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Olympic champion Ashton Eaton, the decathlon world record holder, was humble after taking fourth place in the 400-meter hurdles Saturday at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in Walnut.

“It was interesting,” said Eaton, a 26-year-old Oregon grad. “When I wanted to make a move, like I would in the [flat 400 meters], a hurdle would come up. So I slowed down.”

Ashton Eaton clears last 36-inch barrier in his long-awaited debut at the 400-meter hurdles at the Mt. SAC Relays on April 19, 2014. Photo by Ken Stone
Ashton Eaton clears last 36-inch barrier in his long-awaited debut at the 400-meter hurdles at the Mt. SAC Relays on April 19, 2014. Photo by Ken Stone

Still, his time of 50.01 seconds would have been a world record as recently as June 1956. And he now stands 15th on the 2014 world list.

Not bad for a rookie.

It was the first time he’d ever run the 400 hurdles, he said. The longest he’d gone before was 300 meters in practice. And the race winner in 49.43, Jeshua Anderson, was a three-time NCAA champion for Washington State University with a best of 47.93.

In fact, Eaton’s time would have taken seventh in the USA national championships last year.

Of course, Eaton is world-class in the 110-meter high hurdles, where he has a best of 13.35 seconds. His best in the flat 400-meter dash is 45.64.

Eaton said that before Saturday’s race he had no idea what he would run.

“Now I see 48 [seconds] is possible,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to run 48,” which — if he means 48.0 — has been done by only several dozen men and would be less than a second off the best of Edwin Moses (47.02), the event’s greatest star.

Second after Anderson was Miles Ukaoma of Nebraska (49.76). He was trailed by Nigerian Olympian Amaechi Morton at 49.95, an Atlanta-born NCAA champion who came over to congratulate Eaton.

Eaton’s debut at the long hurdles — in lane 6 over 10 barriers around a complete lap — was long-awaited.

Asked why he was tackling the grueling event, the Nike-sponsored athlete said: “It’s an off-year,” with no Olympics of IAAF world outdoor championships. “Something different.”

Eaton said he ran 13 steps between hurdles until the sixth barrier, when he switched to 14 — meaning he switched legs that go over the hurdle first.

The majority of fans posting to the Track & Field News message board were impressed.

“I find that an awesome first go!” said one.

“You aren’t kidding,” said another. “The race is a man-killer and he put up a fantastic first effort.”

A third remarked: “If anyone was expecting [under] 49.50, then they probably don’t really understand our sport. That opener is remarkable.”

“The guy is a beast, a superman for even getting into this event,” said a fourth. “My deepest admiration and respect for the man.”

Eaton’s wife, Canadian Olympian and heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, also competed at the 56th Mt. SAC Relays under sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s.

She was a matching fourth in the women’s elite invitational long jump, going 6.38 meters (just under 21 feet) behind event winner Whitney Gipson of Nike, who leaped 6.49 meters (21-3 1/2). And she took sixth in the 100-meter hurdles, clocking 13.08 seconds behind the winning 12.71 of Arkansas State’s Sharika Nelvis.