really savour the times that I'm healthy, training and able to enjoy a 70-minute run."