They call them Mr. and Mrs. Steeplechase.
“Well, honey, let’s just go out and run 3,000 meters and hop over some propped up lumber before dinner.”
That’s the life of what may be the first married couple to compete in the NCAA national track and field championships in the same event. It happens this week in Eugene, Oregon.
This grueling, demanding steeplechase can take the chrome off a car's bumper.
But for Mitchell Briggs and his wife Kristi Rush-Briggs, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. While some couples go out for picnics, hit the movies, or walk the mall, this couple gobbles up miles in stride. And they love it. It dominates their life.
“I’ve never heard of a married couple competing in the same event at nationals,” said BYU track coach and former NCAA champion and Olympian Ed Eyestone.
“I’ve known athletes who were in a relationship competing, but I haven’t heard of a married couple competing in the same event,” said Kristi's middle distance coach, three-time All-American Diljeet Taylor. “Extremely rare. Never heard of it.”
In the field of 24 qualifiers, Mitchell posted the 23rd best time at 8.55.72, a field led by Louisville’s Edwin Kibichiy who ran the top time nationally at 8:32.91. He finished second at the Trojan Invitational in the event this spring.
In the women’s 3,000 steeplechase, Kristi’s qualifying time of 10.18.39 also ranked 23rd. The top woman qualifier is New Hampshire’s Elinor Purrier, who ran a 9:50.51.
Kristi, who is from Gilbert, Arizona, has been ranked as high as No. 6 nationally and finished first at the Stanford Invitational and fourth at the Mt. SAC Relays.
“You don’t have very many married couples in college track, it’s unique at BYU that we do and to have a married couple in a national event is something you just don’t see,” said Eyestone. “For both to be good enough to advance is unique.”
Every August, Eyestone takes distance runners from BYU’s track team for a week-long retreat prior to the cross country season. There, he has them play some softball. It’s not only a team chemistry get-to-know-you event, but it gives Eyestone a chance to see which runners are more all-around athletes and have more coordination in their movements and motion. It helps him spot a potential hurdler or steeplechaser. That’s where he saw Mitchell Briggs, from Everett, Washington, stand out with his physical acumen.
“In the first few minutes of a softball game, you can tell which guys played Little League, who has those athletic chops and who is an endurance animal," Eyestone said. "If they display that athleticism, they can probably pick up the hurdling technique. Briggs was probably our best softball player. His dad was a high school coach and he picked it up very well. He’s become better every year.
“Briggsy is just a rock solid dude, a guy you’d want your daughter to marry," he continued. "In terms of just good, mature beyond his years, a guy everyone on the team looks up to. He’s not my most athletically talented guy, but just a really hard worker who is a very good technician in the steeplechase. He does that because he is an athlete.”
Eyestone saw that in a softball game.
While Mitchell is an education major and has been doing student teaching, Eyestone said he’ll probably end up being a principal somewhere someday. Kristi is a nursing student.
“She is very tall, lean, dark-haired, elegant and they just make a great couple. She is always very inquisitive, wanting to know why she’s doing a certain workout, not to second guess but to understand why things are done," Eyestone said. "She is laser focused on whatever goal she sets for herself. When she was first learning to do blood pressure, she carried around a stethoscope to take blood pressures. Briggsy is just the same.”
Taylor, who took a coaching job at BYU in the fall, said her first impression of Kristi was that she was a very nice nursing major. She was so nice she wondered how competitive she actually was. “But you know what?" Taylor said. "Come to find out, she is probably one of the most competitive people out there and it stands out.”
At regionals, Taylor saw Kristi bear down during the last lap and really turn it on. “She has a great kick, a very good finish, and when she is in position, she is capable of getting after it at the end. It was very gratifying to see her finish like that, to get it done. Making it to nationals is a very big accomplishment. Her 9:57 time puts her among the top three on BYU’s all-time list. That was a fun moment, to be a sub-10 steeplechaser at Mt. SAC.
“Indoors, she ended up being our 800 leg on our medley relay team and those girls were All-Americans finishing fourth in the nation. For a young girl to have a dream become a reality, it’s pretty fun.”
The goal this week is to be an All-American and finish in the top eight, said Taylor.
Mitchell and Kristi met at a BYU-sponsored track camp for youth while working as camp counselors. Kristi simply stood out, caught his eye and he had to get to know her. “We were playing four square and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that girl's pretty cute,’ and I told my roommate I was going to ask her out,” said Mitchell.
