The spring track season in 1976 broke typically cool, windy, and wet. Not great weather for any type of runner. The sprinters sought to avoid muscle pulls while the distance runners suffered in shorts through cold winds, puddles on the track and the pangs of not-quite-fitness in the legs and lungs.
That said, I decided to make my track experience even tougher that freshman year by competing in one of track and field’s most challenging events: the steeplechase.
My background as a multi-sport athlete helped me adapt quickly to the steeplechase, a race that involves running 3000 meters over 35 barriers (42″) and 7 water jumps (with a 12′ zero-depth pit). Growing up, I always liked making obstacle courses. The steeple felt natural to me.
I loved running up to that water barrier, stepping on the top and flying out over the water. If the pit was set up properly, there was about a one-foot gap between the water and the end of the pit, so I worked at landing in that water-free zone. That way, my lead foot would not get so wet.
I’d been a forty-foot triple-jumper in high school, so I had good hops. My hurdling form needed work, as I’d not hurdled much before college. But in terms of inspiration, I was following in the footsteps of a cross country teammate Dave Hanson. He’d been an All-American steepler for Luther the year before.
My best that spring was not that consequential. We competed at several tracks where there was no steeplechase bit at the track. In that case, the meet organizers simply put another barrier on the track where the water pit would have been. That was not nearly as much fun. Still, I won a race and finished well in all the others.
But the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference had not yet added the steeplechase event to the final meet of the year. As I learned just this year from Coach Bob Naslund, the other schools in the conference were not keen to give Luther’s distance runners one more event in which to rack up points.
Lacking a spot in my event, I looked around at the other distance events and realized that the top three spots in the mile, three-mile and six-mile were all taken. That was the last year in which we ran yards instead of metric distances.
So I was stuck without an event for conference. But I’d been high-jumping off and on that spring, so I competed in a jump-off and won the third spot.
Then I overheard that there was going to be a run-off for the third spot in the 400-meter hurdles as well. I told coach Naslund I wanted to run the event and showed up for the trial during practice.
My steeplechasing taught me decent hurdling form. Not super-efficient, but I could get over the hurdles with minimal loss of speed. Part of me felt bad jumping into the trial because there were three other guys that had been doing the IM hurdles all spring and wanted to race at the conference meet. But I wasn’t going to be deterred.
I ran 59.6 in that hurdle trial, earning the third spot on the team. At the conference meet, on an all-weather track, I lowered my best to 59.2.
God, that race was difficult. There are few events that so thoroughly exhaust your legs as the 400M hurdles. It is extremely difficult to get that last jump over the hurdle to fit in your stride pattern. Miscalculating can put you face-first on the track. But I managed to run well enough to have an assistant coach ask if I wanted to run the event the following year.
I don’t think that would have worked out. My basic 400 speed was only just sub-55. I retreated to distance running and the conference held a steeplechase the next three years. I won the race my senior year, and may have won in previous years as well. I don’t recall. My job was to earn as many points as possible to help Luther win meets.