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Steeple People: Top Track Athletes Compete in an Unusual (and Wet?) Event

It’s not uncommon to hear someone described as “running like the wind.” But what is it like to run like a horse? Try competing in the steeplechase some time, and you will see.

What is steeplechase? Take a walk by the track. Undoubtedly, you will find some very large and seemingly purposeless things that appear to be the makings of a fence. These large objects are called barriers, and provide the largest of challenges found in a track race. Consisting of two legs perpendicular to the ground, which rest on feet parallel to and in contact with the track and topped with a crossbar, these barriers span the width of approximately four lanes on the synthetic rubber oval. Put five of these barriers at equal intervals on the track. Behind one barrier, place a water pit two-and-a-half feet in depth. Finally, run 3000m over this course, and you have the steeplechase.

Steeplechase is said to be a race initially devised in the 18th century as a way to vary horse racing. Thoroughbreds can still be found jumping fences, clearing ditches, and traversing difficult terrain all over the world, including at Saratoga, Belmont, and other famous horse racing venues. However, steeplechase as a foot race was first introduced in the British Isles in the 1800’s, when runners raced over low stone walls, streams, and fields from one town’s church steeple to another. Church steeples were used as the starting and ending points of the race, as they were easy to spot from far away. The sport was later modified to be run over flat fields and, finally, on a track. But who would want to run such a complicated event?

Meet the steeple people of the Pomona-Pitzer track teams. This group of runners, though infinitesimally small, are the best of the best and the toughest of the tough, as well they should be. Steeplechase is not for the faint of heart.

Brian Gillis PO ’10 agrees, “Steeplechase is a unique race as it combines the speed of a track race with the strength of cross country. The hurdles and water pit add variables to what can be a somewhat monotonous pursuit.”

One has to take great care, however, when it comes to adding some spice to track racing. While competing in the steeplechase is comprised of multiple facets that lend excitement to the endeavor, it is also inherently dangerous, not to mention potentially embarrassing.

“I used to never get injured,” said Zoe Meyers PO ’10, “and so it was thought that I could successfully do steeplechase. And while I agree that it’s a great way to toughen up for the longer track races, such as the 5 and 10k, and exciting for fans to watch, you also have to be cautious. It wasn’t until I picked up steeple-ing that I started getting hurt; now, I no longer do it.”

While physical danger is a constant risk, steeple also opens doors that can lead to emotional distress as well.

“The first race, I took a dive and literally had to crawl out of the water. There’s even a series of photos on Facebook and the CMS team all commented on it. Super embarrassing,” said Rose Haag PO ‘10.

If running is so physically dangerous, mentally taxing, and only made more interesting with the addition of barriers and water, why bother racing the event – or such a myriad of events simultaneously - at all?

According to Paul Balmer PO ’12, “Running is fundamentally boring. Track even more so. You run around in circles for an extended period of time. That sucks. Steeplechase makes it slightly less boring.”

“You know you’re pushing your body pretty far, and there’s not a more satisfying feeling than being done with a steeple race,” Haag said. “For me the steeple is a way to get better at the 5k/10k. It’s made me so much tougher. It’s inevitably a really, really tiring race, no matter how hard you run, and it’s changed my whole sense of what it means to race and how much pain I could tolerate.”

Although steeplechase is meant to mimic the conditions and pain of cross-country on the track, it also requires an entirely different mind set in athletes, not to mention an entirely different set of skills. Nowhere else does one mix the race length of distance running, the hurdling form necessary to clear barriers, and the strength of a jumper needed to successfully navigate the water pit. But nowhere else, except jumping barriers, will you find the steeple people of P-P track and field.

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