Ask Utah's own steeplechase Olympians Lindsey Anderson and Josh McAdams to explain their specialized track event, and you'll get the laundry list of specifics 3,000 meters long, 7 1/2 laps around a standard track, 28 barriers to hurdle, and another seven 12-foot-long water traps.
The steeplechase one of track and field's most intriguing and misnamed events doesn't involve chasing steeples, like the 18th-century, European-rooted horse-racing challenge it's named after, where riders initially galloped and later runners dashed from one visible village church steeple to another.
"It's like the horse steeplechase races, only with people," said McAdams.
And instead of horses bounding over stone walls, pole fences and sundry ditches and streams, the people human runners like McAdams and Anderson make their way over barriers 30 inches high (women's event) or 3 feet high (men's) and through 12-foot-long, water-filled pits.
And McAdams and Anderson have performed in fine fashion, which explains why they will be competing for medals later this week at the Beijing Olympics.
While at BYU, McAdams won the 2006 NCAA outdoor individual championship and later claimed the 2007 USA Outdoor and 2007 Pan American titles before finishing third in this summer's U.S. Olympic Track Trials. Anderson, a Weber State All-American, set the women's NCAA record last spring and shaved some 10 seconds off her personal-best time in finishing second in her Olympic Trials event.
The two Olympians are the latest of Utah's string of steeplechase successes, beginning with former world's best and longtime American record holder Henry Marsh and Weber State standout Farley Gerber and including the BYU trio that won the first three NCAA women's steeplechase championships contested Elizabeth Jackson (2001), Michaela Mannova (2002) and Kassi Andersen (2003).
BYU distance coach Pat Shane, who has guided seven Cougar women steeplechase runners to All-American honors since 2001, labels the race "a distance event with obstacles that break it up."
He underscores the 28 barriers "they're not hurdles, they're barriers they won't move," he said and the photo-favorite seven water traps as requiring the participants' constant focus.
"There's an opportunity for disaster at every turn," he said.
McAdams and Anderson got their first up-close-and-personal look at the steeplechase in similar fashion an all-in tryout provided early in their college careers by their respective coaches.
Anderson joined other Weber State freshmen runners in the drills and stretching for the steeplechase at the beginning of the winter indoor season.
"I didn't even know about it. I liked it, but I didn't know if I'd do it much," she said, adding that she enjoyed her first race, even though it "wasn't amazing."
McAdams remembers transferring to BYU after an LDS Church mission and during the indoor season getting lined up by coach Ed Eyestone in front of the 3-foot-high barriers.
"Coach said, 'You look like a natural at it,'" recalled McAdams, who admitted to "bombing it" on his first outing by posting a plus-10-minute time.
But both stuck with the event and the tutelage of their coaches Anderson blossoming under the return of world-class distance runner Paul Pilkington to Weber State and McAdams with Eyestone, his own Olympic-caliber mentor.
And both used their NCAA success McAdams winning the '06 outdoors individual crown and Anderson setting the women's collegiate record the following spring as stepping stones to post-collegiate confidence en route to realizing their Olympic dreams.
What it takes
McAdams succinctly summarizes the skills necessary for a successful steeplechaser.
"You need to be flexible, athletic coordinated, at least," he said. "It definitely requires a mental toughness."
Shane calls it track's only "technical" single event, demanding more than the mental sharpness, physical fitness, strength and strategy deployed in other running events.
"It requires the stamina of a 5,000-meter runner, the strength of a 1,500-meter runner and the agility of a hurdler," he said.
The steeplechase spoils don't go to the fastest runner, he added, but to the one "who uses the least amount of oxygen getting around" not only the track but over the 35 obstacles in best technical fashion.
He points to Marsh as the prime example, one who was a good runner at 1,500 or 5,000 meters, but certainly not of Olympic caliber in either. Instead, Marsh excelled by being a good runner who was "technically very good" in scaling the obstacles.
"He had all the right qualities," said Shane of Marsh.
And he sees a lot of Marsh in McAdams, as well as a lot of McAdams' father, who was strong All-American wrestler at BYU in the late 1960s. "He's a lot like his father," said Shane, adding the steeplechase "is a perfect fit for Josh McAdams."
Making its debut
The men's Summer Games steeplechase has been around a long time dating back to 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, and long enough for Marsh to make four Olympic teams.
But 2008 marks the first-ever women's steeplechase in Olympic history.
That debut is long overdue, says Shane, who lobbied national and international officials long and hard for its inclusion, only to see it take a backseat to the likes of the marathon, triple jump and women's hammer before officially being included.
"It took longer than it should have," he said.
And he wonders what might have been if the likes of Jackson, Mannova, Andersen and other local women steeplechasers had been given a chance.
"We had a number of women who, if they would have had it (included), would have gone on to the Olympics," he said.
That's not lost on Anderson, who is proud to take her spot at the front of the Summer Games' inaugural event.
Beijing Olympics Steeplechase
Women's 3,000 meters
Round 1, Friday
Men's 3,000 meters
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