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My First Steeplechase Race — One to Remember

June 1, 2010

by Gary Grobman

A few years ago, I competed in the USATF Mid-Atlantic Regional Masters Championship, my first Master’s track meet. I ran a decent 5000, and finished second overall to Maurice Pointer, who finished the year ranked #1 nationally in the 5,000. My family was there, and it was really hot and humid, and they didn’t want to stick around for the 1500. So without really knowing what was on the schedule, I asked the officials if I could enter the next race. They said it was the Steeplechase and while the registration form said folks had to preregister, they said if I paid the 10 bucks, they would put me in the race. Assuming I got to the starting line in time, which was in about 10 minutes.

I had never run a hurdle race before at any distance or level, but it looked easy enough, and there was an almost certainty that I would medal in the race by simply finishing–not unusual for many (if not most) Masters track races. So, I ran to the car to get 10 bucks. Then I ran into the stands and changed my shoes, JUST IN CASE I was unable to completely hurdle the water jump, thus ruining my new racing flats. Best decision I made all day.

I got to the start line about a minute before showtime. I’m still drenched in sweat from my 5,000 but feeling somewhat elated as I had medaled in my first race.

Crack! The gun goes off. I race to the lead, with almost no one keeping contact with me. I come up to the first hurdle. And I stop dead right up to the hurdle. No way I can see myself getting over that hurdle the way I see it on those televised track meets, which is the only way I had even seen a Steeplechase race. It looks about nine feet high to me, and there are no steps or ladder available.

It takes what seems like a minute, but I figure out I can simply put both my hands on the hurdle and climb up and over it. Somewhat slower than hurdling, but I didn’t have any lunch plans. (Glad I didn’t have any dinner plans that evening, as well, considering my finishing time). After climbing over the hurdle, I am in last place, but I am sprinting to catch up to some of the other runners, who can hurdle, but aren’t that fast, and I spring by them. Until I come to the next hurdle. Again, it takes me a long time to get over this hurdle, and I am again in last place by the time I make it over. But I sprint pretty good, and now I come face-to-face with my first Steeplechase water jump. A rite of passage!

Confidently, I climb over the hurdle, starting to gain some technique, and this now takes me only 10 seconds or so rather than a minute. As I climb down, however, I am getting the impression that the water at the bottom is a bit deeper than I expected, based on seeing races where the athletes barely make a splash after they hurdle the jump, assuming they don’t completely hurdle the jump. And in my confusion and consternation that this is becoming another, er, hurdle in my quest to eventually become the USATF national champion (M54 at that time), I trip and fall head first into the water.

I am completely submerged.

Some of you know that the water jump is tapered, and in the area close to the hurdle, the pit is perhaps 2-feet deep. The spectators adjacent to the track (both of them, which is not a bad showing for typical Masters track meets, are laughing out of control. My family is considering placing an emergency call to River Rescue. And I’m complaining that it is ridiculous to have a nationally-sanctioned event such as this with no lifeguard on duty at the water jump. I know that next time I do this event, if I do it (and it is unlikely I will ever do it), I will be wearing floaties.

I finish in more than 15 minutes, dead last, humiliated. (Several officials at nationals know me as a result of this race, and have reminded me at both the USATF Nationals in Orono, ME and Spokane, WA how much they “enjoyed” my performance.) But I feel somewhat refreshed from the cool water of the pit. Perhaps, this might have served as a refreshing vacation if there had been some sand placed around the pit area.

My performance was good enough for the Bronze medal (as there were three in my age group).

My time was also good enough to be ranked 12th nationally at the end of the year on the Master’s T&F rankings, so I guess I can brag that I was a nationally-ranked Steeplechaser last year, slightly higher than I was ranked in the 5,000. Which tells you something about the value of national rankings that usually include only the REALLY major meets such as the nationals, supplemented by those who self-report. My guess is there have been no reported drownings of those who have raced the Steeplechase, but I know for a fact that there have been reported deaths from participants in the pole vault, including one recent case at Penn State. So, while I have had thoughts about trying this, I think I will pass, and limit my death-defying track exploits to possibly competing in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the senior games this year, which may not be as bad as my experience in the USATF Eastern Regionals a couple of years ago in Maryland, where the 5000 was inexplicably scheduled for 3 p.m. on what might have been the hottest day of the year.