Stepping up: Rai Benjamin alters stride pattern in quest to chase down gold at worlds in 400 hurdles

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Rai Benjamin is taking even bigger steps this season to try to get what his top rivals in the men’s 400-meter hurdles already have — a title from a major meet.

The American altered his racing pattern in between the 10 hurdles, mixing in a longer stride cadence for better tempo and more speed leading into his finishing kick.

Benjamin’s ready to upgrade his trio of silver medals in track’s major races into gold this week at the world championships. He wants to join the company of his main rivals, Norwegian Olympic champion and world record holder Karsten Warholm, along with reigning world champion Alison dos Santos of Brazil, in the winner’s spot.

Their rivalry, along with Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone’s record-setting performances in the women’s version (she’s not competing this week), are why the 400 hurdles have turned into must-watch TV these days.

“Cool to spearhead this new-found niche, the 400 hurdles, because we’ve run so fast and we’re continuing to take the events to new heights,” said Benjamin, who won his first-round heat Sunday to advance to the semifinals. “We have to keep it going, keep running fast, keep competing well, and keep giving people the hope for the excitement to come in the future.”

For Benjamin, it’s been a string of runner-up finishes in the 400 hurdles — at the 2019 world championships in Doha (won by Warholm), at the 2021 Tokyo Games (Warholm again, in one of the best-ever races in the event) and at last summer’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon (dos Santos).

“I come to these championships to win,” Benjamin said. “That’s my sole focus and that’s what I would love to happen. But this is track and field and nothing is really promised.”

Warholm is motivated right now, too.

He was dealing with a lingering hamstring injury at the worlds last summer. Despite not being at peak fitness, he decided to give it a go anyway. He was right there in the mix — for 280 or so meters. Then, he faded to finish seventh and well back of dos Santos.

Warholm hasn’t watched a replay of the race. Doesn’t plan to, either. He does carry a feeling with him — hunger.

“It’s been driving me in all of my training and competitions,” said Warholm, who broke the longstanding 400-meter hurdles world record twice in 2021, including the mark where it is today, 45.94 seconds, when he won gold in Tokyo. “It’s a position you don’t want to be in again.”

Dos Santos is on the mend after the 23-year-old had surgery to fix a torn meniscus in his knee in February. He eased his way back into racing form, running an open 400 in mid-July.

A few days later, he was back in the hurdles, where he finished in 47.66 seconds. His time made him the fourth-fastest 400 hurdler this season, behind Warholm, Benjamin, Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands and CJ Allen of the U.S.

All advanced to the semifinals on Monday.

“I am healthy now,” dos Santos said. “I do not need to complain about it.”

Although he’s dealt with some nagging ailments this season, Benjamin has been honing his revamped stride pattern over the hurdles. At 6-foot-3 (1.91 meters) and with a long stride, Benjamin is capable of a tempo that includes a 13-step approach over the first few hurdles before going into 12-step mode.

“When you’re running that fast down the backstretch, you kind of want to open up your stride pattern a little bit more,” Benjamin explained. “That’s the idea behind it.”

Simply another way to push Warholm and dos Santos (along with American Trevor Bassitt, a bronze medalist at the worlds last summer who also advanced).

Warholm, dos Santos and Benjamin always seem to bring out the best in each other. Like at the Tokyo Games, when Warholm broke his own world record.

This is how electric his 45.94-second mark was: Benjamin ran more than half a second faster (46.17) than any other hurdler in history — and still wound up second. Meanwhile, dos Santos finished in 46.72, which before Warholm’s big summer would’ve been a world record.

That’s why, to go even faster, Benjamin switched things up.

“I am very goal-oriented,” Benjamin said. “That (gold medal) always is at the top (of the list).”


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