He liked that he could joke around with her, laughing on a second date when he dripped some ice cream down his shirt. He was nervous but she teased him all day about it. “She made me feel comfortable and I guess I made her feel comfortable too.”
For Kristi, Mitchell’s personality, his ability to relate to the camp kids, got her attention. “He’s very quiet and reserved, but very respectful and that stood out.”
She saw how he made riddles with the camp kids, got their attention and built a relationship. She saw how they reacted to him and she felt he respected her at a time she was scared to be a camp counselor.
After dating for more than a year, they married 11 months ago, July 2016.
Their current student-athlete lives are centered around classwork, studies and track workouts. She runs at 10 a.m. but he gets his miles in at 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
By the time they get home and settled down, they’re too tired to go mall walking or take a hike together.
Mr. and Mrs. Steeplechase?
“I think it’s fun, people are having fun with it,” said Kristi. “People keep addressing us like that and I think it’s kind of cool because when we grow old and fat we can show them pictures of it and say, ‘Look, we were a big deal once and we were fast.
That’s the best thing; it’s a memory.
“We can now go to nationals together and it's something we will have forever and never forget, so I’m excited about it,” Kristi said.
Before Mitchell qualified for nationals by the skin of his teeth, his wife qualified and he remembers thinking how awesome it would be to see her compete, to watch her.
“I knew it was my turn to make it. It’s hard to explain. I want her to do her best and she wants me to do our best,” said Mitchell. “Then to both make it to nationals, it’s just the best thing in the world. It’s surreal. Usually, you want to be supportive of your wife. But we both want the same thing. She wants to be supportive of me. But to be in the same event, both wanting the same thing, we both need to push each other to go to bed on time and eat right. It’s so fun that we’re doing it together and have such passion for it.
“When you’re a senior, you kind of get selfish about what you want to accomplish. You want to be at nationals, but to do it together, to have that goal, to reach it, is something else.”
At regionals, BYU allowed the Briggses to be in the same hotel room rather than take roommates and teammates and keep them separated as squad members.
“I think that’s what they’ll do in nationals because that’s our routine, how we train and that’s what we are used to,” said Kristi. “Races are just like a hard practice. Sometimes I get too stressed out about races, so I think it will be good to keep the same routine. I can relax.”
Mitchell said he helps his wife in preparation but Kristi helps him in what to physically do in the race. “She has such an incredible kick, she’s inspired me to try and have one too.”
The Briggses are a normal college couple, except they really believe they are boring.
When it comes to making breakfast, it’s Mitchell. But if it’s dinner or dessert, Kristi pretty much has that covered. Housework is shared but Kristi is more active in doing it, she says, “because it bothers me more.” But, she underscores, he jumps in when needed.
“Some things are typical,” said Kristi. “We’re definitely a typical student couple. We’re probably more boring because when we get home we kind of just sit on the couch and relax because we are both so tired and we try to conserve our energy. We kind of Netflix binge.
“We probably talk about running more than any other normal couple does. He makes it a lot easier on me because he keeps me accountable," she continued. "We ask each other if we’re hydrating properly and he asks me if I’m taking my iron. It’s nice because he knows how much it means to me and for a big event like this, we need to figure out a routine and try to make goals to get better. That’s an awesome part of our marriage."
One of the things they like to do together is playing random old games on Mitchell’s phone, like outdated Candy Crush. “We’ll trade off taking turns on it. I think we’re kind of boring.”
A short time from now, when all the classes are over, homework done, the high-level competition and practices are finished and they have to return to a more normal life of making a living, buying a home, having a family and getting full-time jobs, will they have to reinvent their marriage and relationship, kind of start over? When the monster demands on both of them are finished, will they fill their time with unfamiliar challenges and will it be tough, a time of discovery?
Kristi explains, “I think one good thing is we talk about running a lot. It’s our life, but it’s not us. We have a lot of goals outside of running, things we’d like and want to do without worrying about breaking something or getting hurt. We talk about goals like going kayaking together. We’ll have to reshape our goals and use running as a base with what we have most in common. But we have a lot of things we’d like to do, even go rock climbing, but I think running will always be a part of our lives, we just won’t be as absorbed in it as we’ve been.”