On a bright morning in southern Slovakia, Matej Toth could see a clear path to Berlin as he made a brilliant return to the distance he has made his own, the 50km walk.
The Olympic and former world champion thrived in front of his home fans as once more he won over the distance at the 37th Dudince 50, a European Athletics Race Walking Permit Meeting, with a performance that even exceeded his own expectations as he returned to the distance for the first time since the Rio Olympics.
His target was 3:45 but he was over two minutes inside of that as he led all the way to win in 3:42:46, a world-leading mark to show he is well and truly back. He won by almost two minutes from Finland's Veli-Matti Partanen in second in 3:44:43 with teammate Jarkko Kinnunen in third in 3:54:26.
Wearing No.1 on his bib, Toth savoured every second of his victory, celebrating with fans at the finish, shaking hands and looking more than content that all seems to be on course for his bid for gold when Berlin co-hosts the inaugural multi-sports European Championships with Glasgow this August.
Toth’s brilliance is his ability to maintain such an even pace, knowing just when to increase the speed needed. He showed that in abundance in Dudince where everything fitted into place as he put his winter training in South Africa into perfect use.
He began with a first kilometre of 4:33 and by the time he went from 49km to 50km, he will still close to that pace, completing the final section in 4:28.
Toth reached 10km in 44:59, 20km in 1:29:31 – by which point he was already 31 seconds ahead of Partanen – before he had increased that gap to 42 seconds at the midway point where Ireland’s Brendan Boyce had moved ahead of Kinnunen.
But Boyce did not finish and by the 36km point, Toth was in command again and went on to claim a commanding victory - and another national title to boot - in his first race at the distance in nearly two years.
“The last few kilometres of the race were very emotional, so we all enjoyed my comeback with tears of happiness. In fact I had no crises during the race and I controlled the situation to win safely, leading by about 2 minutes. I know my reserves and what to improve to get under 3:40 to attack the highest position at the European Championships 2018 in Berlin," said Toth, who isn't looking any further beyond the summer season for now.
"Then I will evaluate the next steps maybe fulfil the vision and hold on until the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020”.
The Hungarian Championships was also staged in conjunction in Dudince and that honour went to Bence Barnabas Venyercsan, who was ninth overall in 4:05:54.
It proved a great meeting for the host nation as Maria Czakova won the women’s 50km race walk on her debut at the distance by over 18 minutes in a race she controlled from start to finish.
And not only was her time of 4:14:25 a national record, she also moved up to sixth on the world all-time lists. She was easily inside the 4:50 qualifying time for the European Championships.
Berlin will be an historic occasion being the first time the 50km race walk has taken place at a European Athletics Championships and Czakova, who was third in the 20km race walk in Dudince last year, will now be among the favourites after showing how well she has made the move to the longer distance.
The first five were all inside 4:50 with Poland’s Agnieszka Ellward second in a national record of 4:32:47. There was also a Croatian record for Ivana Renic in fifth in 4:46:27.
Czakova led from the start and she went through halfway in 2:09:20, a lead of 9:07 from Ellward before gaining even more strength and an even greater advantage.
World champion Eider Arevalo from Colombia won the men's 20km race walk in 1:22:13 while teammate Sandra Lorena Arenas won the women's race in 1:28:48 ahead of Czech Republic's Anezka Drahotova (1:30:35).