BY MARIAH LEWIS
It’s a track and field event Drake University assistant coach Dan Hostager says “everybody flocks” to. But not everybody knows what it is.
“Some people have really weird ideas about what it is,” said Rob McCann, the only athlete on the Drake University track team who consistently competes in the event.
So what is a steeplechase?
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, the track and field steeplechase rose out of a horse race in Ireland with similar obstacles. Horses and riders in the Irish race had to jump numerous fences and other barriers, racing literally from one town’s steeple to the next because steeples had visibility over long distances. In the mid-1800s, the steeplechase expanded to include runners instead of only equestrians.
By modern track and field standards, the 3,000-meter steeplechase includes 28 barriers and seven water jumps. The less common 2,000-meter steeplechase includes only 18 barriers and five water jumps.
“It’s one of those things I don’t force on anyone,” Hostager said. “I think it’s kind of self-selective just because it’s a little dangerous. (The barriers) don’t move like hurdles. If you hit a hurdle…it knocks over. If you hit a steeple barrier, you’re the one that goes over. The water jump has some danger to it as well.”
Another danger Hostager mentioned was the slippery state of the water pits.
“You really have to be focused because of the barriers not moving,” he said. “You’re dealing with the barriers, you’re dealing with other competitors and you could get injured in a hurry.”
McCann illustrated the ideal way to deal with water pits.
“In the water pit, it’s recommended that you step on top of it and kind of launch yourself as far as possible across the length of the water pit,” McCann said. “The way to describe it is if you want to reach a very high step on a staircase. You can gain quite a few seconds just from learning the proper technique from water pits alone. If you get good enough at it, you only get one foot wet.”
Hostager went on to describe the difference between the massive steeple barriers and a typical hurdle.
“They’re like a barrier that you block a road off with,” Hostager said. “They’re thick either metal or wood barriers. You can step on them, kind of like the water jump. You kind of have to practice it. You hope it doesn’t slow you down — you want to be efficient. That’s the goal. It doesn’t have to look great but it has to be an efficient process. Most kids don’t look great going over it. Especially as the race goes (on) and they’re fatigued.”
The race itself is not the only fatiguing element of the steeplechase. Hostager said the athletes typically must train like a long distance runner, a mid-distance runner and a hurdler all in one.
“From a training perspective, I think its tough,” Hostager said. “It’s not just the race that’s grueling but training for it. There’s a lot more that goes into it as far as recovery. (Rob) is very meticulous. He’s got great attention for detail. He’s an actuarial science major, so he’s a lot into the numbers and leaving no stone unturned from a training perspective.”
McCann, a Canadian senior, ran the steeplechase in high school. The event is more common in Canadian and European high schools than in high school track programs in the United States.
“Rob has a unique perspective because he’s Canadian and they do have that (race there),” Hostager said. “He had some experience coming in. I think that’s one of the things that was very attractive about him getting into Drake is that he didn’t have the learning curve as far as the steeplechase.”
While it didn’t go so far as horses and rollercoasters, McCann actually got involved with the steeplechase as a joke.
“It started out as a joke to me in high school and then it went really well,” said McCann. “I had two high school friends who were going to do it their junior year of high school, and I said, ‘alright, I’ll join them in one meet,’ as a joke. I didn’t expect much, and then it went very well. I just stuck with it. I realized when I trained for it, I did very well. Then I qualified for a meet in that race and I ran even faster and it kind of snowballed from there. So a joke turned into a very serious endeavor.”
To put the steeplechase in a historical perspective, the first women’s steeplechase at the Drake Relays occurred in 2001. Colorado State’s Marget Larson won with a time of with a time of 10:35.48. Angela Marvin of Baylor broke that record two years later, clocking in at 10:23.73. Ida Nilsson of Northern Arizona holds the current Drake record of 9:57.03, set in 2004. After her Relays days, Nilsson went on to set the Swedish national record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2006 European Athletics Championships.
The men’s 3,000-meter Relays record is nearly forty years old. Henry Marsh of Brigham Young set the record (8:31.02) back in 1977. A year earlier Tony Staynings won the steeple with a time of 8:51.23.
The steeplechase is not an event every runner can excel in. In fact, there’s a good reason why the steeplechase may not be considered a mainstream event.
Hostager summarized the strange tension surrounding the unorthodox event.
“I think it’s one of those events that it might look fun. Even for a casual observer, it might look like kind of a fun thing, or even for your track athlete it might look like, ‘hey, I want to give that a try,’” Hostager said. “But when they’re doing it it’s not as much fun as it looks. It sounds like a good idea at the time and then they get halfway through it and it’s hard to hold pace. I guess that’s another reason why I don’t force people to steeplechase. It’s a different mentality to really embrace that event.”