Strength of a sprinter, speed of a miler, endurance of a distance runner, technique of a hurdler and the hand-eye coordination of a decathlete are terms that could well define some random superhero – Track and Field Man – but, in fact they are the characteristics of what make a great steeplechaser.
An event that often falls under the radar when it comes to track and field competitions, the 3,000-meter steeplechase may be the most exciting and taxing event on the track. And three athletes at CSU this season are bringing some light and prowess to the often over-looked event.
The competing strategy
Composed of five barriers – including a water jump – spaced throughout the track every 80 meters, the steeplechase requires its competitors to come ready to run, jump and splash their way around the track for 3,000 meters to gain the fastest time possible.
“Steeplechasers have to be not only endurance athletes, but they have to be very athletic,” said CSU head coach Del Hessel. “It’s probably the hardest race in track and field. You have to be a combination of a good miler with the endurance of a good 5K runner.”
However, a barrier every 80 meters, gives competitors something to focus on and that is an aspect of the race that senior Marget Larson said helps her remain focused during competition.
“I like (the barriers) actually, because it gives me something to think about” said the school-record holder. “Every 80 meters there is something else I can be concentrating on. It almost turns it into a field event with some of the technical stuff in there.”
What makes the steeplechase unique, however, is the fourth barrier. As if the four other large blocks of wood that cover four lanes of a track weren’t enough, another – placed at approximately 300 meters – has a shallow pool of water that covers some five meters after it.
Known as the water jump, this barrier can wreak havoc on one’s performance and change the course of the race, Hessel said.
“There are four barriers and a water jump and all of those barriers have a tendency to break your momentum and slow you down,” Hessel said. “You never know if someone is going to go down in the water, you never know if somebody is going to hit a barrier and take themselves out the race. It’s a race where you have to be a little cautious for the first three to four laps.”
To build the strength and technique of a hurdler, while maintaining the endurance necessary to complete a 3,000-meter race, Hessel said he puts his athletes through some rigorous training routines, always keeping in mind the obstacles that each encounters during the race.
“It’s really tough because, basically, the steeplechaser is doing the same workout as the 5,000-meter runner, but the steeplechaser is doing hurdles,” he said.
Though easy to simulate the barriers with five hurdles placed along the track for the athletes to jump over while running intervals, Hessel said simulating the water jump is more difficult.
“You have to be careful not to train going over the water jump itself, because it’s very hard on the back, very hard on the knees,” he said. “It takes a lot of coordination to learn how to land in the water and continue your running momentum.”
To avoid possible injury, Hessel said he simulates the jump by using a barrier in front of a sand pit and having the athletes jump over it as a means to prepare for the real thing.
However, some attempt to avoid the water altogether by jumping from the barrier over the water pit. Hessel said he has never found any proof that such a method is beneficial.
“There have been a few people who have (cleared the water jump),” he said. “Occasionally you’ll see an athlete in the Olympic games or some very polished athlete try that; but, they’ve actually done some studies on that and there is no proof to show that somebody that clears the hurdle and water in one motion is any faster than somebody that puts their foot on the barrier and pushes off the barrier.”
For the athletes, it is even more difficult to get accustomed to the race and all its nuances, especially with the lack of steeplechase events at the high school level.
“I’d say this year, my third year, I’m finally feeling more comfortable with the water jump,” Larson said. “The last couple years it’s been kind of rough.”
Sophomore Mike Nicks, on the other hand, said the race plays to his strengths instead of exploiting his weaknesses.
“I think the water jump is what I do the best in the steeple,” he said. “You have to have good hand-eye coordination, measure it up and push off hard to get as little water as possible. It’s probably one of my strengths in the steeple.”
Both Nicks and Larson have excelled this year in the event. The latter holds the female school record of 10 minutes,10.16 seconds in the steeplechase, while the former is quickly approaching Elliot Drumright’s 14-year-old record of 8:49.70, having run a personal-best 8:51.73.
“Marget has been a superior athlete,” Hessel said of the two-time All-American. “She’s done extremely well … and fits that stereotype of a good steeplechaser,”
Meanwhile in Nicks, Hessel said he might have one of the best steeplechasers he’s ever coached.
“With him only being a sophomore we don’t know how good he is going to be,” Hessel said. “I’m sure he’s going to get the school record and he’ll probably get that done this year. And I think he’s capable of running an 8:30 steeplechase, which certainly will make him one of the top collegiate steeplechasers in the country.”
Furthermore, senior Reagan Robb has found his niche this season knocking several seconds of his former personal-best times to a current 9:00.67. Hessel added that he expects to see the converted 5,000-meter runner surpass the 9-minute barrier soon.
With those three running at full-speed, the Rams should see some big results in Albuquerque, N.M., May 14-17 at the Mountain West Conference championships.
“I think Mike Nicks has a very good chance of winning the conference and I think Reagan Robb will be right there,” Hessel said. “We should have two guys finish in the top four for sure.”
For her part, Larson said she acknowledges the superiority and toughness of the steeplechasers at Brigham Young University – who have won the event each of the five years it’s been in existence for women at the conference level – but won’t let that stop her from making it a race.
“They’re tough, but then at the same time they always race the same way, where they go out steady then get faster and faster,” Larson said of BYU’s runners. “Sometimes I hurt myself by going out too fast and run out of gas. So I can use their strategy and their strengths to help me improve my race.”
Apparently another category should be added to the list of characteristics that make up a good steeplechaser: perseverance and a sound mind.