"I think it’s good for the top-level athletes to race as much as they can at home, it helps grow the sport and is hopefully fun for the spectators."
The 2016 Canadian Cross Country Championships take place November 26 in Kingston, Ont. We will profile a few of the top competitors leading into this year’s event. The Canadian Cross Country Championships serve as a national championship for youth, junior, senior and masters age category athletes. It’s also the selection trials for the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and 2017 NACAC Cross Country Championships. For more information: http://athletics.ca/championnat/canadian-cross-country-championships/
Matt Hughes of Oshawa, Ont., is the Canadian record holder in the 3000-metres steeplechase. He set the record of 8:11.64 to finish sixth at the 2013 IAAF World Championships. Along with winning gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games, Matt represented Canada this past summer at the Rio Olympics where he placed tenth.
AC: You’ve experienced success both on the track and the course. Where was your first cross country race, and what do you remember about it?
MH: I’m pretty sure my first cross country race was in grade four. Although I didn't really take running seriously until high school, I always ran cross country in elementary school. I remember being very excited for both those races. (IAAF World Cross Country Championships) Kenya in 2007 was all about survival. Scotland in 2008 was my first year of NCAA and I never felt I did the proper training in the lead up due to training for track at the same time. Both races were wake up calls to how much harder I needed to train to be able to run with the top guys in the world.
AC: What do you like most about racing cross country?
MH: The thing I like most about cross country is that unlike track, splits and pace don't really matter. It’s more about racing the competition and battling the course. Although my training right now would be no different whether I was racing nationals or not, cross country can be very beneficial in building strength to help on the track. Anytime I have a chance to compete for a national championship I find enjoyment in that.
AC: Along with being the Canadian record holder, you were also a finalist in the steeplechase this past summer in Rio. What was 2016 like for you? What lessons have you learned over the past couple of years that you will put into practice?
MH: “Emotionally exhausting” is the phrase that comes to mind. I never once took making the Canadian Team for granted. I knew my chances were very good, but in this sport, anything can happen and that “anything” did. I switched training groups the year of the Games, which isn't the most conventional thing to do. However, I knew as long as I continued to train smart, swallow my pride and work hard, I’d give myself the best chance possible to make it to Rio. Just before the Games I had a minor injury that stopped me from running and training for two weeks, which greatly affected my performance in Rio. Excuses aside, I didn't bring it on race day. At that level, you have to show up ready to battle or you’ll be out in the back. I learned this year to never take anything for granted and always be prepared for the worst.
AC: Last year, you moved to Portland, Oregon to join up with Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman Track Club (BTC). What was that transition like?
MH: The transition was very smooth, and everyone in the group made me feel very welcome. BTC has a family like feel to it and everyone is very supportive. Training wise, it was a huge adjustment, workouts were very hard to handle at the beginning and took some time to get the hang of. I realized I became very soft mentally training by myself for much of the past three or four years. I struggled early on to push myself out of my comfort zone and learned how to “grind” again. On the men’s side the group is made up of some very fast, hard working, and talented individuals. In no particular order: Dan Huling, Andrew Bumbalough, Chris Derrick, Elliot Heath, Evan Jager, German Fernandez, Lopez Lomong, Mohammed Ahmed, Ryan Hill and Woody Kincaid.
AC: What are you looking forward to most about competing in Kingston? Are there a few potential competitors who you enjoy competing against in the mud and hills?
MH: Most of all I just looking forward to mixing it up with some of the best guys in Canada. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in a cross county event, I’m looking forward to testing myself and seeing where my fitness is. I haven't looked at entries yet, but I’ve seen Ross (Proudfoot), Luc (Bruchet), and Charles (Philibert-Thiboutot) are in it. Those guys are always going to be tough to beat and I imagine will be trying to win the race as well. Also, I’m sure there are many college guys coming off of CIS that are sharp and looking to mix it up at the front.
AC: After taking a break following the outdoor season, what are your goals for the Canadian Cross Country Championships?
MH: Well winning would be great… HA! Honestly though, I don't really know where my fitness is, and I haven't done any cross country specific work this fall. I just want to go out there and be competitive and have fun. The last two months have been more about healthy training and continuing to work on my strength. I chose to come race nationals because it’s close to home (so I could see family), and would be a good test to see where I’m at after a good two months of base work. I think it’s good for the top-level athletes to race as much as they can at home, it helps grow the sport and is hopefully fun for the spectators.
AC: Who were the athletes that inspired you growing up?
MH: Craig Mottram was a runner I looked up to. He was never afraid of his competitors and always raced to win.
AC: Do you have any training or racing advice for youth and junior runners who would like to run at a high level?
MH: Don’t be afraid to test yourself in a race, try different race tactics. Push yourself out of you comfort zone as much as possible in training and racing. If you never leave your comfort zone in racing and training, you’ll never be competitive.