Track and field: Obstacles, jumps, water confront steeplechase runners

A tradition that started in the British Isles in the 1800s is now one of the more unique events in collegiate track and field meets.

The steeplechase is a 3000-meter race that involves jumping over 35 obstacles—one every 100 meters.

Barriers similar to hurdles make up 28 of these obstacles, and the other seven obstacles are water jumps.

“It’s different than any other event,” junior Shelbi Burnett, who has competed in the event for three years, said. “It’s definitely fun and keeps me engaged.”

The steeplechase event in track and field is a human version of the steeplechase horse race.

In the original version of the event, competitors would race horses between the steeples of churches in different towns.

Churches were used as markers because they were easily seen from a distance by the participants.

It first became a sport for human runners at Oxford University in 1860.

At that time, it was a two-mile cross country race.

In 1965, it was turned into the flat race with barriers that it is today.

“I really like the novelty of the race,” Burnett said.

In Indiana, the steeplechase is not a track and field event at the high- school level but is standard in collegiate competition.

For this reason, it takes a special kind of person to race the event.

Burnett said competitors need to have the endurance of distance runners and the strength and ability of hurdlers to get over barriers.

Freshman Kodi Mullins said the most important thing, however, is to be mentally tough.

“It’s all in your mind,” Mullins said. “If you think you can do it, then you can do it. You have to have the confidence.”

Mullins said the race is extremely demanding physically and is tough on the bodies of competitors.

The barriers are 36 inches high for men and 30 inches high for women, but unlike traditional hurdles, these barriers do not move.

“If you hit the barriers you’re going down,” redshirt sophomore Craig Jordan said. “There was a professional runner who had to get plastic surgery on his face.

“It’s fun, but if you mess up, you can get hurt.”

Not only are the barriers dangerous, but the race in general takes a toll on the body.

“It’s longer than any other hurdle event,” Burnett said. “It’s jarring and tough, so you don’t race it that often.”

One of the most unique parts of the race is the water jump.

Athletes have to jump over a barrier, but there is water on the other side.

The farther the participant  jumps, the shallower the water is.

“It’s nerve-racking going into it, but I love it when I can just clear it with ease,” Mullins said.

Jordan said he received a crash course in jumping water pits in his inaugural steeplechase competition.

“My first race, the whole team was at the corner by the water pit,” Jordan said. “I didn’t want to clip it and fall, so, out of nervousness, I over-jumped it and landed right in the water.”

This is one of the reasons that Jordan said he now considers the water pit one of his favorite parts of the race—but only when he is a spectator.

“Honestly, my favorite part is sitting down watching it,” Jordan said.  “If you go to the water pit area, you’re watching people fall down, and it’s pretty funny.”

Burnett agrees that the event is fun as a spectator but said that her favorite part is simply competing.

“You can’t race the steeple,” Burnett said. “There are always barriers in front of you to trip you up, but I just like the challenge.”

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