Track and field often makes very little sense to those who have never been a part of the sport. Actually, there are days when it doesn’t make much sense to those of us who have committed ourselves to it. It’s hard to say whether it is more ridiculous to be the guy who races 25 laps in the 10k or the guy who sticks a pole into a plastic pit and launches himself 20 feet in the air. But the most ridiculous is without a doubt the steeplechaser, who runs just under two miles occasionally hurdling striped barriers and crashing through a small pool of water built into the track itself. I’m sure half of the people reading this are going to look up a YouTube video to clarify what steeplechase is. You’ll find a whole bunch of videos of unfortunate athletes tripping over barriers or into the water pit, then getting trampled by their fellow competitors, all to the glee of viewers.
I am a steeplechaser. Granted, I’m new to it. I ran my first workout involving steeple barriers about two months ago. On that first day, blood streaked down the front of my shin after I clipped a barrier. It was a long struggle but by some miracle, a lot of training and some love from above, I managed to run a steeple fast enough to qualify for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship meet, which took place May 9-10.
Thus, I found myself sitting in a packed coach bus rambling down the highway towards Western Oregon University, located in Monmouth, Ore. After about thirty rounds of various card games, we arrived in Monmouth and I found myself lying in a hotel bed the night before one of the biggest races of my life.
Everyone can understand how it feels to lie awake the night before something big, something you’ve put your soul into, something that could be incredible or disastrous. That fluttery feeling comes in waves, you try to visualize things going perfectly and the image gets so real that your legs twitch and you wake yourself up from a near dream, heart pounding.
The steeplechase was the first running event of the meet, but there were some field events that started before us. One was the shot put and Western’s own Frank Catelli, nicknamed “Frank the Tank” because he’s about three times the size of a skinny distance runner like me, beat his own GNAC record. Basically, he threw a large metal ball weighing about as much as a puppy 59 feet and 7 inches. It was absurd. Frank’s strong start and the sunshine had me feeling good about my race. But a storm was brewing to the west.
The rain came on strong as the other Western steeplers and I warmed up for our race. What had been a glorious spring day quickly became a windy, wet mess. For me, the good vibes were fading, and the fear was rising.
I got on the line standing right next to Alaska Anchorage’s Micah Chilemo. He’s run a steeplechase a full minute faster than I have and has competed with - and beaten - some of the best Division One guys out there. I shook his hand before the race, just so that if I ever see him racing on TV in the future I can tell whoever might be sitting next to me that I raced against that guy in college.
The rain was coming down sideways as we crouched on the starting line waiting for the gun, muscles tensed. That moment always feels incredibly long, but this time it dragged on. And on. And then the starter realized he had no bullets in his gun, so we all sprinted fifty meters or so and slapped our quads to try and stay warm. I felt the heat draining fast.
By the time the starter finally came stumbling back with his gun loaded, I was cold and the weather was no better. This time, the explosion from the gun came quickly, and the race had begun.
The nerves usually dissipate about a hundred meters into the race and there’s this sweet spot of about two laps where the nerves are gone and your legs still feel good and for a moment this sport almost seems enjoyable. Then the lactic acid starts to build and the fast guys start to drive off to the front of the pack and you find out just how good you actually feel and just how hard you’ve actually trained. Before long, you’re forced to make a choice between embracing the pain and making something special happen or surrendering to it, letting the guy in front of you build a bigger and bigger gap until you finally stumble through the finish line, defeated.
For me, this race was one of surrender, which is a tough thing to come to terms with. Every great race is a product of mental strength and I didn’t have it.
Several laps into the race, I found myself leaping over not a barrier, but Micah Chilemo. I didn’t see what happened, but would learn after the race that he had tripped on the water barrier.
When I called my parents after the race, they had already seen my time. My dad asked if I had fallen on a barrier, if that was why my time was so slow. Nope, I said, I just didn’t have it today.
Luckily, pretty much everyone else on the men’s team raced really well. In the 10,000 meter run, we had eight guys faster than our fastest runner a year ago. Alex Donigian cleaned up in the sprint events. On the girls’ side, Katelyn Steen won the steeplechase, the 5000 meter run and placed second in the 1500 meter run. By the end of the last event, the men’s side had won handily and the women, who were ranked fourth going in, missed the championship by only four points.
I used the frustration leftover from my race to fuel really loud yelling for everyone else. Every race provided a small catharsis and I think that’s why we love this sport. Every single race is a story, a chance to do something no one thought you were capable of, something you didn’t know you were capable of. As the men’s team ran our victory lap, brandishing the trophy and chanting “W-W-U” for the last hundred meters or so, I was already thinking about the season to come and how hard I would train to make sure I got back there and that next time I would make a substantial contribution to our victory.
I could see in the seniors’ eyes the bittersweet remembrance of their experiences on this track, some longing for one more shot to make something special happen. I don’t want to miss my opportunities, I don’t want to be at that meet in three years thinking about what might have been. But that’s the beauty and the beast of track: all it takes is all you’ve got.
Okay, I stole that from a T-shirt. But track teams always have the best T-shirts anyway. It’s a big part of the sport. And my 2014 GNAC Champions T-shirt will bear the memories of this weekend and this season, good and bad, for the rest of my life.