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A surprising peek behind Colorado’s steeplechase success

Aug 1, 2021
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TOKYO – Sunday morning at Olympic Stadium, the most famous female steeplechase runner in America, Emma Coburn, qualified for her third Olympic final. So did her fellow Buff, Val Constien. Two of the three women comprising the U.S. squad in Tokyo are COLORADO alumnae.

“We’ve never stopped having good ones,” said Mark Wetmore, Colorado’s head track coach since 1995. Before Emma, there was Jenny Simpson (2008 Beijing). And before Val, there was Shalaya Kipp (2012 London).

How is it possible that four of the nine women who have represented the U.S. in Olympic steeplechase have been Colorado grads?

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they learn from each other,” Wetmore said.

In truth, the Colorado team barely trains for the event.  “Maybe once a week, in the spring months,” Wetmore said.

The world-record holder trains it even less.

Beatrice Chepkoech, 30, set the mark three years ago in Monaco (running 8:44.32) and has considered herself to be a steeplechaser half her life yet the Kenyan told the Pac-12 on Sunday, “I don’t train the jumps. Only when I come to competition.”

Clearly, the steeplechase is quirky, but it is also tremendously difficult. It is a 3000-meter (1.86-mile) running race with 35 interruptions – 28 to get over heavy, 30-inch barriers, and seven to clear the water jumps whose landing pits are 12 feet long and more than two-feet deep at most.

During the rare steeplechase practice at Colorado, Wetmore said athletes might be working on the dry barriers or the water jump.

“The dry barriers are hundreds of pounds and not easily moved,” he said, “and the water jump is firmly fixed into the ground and not at all movable. So the first thing you want is: not to hit it.”

The clearance method isn’t standard and it isn’t always stylish.

“You’re right,” Wetmore said. “People have all different techniques and some are less elegant than others. My advice is: trust what you’re comfortable with and stay with it” – at least for the dry jump.

The water jump, he said, “is complicated – particularly for women because they’re generally shorter have a little bit less ballistic power than men. Everyone lands in the water, it’s just a matter of whether you land in four inches of it or whether you land in a foot-and-a-half. If you land in four inches, then you’re out in a half a step. If you land deep, you’re sloshing and losing time.”

Despite the event’s anything-goes quality, sometimes the coach just has to shake his head. “Every once in a while, we’ll have a one-hour steeple try-out clinic among people on the team and there’ll be somebody who’s disqualified in 30 seconds, for sure,” Wetmore said. “They’re so bad at it that they threaten the health of the people surrounding them and we have to say, ‘Okay, thanks. See ya tomorrow.’”

Truthfully, Wetmore said, “Technical violations in the steeplechase are nearly impossible,” other than missing the water jump. Runners skip the water jump on the first lap, but have to clear it on every subsequent lap. Wetmore has seen people forget it the second time.

“Steeplechasers come in all shapes, sizes, and talent packages,” Wetmore added. None of his Olympic steeplechasers were specialists.

“Emma Coburn was an indoor mile champion,” he said. “Jenny [Simpson] set the collegiate record – which still stands – in the 1,500. None of them trained for steeplechase exclusively.”

A good steeplechaser takes “athleticism, fitness, and a little bit of fearlessness,” Coburn said in New York in 2013, before becoming the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, 2017 world champion, and 2019 world silver medalist.

“I’ve had to change trajectory in the air because women in front of me have fallen,” she said. “It can’t faze you.”

Wetmore agrees. “The steeplechase is an eventful event,” he said, and because Coburn has made it her professional specialty now, “she’s encountered everything that could happen in the steeplechase, so she’s not surprised, is efficient, and gets the job done.”

As for Constien, 25, who still works out at Colorado, Wetmore said, “She was a good runner for us but not a national titlist. The last two years have been very methodical for her. She works a full-time job and just ran 9:18 [in Eugene, Oregon, on June 24], the sixth fastest American woman ever. It’s a testimony to her work ethic.”

And maybe one more thing.

After fulfilling her goal on Sunday by making the 15-woman final scheduled for Wednesday, Constien said, “Coach Wetmore always says, ‘stay calm, stay calm, stay calm,’ and even though he’s not here, I hear that in the back of my head.”