Jamie Baulch and Mark Hylton, Olympic silver medallists in the 400m relay last summer, take to the boards at the National Indoor Arena in outstanding form. Two weeks ago Hylton, now 20, ran a personal best of 46.24sec to take the AAAs title on the same track. The 23-year-old Baulch, who had lowered his Welsh record to 46.36sec shortly before that meeting, responded last Sunday with a hugely impressive victory in Stuttgart over the world indoor champion, Darnell Hall, clocking 46.13, the fastest time in the world this year.
Baulch, who has been working hard this season to improve his speed over the first 200 metres, believes he can run even faster than he did in Germany. "The main thing for me there was the victory," he said yesterday. "But Darnell went out quite slowly. It shocked me really because I expected it to be a lot faster. If it had have been I think the times would have been even better."
This Wednesday he is due to meet Hall again at the indoor meeting in Ghent, Belgium. "I've got a feeling that Darnell is going to be looking out for me this time. I think the time could come down a bit more."
But first Baulch faces what he acknowledges will be a challenging domestic struggle against a field that includes two former European junior champions in Hylton and Guy Bullock, as well as 20-year-old Sean Baldock, who is positioning himself as the newest kid on the block despite the handicap of training on a cinder track in Hastings. "It's going to be really tough," Baulch said. "But it's all-important this weekend. If you don't run well now you're not going to the worlds."
Assuming they have the qualifying standard, all winners at this weekend's trials will qualify automatically for the World Indoor Championships to be held in Paris from 7 to 9 March. Each individual event allows two entries per country, and those unsuccessful in Birmingham have until 23 February to persuade the selectors to add them to the squad.
That option, however, is one which neither Baulch nor Hylton is contemplating.
Hylton, whose training has gone smoothly since the AAAs, has a proven record as an indoor specialist. "It just seems to come naturally to me," he said yesterday. "I can think on my feet."
The only thing which has prevented Hylton making his mark in international championships indoors has been untimely bouts of flu. This year, touch wood, he is remaining fit. Fitter than ever, in fact, as he has been training with new partners who include Roger Black, the individual Olympic 400m silver medallist, and Britain's top 400m hurdler, Jon Ridgeon. Add to that group Hylton's long-standing training partner, Mark Richardson, and you have a stimulus which is provoking the 20-year-old from Langley, in Slough, to work harder than he ever has before. "I'm finding it hard going. I suppose in past years I've trained in the comfort zone or just got up to it. But I'm getting used to it now and it's helping me to go faster and faster."
Hylton's progress is likely to continue when he sets off with his group for a training break to the United States in the middle of March.
Baulch, too, has benefited from the new collective spirit within British athletics, having wintered with the elite sprinting group which includes Linford Christie - whom he refers to as "big daddy coach" - Colin Jackson, John Regis, Darren Braithwaite, Ian Mackie and Darren Campbell.
Baulch too found the rigours of his new regime testing. "When I first started I didn't know what to say or do. I was with people who have been there, done it and got the T-shirt. But it has helped me enormously."
The results of all this hard work should be evident tomorrow afternoon when the men's 400m final takes place.
The women's 400m also throws up an intriguing contest as Sally Gunnell, who raced in Stuttgart last Sunday for the first time since being carried from the Atlanta Olympic track, seeks a world indoor place against a field which includes Phyllis Smith, winner of the AAAs title a fortnight ago in 52.85sec.
Gunnell ran half a second faster than that - 52.32 - in Germany, a performance which afforded her no little relief after the demoralising problems she has had with Achilles tendon injuries. The former Olympic champion will be seeking to get even closer to her British record of 51.72. Such form underlines the remarkable quality of this 30-year-old athlete.
Elsewhere, Diane Modahl contests the 800m, as does the former British 400m record holder David Grindley, who has reportedly lost over two stones in preparation for moving up in distance.
The participation of the Commonwealth triple jump record holder, Ashia Hansen, was in doubt yesterday as the British Athletic Federation sought to discover whether she had returned from competition in South Africa.
But another field event - the men's high jump - was able to announce the entries of two top-quality competitors, Dalton Grant and the Olympic bronze medallist Steve Smith.Reuse content