After trying to take his own life, the British 400m runner reached out for help and went on to win world, Commonwealth and European medals in 2022
He had tried to take his own life, yet still he attempted to race on. The Diamond League meeting in Rome, the Continental Tour meeting in Hengelo, Matt Hudson-Smith continued to force himself forwards. It was at that point last summer when he finally reached out, telling one of his management team of his suicide attempt and the mental struggles he’d been going through. But still he wanted to push.
“I remember the biggest low point was at the Gateshead Diamond League and I ran 48.29 [to come last],” he recalls. “They had almost pulled me out [of the race] but I refused and said ‘I’ve got prove a point’.”
He just wasn’t quite sure who he was trying to prove it to.
“There’s the saying that pride comes before the fall and I had to put my pride to one side. It was ‘Matt, take a step back. For once, look after yourself’.
“When we took that step back, made the right changes and got the right people around me… well, the proof’s in the pudding.”
That pudding has been decorated by three major individual 400m championships medals from the past two months – World bronze, Commonwealth silver and European gold – plus a 4x400m gold from Munich, too.
After years of “pure naivety” and “just going into races blind, not knowing what the hell I was doing but still making a decent job out of it”, the 27-year-old has begun to truly hone his 400m craft, to become highly professional and fulfil the promise which is so screamingly evident when he is in full flight.
Much more crucially, however, he is now coming at his sport from a place of balance and happiness.
Injury problems in 2019 – a torn hamstring and a torn Achilles – was the point at which the dark clouds began to roll in. Based in Florida but unable to race, significant medical debts began to mount. The Covid pandemic left Hudson-Smith isolated in America and he lost his sponsor, while long-time mentor Lloyd Cowan passed away at the beginning of last year. It all simply got too much.
“You can ask any athlete. The mental toll you go through just is unimaginable,” says the Birchfield Harrier. “The injuries mean you’re not making money because you’re not racing and you’re already secluded socially. I was stuck in America and Covid made it a lot worse as well. People were dying around you and your confidence is already low, so I just hit rock bottom.
“I was in the hospital thinking ‘this is mad’. I never thought I’d end up in the situation and that’s when I thought ‘I should probably reach out, here’ because it was getting worse and worse.
“And this happened before I was racing. I attempted suicide, and there are obviously after-effects to that, but then I tried to race on and obviously your confidence is at an all-time low.
“I did the Rome Diamond League, I did Hengelo and then I just reached out to one of the people on the PACE Sports Management team and they were just like ‘Matt, what the hell?’”
That’s when some deep breaths were taken and the rebuilding began. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, Hudson-Smith insists he is not the most talkative of people, so for an initial meeting with coach Gary Evans in Starbucks to last three hours was a good sign.
“It was just open and honest,” remembers the British record-holder. “I said ‘as long as you’re real with me I’ll put all the work in and do whatever I need to do for you’.
“He’s kept that promise and we have a very good working relationship. He’s helped me off the track as well as on it and is continuing to build me up as a person.”
A contract with Puma provided another boost to confidence levels, not to mention a little financial stability, but it’s people like Evans and Christine Ohuruogu that Hudson-Smith describes as being truly “priceless”.
The former Olympic and two-time world 400m champion has, in fact, played a particularly significant role.
“When Lloyd died it left a big void,” says Hudson-Smith. “Ask any of the athletes he worked with and he was always the person we went to. It was weird because it went from talking to this guy every day to literally gone. I’ve always had Christine [who was also coached by Cowan] in my corner and, though she’s never going to replace Lloyd, she has helped in that sense.
“She gives me invaluable advice about how to be a professional on the track but off the track as well. She’s taught me just how to how to deal with things. She’s very meticulous in what she does and very professional. When Christine says something, you listen.”
He continues: “When I was younger, this was like more of a hobby. I was just talented and, looking back on it, I just kind of worked on talent, because the first year ever at 400m  I ran 44.75 [at the European Championships] but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve learned the event now and she’s taught me how to be a professional because before I went with the flow and was a bit naïve to everything. I didn’t take those extra steps.”
Much has happened to Hudson-Smith since he was 18 years old and found himself lining up at the Glasgow Diamond League at Hampden Park eight years ago. He was working at Asda at the time and had signed up to join the army but this was the day when everything changed.
“I was in lane eight, wearing a Birchfield kit and thinking ‘what am I doing here?’,” he says. “At around 200m I remember Conrad Williams got on my shoulder and I just started sprinting. I thought ‘as long as I don’t come last, I’ll have done a good job’.
“I came third, thinking ‘that’s not bad, I’ve done myself justice’ but then I looked at the clock and it read 44.97 [a PB by almost a second]. I started swearing under my breath and I had this image of my mum passed out in the living room. I was shocked and confused but she runs every race with me and I knew she would be just as baffled as I was.”
He adds: “It’s funny, I still have the emails. There’s one from the lady at Asda saying ‘you can always come back’ but I said ‘I’m never coming back’. I ignored the next email from the army.
“From that day [in Glasgow] it was go, go, go and I never really got time to sit down and just understand the sport really because I never really took it that seriously. I was just doing it for fun.
“I never saw myself as someone who was going to make money from this or be a top athlete. But the more I was joking around the higher I got and in 2015 I had three stress fractures but ran 45.0 and in 2016 I made the Olympic final. I thought ‘Jesus, this is mad’.”
Expectation soon became a constant companion and, when the European title was captured in 2018, many expected it to represent a springboard for the man from Wolverhampton. Little did he know what would be coming next, which is why taking bronze at the World Championships in Eugene meant so much. It was while talking to the press in the immediate aftermath of that performance when he first disclosed his suicide attempt.
“At the time, I was just emotional because I’d just got [world] bronze and I was just talking, talking, talking and telling my whole life story,” he says. “I thought I’d said something bad because I saw all the reporters’ faces light up and I tried to change the subject. But everyone seems to be going through something, don’t they?
“I didn’t think it was a big thing but it’s been nice with people reaching out and telling their story. Hopefully – and I don’t want to say inspire people because I’m just an average Joe Bloggs who can from A to B pretty quickly – with persistence, dedication, hard work and having the right people around you there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.
“If my story helps other people, so be it.
“People who I would never have thought of got in touch and it was like ‘you’ve been through it too?’ It’s nice to know that I wasn’t the only one. I don’t think it’s a big thing at all, but it might be a big thing to other people so if that’s the case, I’m glad to help.”
Despite finishing on the podium, when he looks back on the final at Hayward Field, Hudson-Smith winces a little. “The gameplan went out the window,” he says. The one that really stung, though, was missing out on Commonwealth gold to Zambian youngster Muzala Samukonga in Birmingham.
“It was a kick in the teeth,” says the British champion. “Christine said it best – it’s different being the hunted rather than the hunter. With Michael Norman not there or Kirani James not there I was the person who everyone had to beat so I had that mindset of having a point to prove. I wanted to put on a show.
“I tried to run 43 seconds [and break the European record] in front of a home crowd but I was tired and physically drained from coming off a plane from Eugene so when I got beaten I was mad because I thought ‘I just gave away a victory’. But I learned from it.”
The subsequent victory in Munich was nothing but convincing. “It was the most comfortable 44.50 I’ve ever run. I was so, so happy,” he grins.
There is an excitement to Hudson-Smith’s voice and energy around him when he speaks of the future. He does intend to give himself a good break and “eat a few chippies” as he contemplates just how far he has come in 2022. In fact, success has been achieved by going back to the future.
“It was almost like I went back to 2014 but having the old head and knowing what to do with it,” he says. “I have fun with it, I love the sport, but now I have the mileage and the battle scars to go with it.”
» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine