Watch enough track and field meets, and you’ll eventually hear an athlete or an announcer reiterate the theory that the 400-meter hurdles race is perhaps the toughest single event in the sport.
One lap around the track, 10 hurdles between the starting blocks and the finish line, sprinting the entire time. The absolute best men and women in the world can do it in about 45-55 seconds. The rest of us would struggle to complete the task.
To be successful at the 400-meter hurdles requires a combination of speed, endurance and technical mastery. It’s not enough to be great at one of those three elements. You must have all three. If you’re not fast enough, you’ll wind up behind the pack early. If you’re not well-conditioned enough, you’ll fall off the pace late. If you don’t have your technique down, you’ll fall flat on your face after botching one of the hurdles.
Dalilah Muhammad, a 29-year-old Muslim who represents the United States on the international track circuit, established herself as the best female 400-meter runner in the world when she won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Muhammad put herself into the all-time great category this week, when she broke the women’s world record in the 400-meter hurdles, finishing in 52.20 seconds to beat the previous record of 52.34 seconds that was set in 2003 by Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina.
While the world record was the headline for Muhammad, with this victory she also claimed the U.S. outdoor championship at Drake Stadium in Iowa, punching her ticket to the IAAF World Championships later this year.
The performance was something of a bounce-back moment for Muhammad, who in the time since her 2016 Olympic triumph had remained among the world’s elite 400-meter hurdlers but was not head and shoulders above the competition. She was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2016, then No. 2 in 2017, and then No. 3 in 2018.
Going into the 2019 outdoor season, the U.S. had a strong group of women’s 400-meter hurdlers. Sydney McLaughlin, Shamier Little, Ashley Spencer and Kori Carter — all younger than Muhammad — are rising stars in the event, and it wasn’t crazy to foresee some combination of them edging out Muhammad for the coveted spots on Team USA for the World Championships.
Muhammad dominated the field in Sunday’s final, however, despite rainy conditions and a slick track. About halfway through the race, it started to become clear that everyone else was racing for second place, while Muhammad was racing against history.