Talented Thomas Barr intent on creating more records

Waterford athlete already the only Irishman to run the 400 metres hurdles in below 49 minutes

Thomas Barr celebrates his victory in last year’s 400m hurdles at the AAI Senior Track & Field Championships at  Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin. “It’s now all about refining and perfecting the technique as much as possible.” Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Thomas Barr celebrates his victory in last year’s 400m hurdles at the AAI Senior Track & Field Championships at Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin. “It’s now all about refining and perfecting the technique as much as possible.” Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 06:00

“Nine years, nine months and nine days,” he tells me, off the top of his head – pretty impressive considering Thomas Barr wasn’t even born when Edwin Moses set that record. Barr was born five years, 20 days and whatever hours later.

In those nine years, nine months and nine days, from August 1977 to June 1987, Moses went unbeaten in the 400 metres hurdles, winning 122 consecutive races – also pretty impressive, considering it must be the most technically and physically challenging of all track and field events. Considering Moses also broke four world records it may well be the most impressive winning streak in sporting history.

“And Moses would only take 13 strides, the whole way round,” says Barr. Indeed no one could top that until fellow American Kevin Young came along, and threw in a couple of 12 strides – lowering the world record to 46.78 seconds, in 1992, still the only man to run sub-47.

Barr is telling me this overlooking the 400m track at Santry Stadium, as we both try to imagine it lined with 10 hurdles, each three-foot high, the first one placed 45m into the first bend, the other nine placed 35 metres apart, leaving a 40m-stretch to the finish line. Not many people could run that 400m track in 48.90 seconds: for Barr, still 20 days shy of his 22nd birthday, running 48.90 seconds last month, including the hurdles, has already made him the only Irish man to run sub-49.

No tradition

That’s pretty impressive in an event where Irish athletes wouldn’t be traditionally strong, at least not since our Olympic champion Bob Tisdall. 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 whatsoever 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, ran 51.67, to win the gold medal. That should have been an Olympic and world record too, although back then if you tipped a hurdle – like Tisdall did – times didn’t stand for record purposes.

Tisdall’s 51.67 did stand as an Irish record, for an incredible 52 years, before JJ Barry finally 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 Tom McGuirk – an Irish-American – broke it three times, also going sub-50 for the first time with his 49.73, set on June 1st, 1996.

So, that record stood for 18 years, until Barr ran 49.61 in Belgium, on May 31st, making him just the fourth Irish man to break the national record since Tisdall. Two weeks later, in Geneva, Barr lowered it again, running that 48.90, the then fastest time in Europe for 2014.

Still described by his fellow hurdlers as Bambi, for his gangly, dainty-like approach to the hurdles, when first breaking onto the scene. Barr smiles at the Bambi label, yet doesn’t deny it: because it doesn’t entirely disguise the hardy determination of the Waterford athlete, now a full-time student of the event, having just completed his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Limerick.

“When I started out, I suppose I wasn’t fast enough for the 400 metres flat, and my hurdling technique was okay,” he says. “But I’d no aspirations to be a 400m hurdler. My only idol in athletics was Stefan Holm, the Swedish high jumper. I loved watching him jump. This little short guy, clearing the bar height about two feet over his head. That inspired me.”

So too did his older sister Jesse, who first succeeded in the event – and together they joined the husband-and-wife 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.”

But that’s the goal, the aspiration, continuing with the Cork City Sports next Tuesday, and then the Morton Games in Santry, next Friday. By now, Barr’s record of 48.90 has lasted 22 days and whatever hours, and he’s unbeaten in two races since, too. That unbeaten streak may not last nine years, nine months and nine days, but there’s no way his record will either, not when Barr keeps lowering it as impressively as he is now.

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