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The 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials. Steve Savage of the Oregon Track Club has led much of the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Now he crosses the finish line third. He goes to his knees, sightless and retching, but he understands he has made the team for Munich. He cries out: "Oh, God. It's not worth it." After an hour's recovery he amends his earlier position: "I don't know if it's worth it or not." The following day: "I guess it's worth it now. I've forgotten how I felt."
Savage's ambivalence toward his event must be shared to some degree by all steeplechasers. Even Kip Keino, the Olympic champion who seldom admits to a mortal's discomfort, says, "I do not enjoy running steeplechase." A lot is asked of these men. They must cross 28 three-foot hurdles, which differ from the ordinary tippy kind in that they are 13 feet wide, weigh between 180 and 220 pounds and are supported by a four-foot base that prevents them from moving if struck. "Sensible people approach these things with trepidation, if at all," says the 1972 Olympic coach, Bill Bowerman.
Water jumps, seven to a race, are 12 feet square and two and a half feet deep at the base of the hurdle. They slope to ground level at the far end and are lined with a soft mat. Thus, at any rate, proclaims the rule book. In practice, jumps vary according to the callousness of meet officials. In the 1966 NCAA championships at Indiana, the approach to the water jump was a tarpaulin laid over a marsh. Six men fell the first time through. Of the 30 contestants who started, seven were outpatients by evening.
Even with jumps that conform to the rules, casualties are high. Bill Koss of Washington broke his foot in the water jump at last year's Olympic Trials. Finland's Mikko Ala-Leppilampi went down after a lap and a half in the Olympic final at Munich, fractured his arm, got up and finished 10th. UCLA's Earl Clibborn shattered his leg on the last barrier in the 1965 NCAAs. He arose and ran on the pieces to come in third.
Experienced Steeplers expect to fall down. Mike Manley has 12 years worth of scars. Falls took him out of the 1964 NCAAs and the 1968 Olympic Trials. In the semifinals of the 1972 Trials he went down again in the first water jump, but this time he was ready. "I trained myself for falling. I misjudged the barrier because of the sun off the water and I thought, 'Oh, no, not again,' but I forced myself to catch up gradually." Manley won both his semifinal heat and the final.
In flat distance races, runners can cultivate rhythms. Once locked into, say, a 60-seconds-per-lap pace, a miler attempts to stay in it until his final kick. Fatigue mounts evenly and can be countered with a smooth increase in effort. He strains only in the last 600 yards. But should he fall or be severely jostled, the miler flounders. The effort that propelled him at 15 mph as long as he kept his rhythm won't move him anywhere near that speed without it.
The water jump, in effect, forces every steeplechaser to fall once a lap. Keeping a rhythm is impossible. "The barriers give you a lot more potential excuses," says Manley. "That instinct which calls for you to take it easy starts screaming at every jump. You can't get your steps, your shoes are full of water, your ankle clipped the last hurdle.... But that subversive little voice never seems to learn that the pain of the race might be nothing compared with your misery later over not having done your best."
If he is erect at the finish, a steeplechaser cannot expect to be swept away by jubilant spectators. George Young clutched his Olympic bronze medal in 1968 and said, "That is the last steeplechase anyone will ever see me run." He later reduced the U.S. record for 5,000 meters and made the 1972 team at that distance, but stuck grimly to his pledge.
"I don't know why the steeplechase isn't more popular among spectators," says Manley. "It's certainly exciting enough for the runners." He theorizes that the event could stand a more natural setting. "It's really just plasticized cross-country. The barriers had their beginnings in fallen logs and streams. Perhaps that is so removed from Tartan tracks and striped traffic barricades that our absurdity is showing."
The public is not alone in its inability to comprehend this peculiar event. Nobody knows how to coach it, either. For years runners learned a hurdling technique similar to that used in the 400-meter intermediates. But Keino and Kerry O'Brien of Australia, who broke the world record in 1970, step on the hurdles like arthritic old ladies. (The world record of 8:20.8 is now held by Anders Garderud of Sweden and Ben Jipcho of Kenya.) It was believed as well that landing in six inches or so of water helped cushion the shock of the jump and assisted in keeping momentum. Says Young, "I always thought I could run faster than I could fly." Then Kenyan Amos Biwott won in Mexico without dampening his socks. At this juncture a beginner is no longer sure how, or even whether, to practice the jump. Neither O'Brien nor Keino has ever taken a water jump in training. "I just enjoy it in races," says O'Brien. "I refuse to think of the negative side of it." The steeplechase is thus proof even against positive thinking. O'Brien fell badly in the 1970 Commonwealth Games and at Munich.