As he crossed the finish line at the fabled Olympiastadion in Berlin, Jinson Johnson admits he was pleasantly surprised. Not at the fact that he had clocked 3.35.24, chopping off nearly two seconds from his own national record in the 1,500m, and booked a place in the Athletics World Championships in Doha later this month. It was the fact that he had finished in second place in a strong field at the IAAF World Challenge.
"I was expecting to do a personal best," says the 28-year-old Asian Games gold medallist who held the previous national mark of 3.37.62 set in the Netherlands this June. "But I wasn't thinking I would win a medal. The World Challenge is a very highly rated tournament. There were so many superior runners to me in this race. There was an Olympic medallist [New Zealand's Nick Willis, who won silver in 2008 and a bronze in 2016] in the race and there were nine other athletes who had run faster than me this season. I was hoping to improve my time but a medal was not in my plan."
Johnson says his target prior to the race was to record a personal best that would give him a shot at meeting the qualifying mark of 3.36.00 for the World Championships in Doha. In order for that to happen, he had been training for the past two months in Bangalore and had forgone the Inter State Athletics championships in Lucknow last week to prepare for the competition in Germany.
While the 1,500m is a tactical race where timings can vary significantly (the 2016 Olympic gold was won with a time of 3.50.00), Johnson was confident that the Berlin race would be a fast one. "The 1,500m is a strategic race. But because this was such a strong field, everyone here was trying to record a good time," he says.
What also helped was the fact that he had been putting in work on his finishing kick -- something that had been a weak point before. "For the last two months I've been working on the last 300m of the race and in particular the home straight. At my last competition in the Netherlands, I ran that stretch badly and that cost me a few seconds. This time, I managed a strong finish," he says.
It is a result that was necessary after an indifferent start to the year. He was struggling with a calf injury as he recorded a time of 3.41.67 at the Federation Cup in March and then failed to compete in the finals of the Asian Championships. The result was particularly frustrating for Johnson considering the gold medal was won in a time of 3.42.85. "I had won two consecutive medals at the Asian Championships, so to miss out on a third was very disappointing," he says.
It was in this context that the national record that he set in the Netherlands was significant. "When you are struggling for form, you need a bit of good news. Even though I didn't come close to achieving the World Championships qualifying mark, I needed some assurance that I was running well," he says.
Johnson's race in Berlin provided even more good news but even as he soaked in the applause at the Olympiastadion, he says he wished he could have done a little bit more. While he had slashed a couple of seconds off the national mark, Johnson admitted feeling slightly peeved at being unable to shave off just a little bit more and missing out on what might have been a direct qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. "In the 1,500m, the microsecond isn't really anything. I was really close to 3.35.00, which would have been a direct qualification for Tokyo," he says.
While he might have missed out for the moment, Johnson -- who ran the 800m at the Rio Games -- isn't done chasing that 2020 Olympic dream. On Monday morning he will catch a flight from Berlin to the American city of Colorado Springs. Having ended his two-year partnership with veteran coach JS Bhatia, he will train with coach Scott Simmons who runs the highly regarded American Distance Project. Johnson's latest run has given both him and Simmons a shot of confidence. "He had been following the competition and he messaged me, 'Awesome race,'"' Johnson says.
Johnson knows that this race is just one step on the way to his final goal. "This is a good race that I have run at the Berlin Olympic stadium but next year I want to be at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo," he says.