Canadian middle-distance runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot was talking with French counterpart Jimmy Gressier in early June following another “unlucky” performance on the track in less-than-ideal conditions.
Gressier had lined up two men’s 1,500-metre races later in the month in France and suggested his friend join him, believing they could help each other post fast times.
“I felt like this might be [the time for a personal best] and I should go,” Philibert-Thiboutot said this week from his Vancouver home. “With the bad luck I had had, I needed to run to my full capability before getting back to training. That’s what drove the decision.”
On June 10 in Montesson, Philibert-Thiboutot jostled for position off the start on a warm and calm day and was about 10 metres behind the peloton at the 100-metre mark. But he worked his way through to the front pack and finished second in three minutes 33.54 seconds for a Quebec record and his first PB since 2015. Only Kevin Sullivan, the three-time Olympian and 1994 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, has run faster among Canadian men in 3:31.71.
Gressier, who placed 13th in the 2020 Olympic 5,000 final, was third in a 3:33.98 PB.
Eight days after Montesson, Philibert-Thiboutot said “everything fell into place perfectly” at the Meeting Stanislas Nancy, a World Athletics Continental Tour Silver event, where the Quebec City athlete clocked 3:32.94 in a stacked field that pushed the pace once the pace-setters fell off at 1,100 metres.
Philibert-Thiboutot’s efforts in France also met the 3:34.20 automatic entry standard for the Aug. 19-27 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
“It was weighing on me that I couldn’t run a PB for so long,” Philibert-Thiboutot said in a Tuesday interview with CBC Sports before flying to Silesia, Poland for the 14th Kamila Skolimowska Memorial Diamond League meet on Sunday. “After I broke the glass ceiling with the first race in France, it was pure elation. There’s a whole new mentality when I step on the [start] line.
“I was the one calling the shots and decided where I wanted to place myself [in the race]. It brought a lot of confidence and with that comes a better ability to navigate the [front] pack. I’m hoping to bring that same energy [on Sunday].”
Headed to world championships
Philibert-Thiboutot did just that, stopping the clock in 3:33.29 for 12th place and under the 3:33.50 entry standard for the Paris Olympics next summer after the qualifying window opened July 1.
To move forward … I can’t carry the negative emotions of the injuries forever. I got rid of them in 2022 and I’m a totally new athlete.— Canadian middle-distance runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot
“Obviously, [I’ll] have the Olympic standard in mind. It’s been a while since I’ve [been part] of a high-quality race and I feel this time I can contend and fight to be at the front,” said Philibert-Thiboutot, the lone Canadian competing in Silesia. “It’s probably the first time I’ve felt this way about a Diamond League race. The other times I was invited I would go at the back of the pack and hold on for dear life.”
On four occasions from 2015 to 2018, the 32-year-old finished no higher than eighth. He also placed third in Stockholm in 2018 and fourth in 2016 in Oslo, Norway in B-level races that aren’t the official top-contested events on the professional circuit.
Over the years, Philibert-Thiboutot’s PB attempts were disrupted at various times by the following injuries: Stress fracture in his right foot, a left Achilles problem, lower back issues, torn left calf and a sciatic nerve problem.
“The years between 2017 and 2020 when the injuries were major you’re wondering if you’ll ever be able to perform again [on the track],” said the four-time Canadian champion. “To move forward, and this is something I worked on with a sports psychologist in 2021 and 2022, I can’t carry the negative emotions of the injuries forever. I got rid of them in 2022 and I’m a totally new athlete.”
Philibert-Thiboutot opened his 2023 outdoor season in the 1,500 in “extremely bad weather” in New York, where he went 3:39.91 on May 19 at Track Night NYC. Two weeks later, he said he was bodied, tripped a lot and “couldn’t find a rhythm” racing at the Portland Track Festival.
“As prepared as I was [to PB several times over the years] I couldn’t get the chance to [have the result] play in my favour,” he pointed out. “I just stayed patient and kept believing that I was capable to do these things and it finally [went my way].”
‘Charles is still passionate about his sport’
Félix-Antoine Lapointe, who began coaching Philibert-Thiboutot 12 years ago at Laval University in Quebec City, described him as resilient and a fearless competitor.
“A lot of athletes would have retired after eight years without a personal best,” he told CBC Sports. “Charles is still passionate about his sport and I always believed he [could] improve his personal best if he [stayed] healthy for a [full] year or longer.”
The 2016 Olympian believes his career turned around last summer in the preliminary round at worlds in Eugene, Ore. He finished second in his heat in a season-best 3:35.02 ahead of reigning Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen and eventual world gold medallist Jake Wightman of Great Britain. However, Philibert-Thiboutot missed qualifying for the final, finishing 9-100ths of a second behind Ignacio Fontes of Spain in the semifinals.
“As disappointing as it was in the moment, it is a testimony of how close I am to my goals and how much progress I’ve made,” he said.
“My mindset is to give it everything this year [at worlds], in Paris and try to medal. This will definitely be my last Olympic cycle and 2025 might just be an extra year [to compete] for fun.”
Added Lapointe: “I am confident he can make the final and finish top eight at worlds and the Olympics. A medal is maybe a long shot, but not impossible.”Should Philibert-Thiboutot not race at the London Athletics Meet on July 23 — he’s on the waiting list — he will return to B.C. for his final pre-worlds race at nationals July 27-30 in Langley.
Diamond League calendar
- Monaco — July 21
- London — July 23
- Shanghai — July 29
- Shenzhen, China — Aug. 3
- Zurich — Aug. 31
- Brussels — Sept. 8