Daniel Rees meets the full-time civil servant, who is the top-ranked 400m hurdler in the UK
It’s July 15, 2017, and it’s fair to say that Chris McAlister is not having the happiest of seasons. Stepping off the track and drenched from the heavy rain, he makes his way back inside having run almost three seconds slower than the personal best he had set the previous year.
I was in the same race as him that day, having finished another second behind him, and the two of us were sat next to each other inside the warm-up area afterwards. I was disappointed to see my season was fading away, but McAlister appeared disconsolate.
United in our collective disappointment, we made conversation about something, anything, to take our minds off our performances. We chatted about AFC Wimbledon. We chatted about John Maynard Keynes. But there was little we could do to hide our frustration, for both of us seemed stuck on a downward curve.
Fast-forward two years, and the politics and economics graduate is at the top of his game – his decision to persevere paying serious dividends. The Thames Valley Harrier now sits at the top of the UK rankings for the men’s 400m hurdles and is completing his final preparations for the IAAF World Championships in Doha. He is self-avowedly living the dream.
McAlister snuck under the qualifying time for Doha by 0.02 at the European Team Championships in Poland last month and a bronze medal at the British Championships two weeks later effectively secured his place on the squad. Yet when he looks back on the 2017 season where he had taken a step backwards, McAlister admits that he hardly thought of competing at the Worlds two years later.
“There was a lot going on that season,” he says. “It was a big moment in my life in terms of getting a job and moving back home, so getting settled was at the forefront of my mind. I was never ever thinking of quitting. I had in the back of my head that I wanted to get a GB vest and get to a major championship, but I never thought it would happen this quickly.”
This year is the first in three where Jack Green has not occupied top spot in the UK rankings. And with the familiar names of Dai Greene, Seb Rodger, Niall Flannery and Jacob Paul having previously rotated within the top five, it’s fair to say that two new names have gate-crashed the upper echelon of the rankings.
National under-20 record-holder Alistair Chalmers is one of them. McAlister – whose previous highest UK position was seventh – is the other. Having knocked over a second off his PB, which now sits at 49.28, the obvious question to ask is just how McAlister has done it. Part of the answer, perhaps unexpectedly, is that he works full-time.
“I’m working out how to get broadband to people the market won’t reach,” he says, explaining his job. “It’s a government priority because people are socially excluded from society if they can’t access the internet. Working helps me take my mind off athletics because I can overthink what’s happening on the track. I use work to get my head out of it and it’s worked well.”
Having been granted paid leave to compete in Doha, McAlister is now readying himself for his arrival on the world scene.
Notably, he will have another chance to take on Norwegian Karsten Warholm, whose eccentricity – coupled with several world-class performances – has seen him touted as an icon of the event. In true competitive spirit, McAlister is relishing taking on the second-fastest 400m hurdler in history.
“Warholm’s in a different class, but whoever I’m up against I have to get out there and do my thing,” he says. “I know he can make mistakes. I haven’t been able to get him this year, but you never know. He’s really put 400m hurdles on the map this year – he’s absolutely mental.
“At the end of the day though it’s still 400m with hurdles in the way – it’s the same as just running a British League.”
Out of the 41 entrants for the 400m hurdles, McAlister is ranked 28th. But such is the unpredictable nature of the event, he will step on to the track in Doha with every reason to believe he can make the semi-final. Attention will soon also turn to Tokyo 2020.
“I’ve stayed fit throughout this season and I need to sustain some fitness and build a base over winter to get moving into 2020,” he adds. “Hopefully I’ve been set up nicely and I can get into some good races early on and have a crack at that time [48.90]. That’s the plan.”
Given the great strides McAlister has made since that miserable outing in July two years ago, it would take a pessimist not to back him to make the Olympics – one just hopes he will be given the time off work.
» Read more from Chris McAlister in the IAAF World Championships preview issue of AW, out on Thursday September 26