European 400m silver medallist Matthew Hudson-Smith missed most of 2015 with stress fractures but has suffered much worse
Dealing with three stress fractures in his back in 2015 is, in some way, small fry for Matthew Hudson-Smith considering the British international 400m runner nearly lost his leg at just 16 due to a mysterious ulcer.
The 21-year-old returned to the track on Monday for the first time since June last year after the injuries robbed him of his chance of competing at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, registering a 46.14 to win at the Pfingstsportfest in Rehlingen, Germany.
Hudson-Smith burst onto the senior scene just a year prior to his injuries, winning silver at the European Championships in Zurich behind Martyn Rooney, two 4x400m relay golds at the Euros and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and becoming just the second teenager in British 400m history to break the 45-second barrier.
Despite being denied the chance to build upon his success of 2014 the seriousness of the infection, which formed while Hudson-Smith was at college five years ago, helps to put his recent injury woes into a bit of perspective.
“When I was 16 I had a polygamous gangrenous ulcer on my leg. I basically nearly lost my left leg, so I’ve had a lot worse,” laughs Hudson-Smith, though the diagnosis of the growth never threw up any suggestions as to what may have caused the infection.
“My initial thoughts were that I’d slept on the radiator and it had burned my leg but it wasn’t that. My leg was rotting and I have a massive scar from it still,” he adds rolling up his tracksuit to reveal a snooker ball-sized scar just above his ankle.
“When I was at college it started to smell so I had to spray Lynx all over my leg so it didn’t smell. My friend was like ‘you smell like old people.’ My leg was literally falling apart. So I’ve had a lot of different things in the past but I’ve just accepted it.”
“When I was 16 I had a polygamous gangrenous ulcer on my leg. I basically nearly lost my left leg, so I’ve had a lot worse”
Stress fractures in his back may be less of a concern physically than the sight, feel and stench of rotting flesh growing on his lower-leg, but Hudson-Smith says the psychological hurdles of returning from injury have proven to be some of the toughest to clear so far.
The Birchfield Harrier sat and watched the heats of the 400m at last year’s World Championships while eating his nan’s Sunday roast in a darkened room and sported a “serious” beard to reflect his mood before growing too frustrated and calling his coach Tony Hadley, demanding that they get down to the track and train.
“I looked a bit like I do now, but actually a lot worse. I wanted to express how I felt with my face,” Hudson-Smith adds.
“Injuries are a lot more mental than they are physical. I never really understood or valued what people used to say when they’d say they got injured and it’s a lot more mentally challenging. Especially with the first race, I found out that race rust is an actual thing.”
In the build-up to his run in Germany, Hudson-Smith admitted to being the most nervous he has felt throughout his career and it was mirrored in his performance.
Traditionally stronger towards the back-end of his race, Hudson-Smith took the stagger out of his opposition in the first 250 metres before tying up in the home straight and clinging on for the win.
“Injuries are a lot more mental than they are physical. I never really understood or valued what people used to say when they’d say they got injured and it’s a lot more mentally challenging”
“Everyone who’s been talking to me has been saying it’s going to take a couple of races to get into the swing of things and I accept that now,” he says.
“Before I thought I was going to open up and carry on where I had been going. When I got to the last 50 I thought ‘yes, I’m gonna’ do it … No, I’m not gonna’ do it.’
“I did feel a bit like a kid again. People said it was a small meet but there were a lot of people there,” he again laughs.
“I was there last year, but I had a lot more form. I had two races before then but this year I went in there a bit in the unknown and the whole point of the run itself was to see how far I got.
“I found out how far I got and it was a shock to the system. I didn’t die, I just tensed up as I completely forgot how to run that last 100 metres.”
Hudson-Smith will run in the relay at the Loughborough International on Sunday before preparing for the Birmingham Diamond League and the British Olympic trials on his home track at the Alexander Stadium three weeks later.
“In a sense I can take the positives out of the negatives there and evaluate them,” he says. “My coach has now put the next step there for me to progress to the next level.”
» Read more of AW’s exclusive interview with Matthew Hudson-Smith in Athletics Weekly magazine on May 26
» Hudson-Smith joins the likes of Mo Farah, Dina Asher-Smith, Robbie Grabarz, Dafne Schippers, Kirani James and Adam Gemili in a star-studded field at the Birmingham Diamond League on Sunday, June 5. For tickets visit britishathletics.org.uk