Despite being the slowest on paper, Alex Knibbs took the British 400m title in Manchester. It is not even his specialist event either
Coming off the top bend and into the home straight in the Müller British Championships 400m final, Alex Knibbs’ short season looked set to end in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
With 50m to go the Amber Valley and Erewash athlete was as far down as seventh place, isolated in the outermost lane. In the frame for gold was the quintet of Joe Brier, Alex Haydock-Wilson, Toby Harries, Lee Thompson and Niclas Baker – all of whom were separated by little more than a metre. But against all expectation it was Knibbs who produced a masterpiece of tactical predation to snatch his first national senior title.
Even now Knibbs still can’t quite believe how it happened. “I’m still shocked by it,” he says, enjoying some time off before he returns to training later this month. “There have been other titles where I’ve thought beforehand ‘I can win this,’ but this competition was different. I just came into it thinking ‘I’m in the final, but my aim is to run a PB’.”
If setting a personal best was his aim, Knibbs accomplished it – and then some. His time of 46.65 saw him edge out Baker and Harries in second and third, while improving his own lifetime best by 31 hundredths of a second.
Knibbs isn’t even a specialist 400m runner. Over the past four seasons, the Loughborough University student has established himself as one of the UK’s up-and-coming 400m hurdles prospects. But with lockdown disrupting the training of athletes across the UK, Knibbs felt focussing on 400m as opposed to the 400m hurdles was the practical decision to make.
“Before lockdown, having a 400m hurdles season was the main aim,” Knibbs explains. “Then lockdown came and I didn’t have access to a track or hurdles for three months. I got back on to the track in the middle of July, but there wasn’t much time left to get back hurdling.
“We were in the process of changing my stride pattern, but we hadn’t been able to practice it for months. My coach wasn’t at the track to watch me hurdle, so I thought it would be better to train for the 400m flat rather than race in the 400m hurdles using my old stride pattern.”
Coming into the British Championships, Knibbs – who studies maths with accounting and finance – seemed to have got all his calculations spot on. His 400m times continued to improve, as he dipped under 47 for the first time in mid-August. And at the championships in Manchester he qualified from his heat in 47.15.
The final, however, was a different proposition – Knibbs came into the race with the slowest personal best and worst season’s best in the field. It therefore came as little surprise to him when Brier and Haydock-Wilson surged ahead of him on the back straight.
“I knew I wasn’t the fastest 200m or 400m runner in the field. I knew some of the guys would come past me at one point, but a lot of them went off pretty quickly.”
He adds: “Being in lane eight definitely helped my whole race. I could just focus on myself. If I was in one of the inside lanes, I might have got caught up a bit with the pace. I never panicked at any point though. When Joe and Alex went by me after 150m, I thought ‘right, I need to pick it up here.’
“Coming into the home straight, even in the heat or other races, everyone naturally tries to push it and you tighten up thinking you’ve given all you can give. But in the final, I didn’t get that tight feeling. I was still quite fluid and I don’t know why that was or where that came from.
“I could see Joe inside me – I knew all the athletes were in a line, but I didn’t know who was out in front. With 80m to go I saw everyone and thought ‘I could literally catch them here’.”
Incredibly for a 400m race, only 87 hundredths of a second separated the entire field and Knibbs could scarcely contain his incredulity.
Having already held English Schools, BUCS and England age-groups titles, winning the British Championships has seen Knibbs complete a quadruple of domestic championships. So will he stick with 400m flat now?
“My mindset is still to work on the 400m hurdles because to be a top 400m hurdler you need good 400m speed anyway,” he says. “Karsten Warholm runs sub-47 for the hurdles and sub-45 for the 400m. There is the goal of being part of relay squads as well, so I do want to keep that there, but the main goal is still the hurdles.”
With some time off before winter training resumes, Knibbs can now spend time with friends and go for the odd round of golf. Off the back of a British title, however, he will be determined to get back into the swing of things.