The 3,000-meter steeplechase is run over 7½ laps on a 400-meter track, and the contestants have to clear four barriers, one of which sits in front of a water pit, on each lap. The barriers all stand three feet high, weigh between 180 and 220 pounds and are well anchored. If a racer hits one of them, he goes down, with a splat or a splash. "The steeplechase is the most trying of the middle-to long-distance races," says Bill Bowerman, former head track coach at the University of Oregon and still guru to runners of all sorts. "It's a race for men, men who are talented, intelligent and tough."
Meet Henry Marsh, 29, who is all three. The U.S. record holder in the steeplechase at 8:15.68, Marsh has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the past two years by Track & Field News and is favored to win the event at next week's World Championships in Helsinki. In Europe, where fans appreciate the challenge of the steeplechase, Marsh is well known. In the U.S., though, where most people associate the word steeplechase with horses, Marsh is about as obscure as a world-class track athlete can be. Marty Liquori, who competed in the glamorous mile and 5,000-meter races before he became a TV commentator, once told Marsh, "If you want to get on TV, all you have to do is fall in the water."
Which is exactly what most American steeplechasers have done over the years. Only two Yanks have won Olympic gold medals in the event: James Lightbody, the outstanding performer of the 1904 Games, and Horace Ashenfelter, a surprise in 1952. Last year America's second-best steeplechaser, John Gregorek, didn't rank among the world's top 15.
What makes Marsh's preeminence even more remarkable is that track is a sideline, not his day-in, day-out preoccupation. Marsh is a full-time attorney with the Salt Lake City law firm of Parsons, Behle and Latimer. While most members of the U.S. World Championship team were competing in Stockholm last week, Marsh was trying a case in Salt Lake City. His father, Howard, who is on the board of directors of the firm, says, "I'm not conscious of having encouraged Henry to become a lawyer." Henry himself says he is merely following a family tradition. His great-grandfather James Henry Moyle was one of the first Mormon attorneys, and his maternal grandfather, Henry Dinwoodey Moyle, after whom he was named, also practiced law. Howard Marsh practices corporate law, Henry concentrates on litigation.
Marsh is married to the former Suzi Wallin, a handsome blonde woman with an air of quiet authority, and they have two children, Jimmy, 4, and Danielle Dorothy (Dee Dee to everyone), 1. The Marshes met when they were students at Brigham Young University, and now live in a red-brick house in a small upper-middle-class section of Bountiful, an aptly named community on the outskirts of Salt Lake, high above the valley. A devout Mormon, Marsh has never tasted coffee, tea or alcohol—or tried tobacco. Most Sunday mornings the four Marshes spend three hours at the Val Verda Eleventh Ward Mormon church in Bountiful. His legal work, his family life and his commitment to the Mormon church would not seem to leave him much time to pursue a track career, but Henry Marsh knows how to pace himself.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the track. Marsh starts almost every race by settling into last place. For several boring laps he seems to be struggling there, a medium-sized man with an ungainly gait who overstrides a little and generally looks as though he might call it a day at any moment. He appears to be so out of it that even his fans, though familiar with his style, are ready to give up, too. "Oh, Henry," they mutter. "Henry, get up there. You're not going to make it, not this time!" Up ahead, runners jockey for position. Way back, Marsh lumbers on—alone. Can this be the runner called Stormin' Mormon?
Out on the track, his face is a frown, and his windswept locks reveal a receding hairline. Maybe his stormin' days are over. But hold it! Suddenly Marsh is on the move. He passes one runner, and now he's making up ground every time he clears a hurdle. He pops over them without a hitch, sometimes leading with his right leg, sometimes his left; he never chops his stride the way his rivals sometimes do in order to lead with the same leg. By the time Marsh starts his last lap, he has reeled most of them in, one by one, and is just behind the leaders, poised to unleash his devastating kick off the last turn. In a classic Marsh finish, he flies over the last hurdle and sweeps past the startled leader, often on the inside, where he is least expected. Was there ever any doubt?
Marsh explains his tactics this way: "It's not how fast you are, it's how fast you are at the end of the race. This depends on how you handle the hurdles, whether you hurdle efficiently or have to chop your stride and then accelerate to get back to where you were. That takes a lot of energy and oxygen. I try to take them in a fluid motion and stay in stride."
Marsh also runs at a steady pace, usually 66 or 67 seconds per lap, which keeps him fresh to run the last lap as fast as he needs to in order to win. And while he's loping along in the rear, he's staying clear of the pushing and shoving that goes on in the pack. Bowerman, who coaches Marsh by telephone, says, "Henry is trained to win—not to win a lap, but to win the race."
"There is a saying in the Scripture," says Marsh. " 'Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize; so run that ye may obtain.' When it comes down to the last lap, I want to be in a position to win—in contact with the lead runner, relaxed because I have been efficient during the race and, finally, ready to make a move or respond to one. Then I can finish strong and win."