The steeplechase is one of those track events that unless you’re at least on the periphery of the track world, you really don’t fully comprehend the event. You might very well be waiting for snappily dressed riders to take the track atop beautiful stallions and commence a race henceforth. Not so much the case. When I tell people I’m a steeplechaser (“steepler” or “steeplechick” in my circle) some give me a quizzical look and cock their head to the side or they nod enthusiastically and tell me, “Oh, I know what that is.” It’s that amount of overconfidence in their voice that indicates a proper explanation is in order.
“You know the race where horses jump over barriers and water? Well, I’m the horse on the track. I jump over all of those barriers. The race is 7 and a half laps, 200 meters shy of two miles (why bother explaining the metric system at this point?) and every 80 meters there is a 30 inch-high immobile barrier (36” inches high for the men) that is about 10 feet long and if you hit it, you go down. It’s not like a hurdle. However, one of the barriers each lap is in front of a 12-foot long water jump that is 36 inches deep at its deepest point, but it comes up to track level. You push off the water jump and leap as far out as possible and try to only get one foot wet. We wear special shoes that are made of a mesh material so that they drain within a few steps of leaving the water jump.”
That’s my event in layman’s terms and, so far, it seems to be working as a sufficient explanation, even if it is the event explained at the most rudimentary level. Everyone in the track world knows that steeple races are unpredictable, you need to have a lot of athleticism to be a steepler (much more than simply being a runner. I have not once met a steepler who wasn’t either a soccer player, basketball player, gymnast or dancer in a previous life.), you have to have a certain absence of fear and you have to be willing to get right back up if you go down mid-race, because it’s bound to happen.
The steeplechase is not an event you can just roll up to a track meet and decide to enter on a whim. Hurdling technique is important if, for nothing else, than knowing what to expect from your body. Water jumps will jar you from your ankles up to your head, traffic around barriers will likely cause an uncomfortably small amount of space to hurdle within — which may mean a wonky landing — and when you get tired in a steeple, your form will suffer, which makes it even more dangerous and unpredictable when going over jumps. I’m not saying you need to be a flawless hurdler – take a look at the Kenyans who have a reign of dominance on the men’s side. They practically take off of two legs and side jump the things! – but you do need to prepare with endless hurdle form and agility drills, as well as “dry water jumps” into the long jump pit. I once witnessed a very inexperienced steepler attempt a water jump and suffer a compound fracture in her ankle after landing improperly. Not good.
Here is a video of me demonstrating proper technique for a water jump.
I am lucky to have long legs, which helps to counteract my limited flexibility over hurdles, and these stems also help me clear over 11 and a half feet of that water jump. Those with more petite frames have to rely more heavily on flexibility and form over barriers so that they don’t get dropped on the flat parts in between.
To back things up and give you a little history of the event, the track version of the steeplechase was indeed inspired by the horse race long ago. The modern steeple is sometimes referred to as, “cross country on a track” because back in the mid-19th century, the University of Oxford sporting club created a race with obstacles set in a flat field. The distance has varied, but the first men’s track version of this race was included in either the 1896 Athens Games or 1900 Paris Games (research is inconsistent) and for women it became an official Olympic event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Early on, the Finns dominated the event, but we have since seen a shift to Kenyan dominance on the men’s side, with a blend of Spanish and Russian dominance on the women’s side, though the Kenyan women are up and coming and several past Russian and Spanish champions have been convicted of doping.
In college, I was lucky enough to have steeple pioneer, Karen Harvey, around as an assistant coach before I began steepling and, each day I walked into the Michigan track building, I saw memorabilia from the 1984 Olympics when former Michigan Wolverine runner, Brian Diemer, was coached to an Olympic Bronze medal by then head men’s coach, Ron Warhurst.
I think what pulled me into an event that consistently sees throngs of people gathered around the water jump hoping to witness a nasty, wet spill is that it is a brand new race after each obstacle. You need to focus not just on competing but also on getting over the next barrier or jump and along the way you’ll likely either pass someone or be passed, based on a direct comparison of hurdle and water jump form. It’s that head to head competition with an element of athleticism and agility thrown in that makes this event so awesome to run and even more exciting to watch.
Women have been making incredible progress in the event, breaking the 9-minute barrier for the 3000 meter race a handful of times, and what is even more exciting for me is watching girls grow up with the chance to compete in this event across the nation in high school, not just at the collegiate level. As of now, only a few states have a 2,000 meter steeplechase for high school girls and a 3,000 meter race for the boys, so many females only get to try their hand at the event for the first time once they reach college. Imagine the possibilities if these ladies had the lifetime of preparation that many of the international stars have had? I actually get chills.
With role models like Emma Coburn, who is fresh out of college at the University of Colorado and is already an Olympian, Jenny Barringer, who really took to the event upon trying it while also at the University of Colorado, and Evan Jager, who tried the event for the first time last year and set an American record and made the Olympic team within 3 races, young runners are gaining earlier exposure to the event that, when watching, regularly features me on the edge of my seat and shins wrapped with ice bags.