Rohan Browning admits it can lurk anywhere.
It could be in what he eats for dinner, or at the whim of the weather.
It is so small and imperceptible that the search for it can drive him to a neurosis.
But it is also the main motivation for the second fastest man in Australian history.
“It” is the few hundredths of a second it takes to break the 10-second barrier in the men’s 100m.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t always have it in the back of my mind when I race,” Browning told Australiabusinessblog Sport from his training base in Rome.
“That’s a random marker to some extent, because the depth of the event is so strong right now [that] sub-10, or 9.99, does not guarantee you will make it to an Olympic final.
From cheater to the real thing
Only one Australian man ever ran under 10 seconds: Patrick Johnson clocked 9.93 in 2003.
Browning is now the second best ever in the country, having won his heat at the Tokyo Olympics last year in a scintillating 10.01 seconds.
It was one of the greatest moments of the 24-year-old’s career, as the “flying mullet” immediately became a national hero.
However, he slumped in the semi-finals, his run of 10.09 seconds was not enough to advance to the final.
“I was really shocked by the response, and it was wonderful and I felt incredibly well supported,” he said.
Browning has a chance to rectify that in a few weeks, when he will face back to back the World Championships in Athletics in the US state of Oregon and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.
It’s an opportunity for Browning to show how far he’s come and whether he can be considered one of the world’s elite runners.
And to do that, it’s not enough to sneak below those 10 seconds: 20 men have already achieved that this year.
How do you find those hundredths of a second?
Browning has worked with his coach, Andrew Murphy, and Dr. Emma Millet, Athletics Australia’s National Lead of Biomechanics, to break down his technique and determine where he can muster even more speed.
Dr Millet says Browning’s top speed is world class, but there is room for improvement in his start from the blocks and his acceleration over the first 30 metres.
And in such a short race, even the smallest factor can make a huge difference.
“It could all have to do with the positions you are in the blocks and how you load your blocks,” said Dr Millet.
“And how can we harness that feeling for Rohan so he can perform it that day?”
There’s also been a focus on making sure Browning doesn’t go too far once he’s out of the blocks.
“I think he’s more than capable of running sub-10,” said Dr Millet.
“He did such a good job driving 10.01 and it wasn’t a perfectly executed race either, and that’s where there’s still a lot of room to move.
“What I’m focused on is trying to be as efficient as possible,” Browning said.
“So I try to look critically at everything and, when I work with my coach, we really try to focus on where we’re going to get the greatest output, rather than just running hard, working hard, glorifying being hard all the time … time. We’re trying to work smarter.”
Browning is aware that he is not “paralyzed by data,” but he knows that making what may seem imperceptible changes to the average observer can be the difference between a good runner and a great one.
And that comes with some growing pains.
He knows he hasn’t raced at his best this season, and injuries and illness haven’t helped.
“This year we’ve really overhauled my race model to focus on trying to extend that acceleration a little bit and get to top speed a little later so that I don’t slow down as much in the last 20 to 30 meters of the race,” he said.
“You’re very prone to error, so I’m trying to master that now. And I think that’s probably why in some races I didn’t run as fast as I would have liked.
“But I have every confidence that it will work in the big championships.”
He will face his biggest test yet at this week’s Stockholm Diamond League, in a field that includes Olympic champion, Italian Lamont Marcell Jacobs.
“I think he’s one of the most technically efficient runners in the world,” Browning said.
“And that’s a big reason why he’s been so successful at big championships under pressure, because he can maintain such a relaxed attitude.”
Dr Millet says Jacobs’ run in the Olympic final was close to perfect, and something for Browning to draw inspiration from.
“Marcell is one of those [who] you saw in Tokyo where his ability to get out of the blocks, have a great top speed and not slow down, he was able to put in a really good race,” she said.
“He was a 10 second runner, and then he did last season” [has] went way down and managed to really execute it in the final.”
Finding his ‘perfect day’
While 2022 hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for Browning so far, he’s optimistic he can pull it all together at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games.
“I want to be in the final and then I want to try [to] run the best race I know and I’ll see where that takes me in the world,” he said.
And it’s not just about collecting silverware or running sub-10s.
“What I’m really focused on this year is lowering my average performance and not having those outliers,” he said.
“I want to be as consistent as possible, as unappealing as that may be, so that I know what I’m capable of when it comes to big moments in the big championships.
“Instead of celebrating the glittering moments of brilliance that are just very transient. It’s about doing it when it matters.”
Browning is also a big believer in balance.
For him, that means studying law at the University of Sydney, spending time with his friends and family, and playing golf, even though he’s a self-proclaimed hacker.
“It’s so important to decompress. That helps to get the best out of yourself on the track.”
Browning has also tapped some of Australia’s greatest athletes – such as Cathy Freeman and and Steve Waugh – for advice.
And the prospect of a moment like Freeman’s 400m win at the Sydney Olympics, or Waugh’s “perfect day,” last century ball on the SCG are tantalizing.
“Every athlete romanticizes the idea of having a moment like that in their career,” Browning said.
“The Olympics are coming up in Brisbane in 2032. I think I’ll be 34 by then, so I’ll see if I’m still there.
“I think the prospect of a home game and [2026 regional Victoria] Commonwealth Games certainly inspire me to keep going.”