Justyn Knight’s heart was in the right place at the wrong time.
The Toronto-born distance runner was about to clock the fastest two-mile time in the world this year, and set a Canadian record at the New Balance Grand Prix last Saturday night in New York City, when he decided to put his hands together to form a heart, as a tribute to Valentine’s Day.
Nice picture. Lousy timing.
“That cost me the Canadian record, you know. Oh my gosh, I was so disappointed,” the 24-year-old said Wednesday from his training base in Charlottesville, Va. “I didn’t know there was a record in the first place. I tried looking it up prior to the race. I didn’t see anything on athleticscanada.ca, so I thought whatever time I run was going to be the record.
“Yeah, I was pretty embarrassed by that.”
Knight hit the line in 8:13.92, indeed the fastest two-mile time in the world so far this year. But Mohammed Ahmed still owns the Canadian mark at 8:13.16, dating back to 2017. Knight is confident he would have beaten that time if he’d known about it, and hadn’t made his Valentine’s Day move.
“I had another gear. I was just using enough speed to make sure I crossed the line first. If I knew that was going to be the time, I would have sped up.”
Regardless, Knight has still put together an admirable string of four straight victories since finishing a too-satisfying tenth in the 5,000-metres at the world championships in Doha in late September 2019. It was a seminal moment for a youngster with all kinds of potential.
“I remember finishing the race, I got tenth and I was kind of walking around like it wasn’t a big deal or anything. I’d made it to the final,” said Knight.
“And I remember having a serious talk with (Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert). He wasn’t mad at me or anything but he told me, ‘Justyn, you’re better than that. Don’t be happy about just being here. I know you’re better than tenth.’
“We had a really good heart-to-heart. I think that helped change my perspective. You’re not supposed to just be happy to be here, you have bigger goals. So I’m always thankful for coach Glenroy for being real with me in that moment and kind of encouraging me to be a better person and better athlete.”
Knight has had an increased drive to win every race since, and the success that has followed is providing momentum and confidence en route to the Tokyo Olympics.
“The two mile was a great way to start the season,” he said. “I was really nervous because the last time I ran in the New Balance Grand Prix I got dead last in the mile, running a pretty embarrassing time for my standard. So I was a little bit nervous even though I knew I was in really good shape.
“It gives me the confidence I needed. The pace we were going at felt very relaxed to me and I feel I could keep that pace for a lot longer, so it sets me up well to have a good showing in the 5K.”
He already beat the Olympic standard of 13:13.50 for the 5,000-metres, after running a 13:09.76 personal best at a Golden League race in Rome in 2019. It was the 27th-fastest time that year. Ahmed set the 5,000-metre Canadian record of 12:47.20 in July 2020, with the world’s second-fastest time that year, and qualified for Tokyo as well. He’s a definite medal threat, having finished third in the 5,000-metres at the world championships in Doha. Steeplechaser Matt Hughes also has the Olympic standard in the 5,000 metres with an indoor PB of 13:13.38.
“Going into Tokyo, I know other guys have faster times than me,” said Knight, “but in my head it’s always going to be about being the first person across the line, so that’s what I’m going to be focused on.”
He also runs the 1,500 metres and set the indoor Canadian record of 3:36.13 last February in Boston, erasing a mark of 3:38.73 established in 1986 by another Toronto distance runner, Doug Consiglio.
“For him to run that fast back in the day, their tracks weren’t as nice as ours, their spikes weren’t as nice either, so for me to think about that, I would have loved to see that race in person,” said Knight. “It would have been so cool to watch.”