Back in October, decathlon world record-holder Ashton Eaton announced that he’s going to give the 400m hurdles a try this summer.

And so began the speculation about how fast he can run over the barriers around one lap of the track. This week he said that he is aiming for somewhere between 47 and 48 seconds, a time that would put him among the world’s best for the event.

Others think that he’ll be lucky to break 50 seconds in his first year of an event otherwise known as ‘the mankiller’ (© Kriss Akabusi).

But athletics history is littered with examples of combined events athletes who dabbled in the 400m hurdles, or one-lap hurdlers who started out in the decathlon or heptathlon.

The tables below (which are sortable by clicking on the column headings) show a handful of such examples, both from the decathlon and heptathlon.

At this point it’s worth noting Eaton’s PBs – 9039 for the decathlon, 45.64 for 400m and 13.35 for 110m hurdles.

AthleteDecathlon PB400m hurdles PB400m PB110m hurdles PB
Daley Thompson884752.646.8614.04
Dave Johnson870550.9948.1914.17
Maurice Smith864454.3547.4813.76
Eelco Sintnicolaas850651.5947.8813.92
Jagan Hames849053.4749.9213.91
Kip Janvrin846254.4047.9414.64
Nicklas Wiberg840652.8448.6514.56
Arthur Abele837251.7447.9813.87
Jan Podebradsky831449.6245.9213.99
Gunnar Nixon831253.0148.3714.51
Bill Toomey831051.745.6814.3
Adam Helcelet825252.0048.6614.18
Gael Querin814652.4747.8414.27
Marcus Nilsson810452.2849.5414.74
Matteo Sossah804453.3249.1914.52
Joe Detmer800952.1247.0314.89
Victor Houston777749.2147.5313.65
Andres Silva7641 (U20)49.1645.0214.93
Du'aine Ladejo763349.2944.6614.78
Carl Wood760649.749.014.4
David Klech758150.3548.0613.82
Sebastien Maillard756249.1046.7514.86
Dale Garland741349.5446.514.45
Sebastian Rodger7200 (U20)49.1946.8914.95
Brent Larue706649.3845.7514.04
Shane Brathwaite6261 (U18 Oct)50.9046.9713.31

AthleteHeptathlon PB400m hurdles PB400m PB100m hurdles PB
Jackie Joyner-Kersee729155.0553.6012.61
Carolina Kluft703261.1452.9813.15
Tatyana Chernova688056.14--13.32
Chantal Beaugeant670255.76--13.10
Jane Flemming669558.44--13.08
Svetla Dimitrova666859.35--12.53
Kelly Sotherton654758.3052.1913.18
Sabine Everts652355.4852.3513.45
Claudia Rath646260.9055.6713.46
Katarina Johnson-Thompson644961.0--13.48
Laura Ikauniece641462.85--13.44
Kylie Wheeler636958.1154.4913.63
Nadine Debois633356.5452.2513.58
Eliska Klucinova633261.4660.4713.97
Jessica Samuelsson630058.6754.4013.58
Ruky Abdulai621259.1352.4013.60
Michelle Perry612656.2354.8012.43
Ellen Sprunger612461.1954.3813.35
Denisa Rosolova610454.2450.8413.32
Yvonne Wisse610058.7055.3413.48
Angela Whyte608058.74--12.63
Marlene Harmon606258.77--13.34
Ryann Krais603055.6855.1513.50
Trevaia Davis586154.7852.3413.76
Jailma de Lima560156.0051.6614.49
Sally Gunnell5493 (U20)52.7451.0412.82
Christine Spence533754.2153.4213.38
Meghan Beesley5291 (U20)54.9752.7913.68
Lauren Boden527655.0852.8214.25
Maria Sykora5024 (Pent)57.352.713.6
Irena Szewinska4705 (Pent)56.6249.210.8 (80m hurdles)
Zuzana Hejnova4453 (Pent)52.8351.2713.36

Some of the fastest men’s 400m hurdles times in the above example were produced by the lower-scoring decathletes. But they also boast the fastest 400m PBs; times which are comparable to Eaton’s best.

What’s really interesting, though, is that Eaton is a far superior sprint hurdler than pretty much all of those. As well as his enviable foot speed and technique, Eaton also has terrific endurance for a decathlete – and those are all qualities that will put him in good stead for the 400m hurdles.

In fact, of all the examples above, perhaps the athlete most similar to Eaton in terms of speed endurance and sprint hurdles ability is Sally Gunnell. She started out in the heptathlon, scoring a solid 5493 as a junior, but then focused on hurdling and sprinting. Intrinsically, her 400m and 100m hurdles PBs of 51.04 and 12.82 aren’t too dissimilar to Eaton’s bests of 45.64 and 13.35. And Gunnell, of course, went on to break the world 400m hurdles record.

Another notable example is Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She is similar to Eaton in the sense that she is a combined events world record-holder with good speed and hurdling ability. She dabbled with the 400m hurdles in 1985 and ran 55.05, which at the time was within one-and-a-half seconds of the world record. And she achieved that when her 100m hurdles PB was outside 13 seconds.

Of course not every combined eventer takes to the 400m hurdles like a duck to water (or like a Jon Mulkeen to cake). Daley Thompson, one of the greatest decathletes of all time, could only manage 52.6. Before retiring in 2012, the all-conquering Carolina Kluft’s final individual race of her career was in the 400m hurdles and she didn’t break 61 seconds. But, unlike Eaton, Thompson or Kluft didn’t dedicate months of training to the event.

Until he finishes his first 400m hurdles race, no one will know what Eaton is capable of. I’m not one to speculate, but what I will say is this – if there’s anything Eaton has taught me over the past four years, it is to never underestimate him.

No one predicted he’d smash the world indoor heptathlon record in 2010. Few thought he’d by able to improve the mark by as much as he did in 2011 and 2012. Even mid-way through his decathlon world record in 2012, people were doubting whether he’d break 9000 points. And earlier this year at the World Championships, the gold medal looked to be in doubt after a disastrous high jump, but he turned things around to win by more than 100 points.

Whatever he does in the 400m hurdles, I’ve got a feeling that it will surprise a lot of people. Me included.

One Comment

  1. ricaurte goti henriquez says: January 11, 2014 • 14:00:26

    I have no doubt that Ashton Eaton will surprised everybody. In my youth my hero was and still is Bill Toomey. No way of comparing both decathletes, surprises are welcome, track and field will always be remembered by the performances of men of iron will, determination, and hard work.

Leave a comment