There was a thought that the best women’s 400m hurdle race of the year had already been run. That the world record holder, exhausted from achieving her lifetime goal, wouldn’t be as sharp in Doha as she was in Des Moines more than eight weeks ago. And that her main challenger, 20-years-old now but 19 in Des Moines, had done all she could in her first professional season.
The endless 2019 track season had taken a toll on Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin, but their talent and competitiveness overrode all that on Friday in Khalifa Stadium. Muhammad broke her world record that she set at the USATF Championships, going from 52.20 to 52.16 and winning her first world championship. McLaughlin ran a massive personal best of 52.23, the third-fastest time in history. The world record entering the season of 52.34 now looks like an antique.
Boogie Johnson, Muhammad’s coach, said after her first record that it wasn’t a perfect race. Tonight?
“Closer. Not perfect, but closer,” Johnson said.
Individually, perhaps. Every coach finds microseconds here or there. But collectively, this was the best 400m hurdle race ever run.
But that didn’t seem likely a few weeks ago. Muhammad found herself in a post-world record funk. “One of the goals was always to be the best that ever did it and when you reach that goal you have to come back down to the earth and figure out where I go from here what do I do next,” Johnson said.
She took time off after Des Moines. “We both knew we needed a mental break,” she said.
In the Diamond League final in Zurich, Muhammad told The New York Times, that she didn’t feel any pre-race nerves (“well, that ain’t good,” Johnson remembers thinking). She was on heavy training and ultimately finished third behind McLaughlin and Shamier Little in 54.13.
There was a precedent for turning it around. Before the USATF Championships, McLaughlin beat Muhammad convincingly in Oslo, only to beat McLaughlin by .68 in Des Moines.
“Sometimes the meets don't always match up with the goals that you have,” Johnson said.
“We didn't plan on going undefeated, that was never the goal. The goal was always to win the big one.”
McLaughlin ran 52.85 in Zurich, the second-best time of her career, reversing her loss to Muhammad in Des Moines. McLaughlin was trending in the right direction. Since June, she’d run a season-best in every race, exceeding every expectation her coach Joanna Hayes had of her. “Literally, every track meet we went to was a new experience for her,” Hayes said.
If Muhammad was slightly off in Doha, she was vulnerable.
Both women cruised through the heats and semifinals with ease. Muhammad again looking like she was a different runner when it came to championship settings.
“With rounds, it’s kind of like practice for me, where your last effort is the best. It keeps a fresher picture of what you need to do each round and each round I do something different to prepare for the final,” Muhammad said.
In the final, Muhammad was in lane six and McLaughlin in lane four. McLaughlin would be able to see Muhammad the entire way around the track--the reverse of their assignments in Des Moines. Hayes thought a time 52.20 between 52.50 was possible for McLaughlin.
It only took 100 meters for this to develop into a two-woman race. McLaughlin engulfed the eventually bronze medal winner Rushell Clayton by the end of the first bend. In her previous losses to Muhammad, McLaughlin closed the gap in the final meters, but the deficit entering the home stretch had always been too much.
“That’s no lie, Sydney finishes great,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad pushed the backstretch. She wanted to apply pressure. McLaughlin remained in contact. “I just knew there was no holding back that could be done,” Muhammad said.
McLaughlin had a little trouble at hurdle eight (“the only thing that wasn’t smooth,” Hayes said), and trailed Muhammad heading into the final 100 meters. Both women knew it was fast. McLaughlin felt it in her legs. Muhammad just wanted to hang on. McLaughlin inched closer over hurdles nine and ten.
Off the final barrier, Muhammad still held a lead, but McLaughlin didn’t relent. In one final push in the last 20 meters, she drew closer. It wasn’t enough, Muhammad had the gold and the world record. They embraced, McLaughlin congratulated her. They both smiled.
“This time I was a lot closer,” McLaughlin said. “I knew if I wasn’t going to be able to win I at least wanted a PR. It’s not like it was a far off race, we were both right there.”
Clayton was more than a second-and-a-half behind in third.
When asked what she thought of the time, seventh-place finisher Ashley Spencer had more noises than words. “Woooooo, that’s it. Wooooo.”
The night before the race, pre-race 400m favorite Shaunae Miller-Uibo cut .6 seconds off her best time, only to lose to Salwa Eid Naser, who dropped nearly a second off her's. It was a reminder that defining success solely off a gold is convenient but complicated. McLaughlin ran faster than every other woman in history but one, and that woman just happened to be in her race.
“She’s (Muhammad) been in the lights. They said she trained to break the world record. That was a goal for them. It wasn’t a goal for us. We could have stumbled upon it tonight….but that wasn't our goal,” Hayes said.
“Definitely her (Muhammad) experience is playing a huge part in this,” Hayes said. “She’s like, I've been here before. I've done this before and Syd has not and that's where the advantage is, aside from her being a great athlete, she’s also very experienced.”
Next year, Muhammed will still be in her prime and McLaughlin will no longer be a rookie. Another world record looks like a prerequisite for a gold medal in Tokyo.
“If I want to stay competitive in this event, I have no choice,” Muhammad said.
McLaughlin set the terms concisely between the two. “It’s the rookie and the vet. There’s not a lot of communication, but there’s a lot of watching.”
Muhammad thought her hurdling was better than Des Moines, but that she pushed too much on the backstretch. Johnson will certainly have a list of improvements to make as he did after the first world record.
“It’s probably going to be broken again by one or both of them,” Hayes said. “Those two are going to push each other to under 52 at some point.”
After the race, Spencer was asked how long this new record would last. “For the next 10 months, it’s probably safe,” the timing coinciding with the Tokyo Olympics.
About an hour later, Muhammad was posed the same question. “Maybe less than 10 months,” she said.