Irish record holder is ranked third in the 400m hurdles going into this week’s European Championships
Thomas Barr continuing to make giant strides as he keeps his eye on possible glory in Zurich
Thomas Barr on his way to winning the Davy international Mens 400 Hurdles in a time of 48.95. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
No athletics event sounds more like the perfect recipe for disaster than the 400 metres hurdles. Try lining the track with 10 hurdles, each three-foot high, the first one placed 45m into the bend, the other nine placed just 35 metres apart, then sprinting over them all, flat out, until the finish.
Try doing it as other athletes are doing the same, in inside or outside lines, some crashing into the hurdles, or else counting out loud to their own metrical rhythm. Try doing it when there are major championship medals at stake.
No wonder so many things can and do go wrong - and no one knows this better than Thomas Barr. He’s just turned 22, has made enormous strides this summer by twice breaking the Irish record, and is ranked third going into this week’s European Championships in Zurich. Yet Barr knows his medal chances depend not just on what he does, but also on what he doesn’t do.
Because any lapse in concentration, any misjudged stride pattern, any mistimed surge to the line, could spell disaster, and that’s before he even gets through to Friday’s final. What Barr does have in his favour is a level of consistency never before demonstrated by an Irish 400m hurdler, including a certain Bob Tisdall.
Not many people could run a 400m flat in 48.90 seconds, and when Barr ran that, including the 10 hurdles, in Geneva in early June, he went straight to number one on the European ranking list - also becoming the first Irishman to go sub-49. It improved the 49.61 he ran in Belgium at the end of May, a time which finally eclipsed the 18 year-old Irish record of 49.73, which had stood to Tom McGuirk since 1996.
“When I started out, I suppose I wasn’t fast enough for the 400 metres flat, and while my hurdling technique was okay, I’d no aspirations to be a 400m hurdler,” says Barr - who has to partly credit his family for his talent, given both his parents were decent athletes, and his sister Jesse (exactly three years his elder) first inspired him to participate.
It’s not like he’s arrived without warning, either: Barr won his first senior title in 2011, aged just 19, clocking 50.06. He’d tried various events during his early years with Ferrybank AC in Waterford, then switched to the Limerick-based coaching team of Hayley and Drew Harrison, in Limerick.
“Before working with them, I’d no idea what a stride pattern was, or touchdown time, or bringing the trail leg through. It’s now all about refining and perfecting the technique as much as possible. It’s strange because my stride pattern just seems to fit the 400m hurdles, at least for the first 250 metres. After that, coming around the final bend, it does get a bit dodgy.
“The first five or six hurdles are going to be the same, no matter what. In Geneva, I ran 13 strides until hurdle seven. I’d only ever got to hurdle six before. That really pushed me on. I was 14 strides between hurdle seven and eight, and again between eight and nine. Then it was 15 strides home. But when fatigue kicks in, it would look like I’d be bounding up to do the triple jump, coming up the homestretch, if I was trying to stick to 13 strides the whole way.”
That’s not saying 13 strides all the way isn’t possible: Edwin Moses first patented this pattern, and went unbeaten in the 400m hurdles for nine years, nine months and nine days, between August 1977 and June 1987 (a truly incredible winning streak given the event’s recipe for disaster). Later, fellow American Kevin Young came along, threw in a couple of 12 strides, and lowered the world record to 46.78 seconds, in 1992, still the only man to run sub-47.
Barr’s rise to stardom, meanwhile, is suitably reflective of Tisdall, although not quite as meteoric. In 1932, having left his home in Nenagh to study in Cambridge, Tisdall decided he wanted to run the 400m hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics, despite no tradition in the event. He got selected at the last minute, having run 54.2 seconds in only his second race ever, and then in Los Angeles, stunned all the big favourites by running 51.67, to win the gold medal.
Tisdall’s 51.67 stood as the Irish record for the next 52 years, before JJ Barry improved it to 51.56, in 1984. That record only lasted a year, before Ciaran McDunphy ran 51.11, and that record stood for another nine years, before McGuirk - an Irish-American - broke it three times, also going sub-50 for the first time with his 49.73.
Now, Barr’s 48.90 seconds has made him a very real contender for a medal in Zurich. He has been knocked off the top spot by Rasmus Magi from Estonia, also just 22, who ran 48.77 at his National Championships earlier this month - although Barr has beaten him this season, at the European Team Championships. Britain’s Niall Flannery has also run 48.80, but didn’t look great in the Commonwealth Games, only making the final, where he finished fourth, after another athlete was disqualified. Defending European champion Rhys Williams has been taken out of the mix completely, after returning a positive doping sample after last month’s Glasgow Diamond League.
Barr’s confidence, in contrast, has been soaring, particularly after beating the reigning World champion, Jehue Gordon from Trinidad and Tobago, at last month’s Morton Games in Santry. There, Barr was trailing Gordon coming off the penultimate hurdle, yet sense his chance, maintained his stride and focus, and nailed it - his winning time of 48.94 seconds the second fastest of his career, and a Santry stadium record.
Although described by some fellow hurdlers as Bambi, for his gangly, dainty-like approach to the hurdles, Barr is deceptively competitive, now a full-time student of the event, having just completed his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Limerick. The only minor blip all summer was being beaten into second place at the Cork City Sports, and in ways that was a gentle reminder of how costly even minor blips can be.
Yet such is his consistency, and apparent confidence, that barring any disaster, Friday’s final can’t come quick enough.