Four years ago Pascal Martinot-Lagarde was skipping sideways in the Stade Louis II making a joyous selfie video of himself and the adoring crowds behind him after winning the 110m hurdles at the Monaco IAAF Diamond League meeting in a personal best of 12.95.
It was the ideal send off for the European Championships in Zurich, where Martinot-Lagarde arrived as favourite but departed with a bronze medal, having finished behind Britain’s William Sharman and the Russian winner Sergey Shubenkov.
Four years on it is Shubenkov – who went on to win the world title the in 2015 – who is approaching the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships as favourite for the high hurdles title. Competing as an Authorised Neutral Athlete, Shubenkov took world silver behind Jamaica’s Omar McLeod, and this year he has enjoyed the finest form of his career, having recorded three sub-13 second clockings last month.
As the two friends and rivals sat alongside each other the day before their final pre-European Championships race at the IAAF Diamond League in Monaco on 20 July, Martinot-Lagarde ruefully recalled that turn of events four years earlier.
“I did a great beginning of the season in 2014,” Martinot-Lagarde recalled. “Pretty good times, and in Monaco I did my personal best of 12.95. “But then,” he added, turning to the athlete alongside him, “at the European Championships you reversed this situation.”
For all the camaraderie, Martinot-Lagarde is working to try and reverse that turn of events. After Shubenkov had extended his winning run the following day in a time of 13.07 – the fifth fastest time posted this year – the Frenchman reflected positively on a season’s best of 13.20 in second place.
“It was my last test before Berlin and being able to do 13.20 was great,” he said. “Last week I did 13.22 and I thought it was really good and this one I had the feeling I did a really bad race and I did 13.20.
“But it's encouraging and I’m happy I still have time to work before Berlin as I want to do a 110 and not an 80m. I need to work on the end of the race. My preparation has been a bit chaotic and now I’m going to Montpellier to do a little prep before Berlin.”
Shubenkov, meanwhile, is in a very happy place. “This is great, continuing winning – it’s a very pleasant feeling,” he said. “It is the outcome of great work I’m doing with my coach Sergey Klevtsov. I want to continue winning, especially in the next competition, which will be the European Championships.
“We’ve changed the approach within the week. Now we do three or four days of intense work and three or four days of relaxed training. This concentrated, intense workout is hard. But it’s important to try this approach within the season.”
Like Shubenkov, the 26-year-old Martinot-Lagarde has been re-shaping his approach to training this season. “I was injured at the beginning of season,” he said. “So I have been taking time between meetings to work a lot, to be more in shape. Normally between meetings I work a little bit to keep the shape. This year I work a lot, because I don’t care about being in super, super shape for the meetings.
“When you are injured the goal is to be in good shape for the major championships. When I did 13.40 and qualified for Berlin I could work with less pressure.”
In the course of his summer of success, the 27-year-old from Barnaul, Siberia – who also recently became a father – has reduced his personal best to 12.92, just 0.01 off the European record, and for a long time world record, set by Britain’s Colin Jackson at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. It’s a target, although not the biggest one.
“For me winning medals is more important than breaking records,” Shubenkov said. “But of course I feel I can break the European record of Colin Jackson, I hope it will happen this year. I’m so close. I just need the right competition and conditions.”
And Shubenkov has been getting advice on the subject from Aries Merritt, the US high hurdler who set the current world record of 12.80 in 2012. “He told me I need to be around the record for more times to finally break it,” he said.
No better place to start that than Berlin.