When Matthew Clarke looked at the clock with a lap to go he knew it was going to be close.
But even he didn’t expect the margin to be so tight.
“To miss the cut-off by less than a second is pretty much unheard of in a steeplechase, like in an eight-and-a-half-minute race,” the Olympic hopeful said after missing the time by 0.6.
“I was pretty cut at that.”
It was mid-June and he knew the window to qualify for Tokyo was almost closed, but he was determined to give it one last shot.
From Townsville he headed south to the Gold Coast for what was likely his final crack.
The conditions weren’t perfect but there was no choice but to go for it.
He’d fallen off the pace slightly in the middle of the race but was “hammering it home” in pursuit of the required time of 8:22.
“Eventually I just see the lead official look up at me and just shake his head. I was just gutted.”
This time he’d missed by 0.13 of a second.
It’s one thing to fall a tenth of a second short in a 100-metre race but another to miss by that much after 3 kilometres of steeplechasing.
Despite not getting the time, Clarke clung to a second avenue of hope — qualifying on points.
There is a quota of 45 runners for his event in Tokyo and everyone who hits the time is automatically granted a spot.
The remaining places are filled based on a system of points, which are accumulated during races around the world.
Clarke was well-positioned after a strong season, but by the time the European circuit came around he was in danger.
His rivals had racked up big points in the northern summer and he was bumped down the list — to precisely spot 46.
“I was the fastest non-automatic qualifier.”
Clarke finally conceded his Olympic dream was over for now.
Focus turns to guiding his blind mate
It was a tough few days for the Adelaide-based runner but he knew he had to move on.
His next priority was to get on the phone to one of his best mates — world champion Jaryd Clifford — to let him know he was now available to guide him at the Paralympics.
“I had seen how hard he’d worked, seen how close he got to the dream and then to fall short was agonising.
“I find him loyal and selfless. He’ll always have his mate’s back.”
Clifford, who is legally blind, is a multiple world record holder and has qualified for the 1,500 metres, 5 kilometres and marathon at the Tokyo Paralympics.
He’d have preferred Clarke was running at the Olympics himself, but was excited he was going to join him instead.
“It was an amazing opportunity to have such an incredible runner like Clarkey and such a good mate and someone who is an incredible communicator, which is perfect for guide running, by my side,” Clifford said.
“But that was the result of him going through a bit of heartbreak after working so hard. It was a mixed bag of emotions.”
And those emotions weren’t about to end there.
It was early July and the Olympics nomination period had ended.
Clarke was out for dinner with his girlfriend, still devastated by how narrowly he had missed a Tokyo spot, when his phone rang.
It was Athletics Australia high performance manager Andrew Faichney.
“He goes, ‘Hi Matt, how you going?’ I’m like ‘alright, it’s been a pretty long week’,” Clarke recalls.
Clarke immediately broke down.
“I just got so emotional, I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
How was he suddenly in?
In the final days before nominations closed, Clarke and his team realised the Brits had not picked one of their runners who was inside the quota of 45 on points rather than time.
The UK has a tough selection policy where they generally won’t select athletes who they don’t think have a genuine chance of a prominent finish.
It meant there was a last-minute spot to be filled and that was now Clarke’s.
“It just felt so surreal, the whole night calling everyone and crying. Everyone I called was crying,” Clarke said.
“The first thing I did the next morning, I woke my girlfriend up and I was like, ‘tell me last night wasn’t a dream’. And she goes, ‘last night was real, you’re going to the Olympics’.”
It meant Clarke had another important phone call to make – to someone only days earlier he had committed to.
“He goes ‘I’ve got some bad news for you, I won’t be able to guide you at the Paralympic Games’. I was like ‘that’s the best bad news I’ve ever heard in my life’,” Clifford said.
The skill of guiding a blind runner
Clifford, who is visually impaired but can run without a guide, is now weighing up his options.
He said although a lot of runners in his category chose not to use a guide, he found it beneficial for numerous reasons.
“I can get around the track navigationally OK, but it mitigates risk. When I’m running by myself I don’t necessarily know which position I’m coming, which athletes are making the moves because obviously that’s important … the [lap] splits,” the 22-year-old said.
“Also, as my vision fatigues there’s the risk that I will lose a little bit of my navigational ability or run into the back of people.
“So, it’s mainly to put my mind at ease and allow me to focus on running.”
One may wonder why Clifford doesn’t just choose another runner to guide him.
The answer: because there are very few in the country who can actually keep up.
With a personal best of 3:41 in the 1,500 metres for example, it would take an Olympian to execute the requirements at that speed.
Joined by a tether about 30 centimetres long, being in sync is one of the hardest parts of the job.
As Clarke knows in fine detail.
“I do have a slightly longer stride than him so I have to chop my stride a little bit on the straights but then on the bends because I’m on the outside of him I can run fairly normally,” Clarke said.
But while Clifford debates whether he will use a guide and Clarke lets the excitement of selection settle in, the focus is squarely on their form on the track.
“Technically I’m still the 45th guy in a field of 45 but the steeplechase is a wild event – you’ve got to jump over five barriers a lap with a water jump, crazy things can happen,” Clarke said.
“If you tactically get it right, and you’ve got the form there, which I know I do, and you put yourself in the right position, there’s definitely a chance.”
And for Clifford: “I’m as fit as I’ve ever been, so I’m actually stoked with where I’m at.”