Clarence Munyai was in the stands for Noah Lyles’s imperious 200m run at the Paris leg of the Diamond League circuit last weekend. He admits to how effortless the American made it look as he surged to a new meet record of 19.65 seconds, symbolically usurping Usain Bolt. If the hype train weren’t already at full speed, it’s now tearing into the 2019 World Championships at a blistering pace.
By contrast, Munyai, who pulled out of the Paris race because of to flu symptoms, has spent the last year and a bit quietly preparing for Doha without gathering much media attention along the way. Because he hasn’t run a sub-20 in that time, few pundits are throwing out his name when ticking off next month’s podium candidates.
All of which means nothing to Munyai, who is happy to have Lyles take the spotlight ahead of their likely confrontation.
“When it comes to the world champs, it’s not about PB [personal best] any more,” he told the Mail & Guardian at the Tuks Athletics Stadium after returning from Paris. “It’s about who’s ready on the day. Anything can happen. You have to be at your best at that moment to win that medal. Because it’s world champs, anything can happen that day.
“In 2016 when Wayde [van Niekerk] went to Rio, he didn’t even have a 43. He went there with a 44 and when he came out, he came out with the world record [43.03] and the gold,” Munyai said. “I feel like it’s who prepares the best leading up to the championship who is the one who will do really well.”
Munyai began the year with one goal: to win a medal at the World Champs. To that end, everything he’s done in the months leading up to October has been an effort to optimise his performance on that single day.
For him, competitive meets have been opportunities to improve his race fitness and refine his technique. As long as he achieved a qualifying time, which he did, he admits to caring little for setting a top yearly International Association of Athletics Federations best or surpassing his personal best.
Rather, the 21-year-old has built his robust self-confidence on the back of setting specific targets and accomplishing them, one by one. Before March 2018, that was breaking the South African record.
Sitting in the Tuks stands, he beams as he points to the finish line on the light-blue track below — the exact one he crossed in lane five in a time of 19.69 seconds to smash van Niekerk’s record at the national champs.
“I won’t lie — I’ve told the story to so many people. I had a feeling I was going to break the record that same morning. I even have witnesses,” Munyai jokes. “I called my mom at 11 after the heat. I was like, ‘Mom, at three o’clock just listen to the news.’ She asked why and I said, ‘No, it’s going to be a surprise.’
“And afterwards my mom called me and was like ‘How did you know?’ I just had a feeling I was gonna do it that day. I just had a feeling from that same morning — I had a feeling that today’s the day I’m going to break the record,” he said. “When I ran, it felt slow motion. I stepped on the line in 2017 at the World Champs and got DQ’d [disqualified]. So when I was running, and I got too close to the line, I moved away. You don’t want any problems because this is your moment. Going across [the line], I couldn’t believe it.
“People who had the record before me are people I looked up to, like Anaso Jobodwana and Wayde. Me breaking record is inspirational. It means anyone can achieve anything.”
Seizing the record has capped Munyai’s rapid rise on the South African scene. When he was playing as an outside centre for his school rugby team in 2014, his obvious speed was recognised by a teacher who recommended he give sprinting a shot.
With absolutely zero athletics training, Munyai soon won the next Gauteng provincials meet and came third in the subsequent nationals. It was clear this was a talent that would be criminal not to hone and that same year he was awarded a scholarship to Tuks High School.
Since then, Munyai’s world has been athletics. From Monday to Saturday he puts in the work, usually twice a day, in an effort to shave off what could be a vital tenth of a second on race day. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday is more difficult sessions like speed work or block work,” he said. “Tuesday and Thursday are more of slow work, like recovery, nothing serious. Maybe pool sessions, slight jogging, [and] stretching. So train smartly, not just hard.
“We’ve been focusing on endurance. It’s a long event, so you need a lot of endurance. So we focused on trying to conserve energy, but while running fast. And, of course, technique, because if you run smoothly and effortlessly, you won’t lose a lot of energy. Maintain your energy, and you’ll be able to run the 200m at full speed.”
The most remarkable fact about Munyai’s preparation is his assertion that he has not once run 200m in training. He might put in 150m to sharpen his speed or 250m to push his endurance, but never runs the race length itself. Thus, he has no training times to prove he can accomplish his mission; no empirical evidence to prove he can match the speeds that someone like Lyles is producing. Just a feeling. All he can do is invest in the process and trust that it will pay off.
There’s an undeniable logic to this approach. Often the folly of those of us in the media is to obsess over personal bests and yearly peaks, as though those numbers themselves will be racing in Doha and not humans.
“You know what the one thing about 200m is?” Munyai says. “You can’t pace yourself. You’ve got to run from the beginning all the way through. At that level, running with people like Bolt … if you try to hold it, they’re already gone. As the gun goes, you have to give whatever you have and just hit it.”