Fast Starts and Water Jumps: What I Learned From My First Steeplechase

After my first race of last cross country season, my coach asked me my thoughts.

“I definitely started out too hard,” I said.

“Good. Keep doing that,” he replied.

At first his response baffled me, but when I thought back to my high school days, I realized that starting out harder than what seemed reasonable was a key factor in my ability to get faster and better. A fast start can easily sabotage an entire race and result in chronic fading, but eventually, a fast start will lead to a fast middle and a faster end.

My dad always told me that Galen Rupp’s strategy was to hold on to Bernard Lagat’s pace as long as possible, and each race he held on a little more. Rupp didn’t beat Lagat for their first 12 races against each other, but on his 13th try (which happened to be at the 2012 Olympic Trials), he won. The first time Rupp tried to hold on, he probably looked a little crazy, but all that mattered was his belief in himself and his refusal to give up.

Last August, I had a week almost entirely to myself because my parents were on vacation, all my friends were out of town, and I was done working for the summer. I had a lot of time for self-reflection, which resulted in borderline insanity, but it also resulted in an important, tri-fold revelation. Three thoughts entered my mind and have continued to swirl around it ever since: mountains, majors, and steeples. The first led to a tattoo and other adventure plans. The second led to a switch from zoology to English (the best decision of my college career so far). And the third became a reality last Saturday, when I ran my first track race of the year, and my first ever steeplechase.

Once again, I started out too fast, and after two laps of decent hurdling form and well-executed water jumps, I pretty much fell apart. Most of the race was a blur of splashing water and approaching barriers, but it was incredible. After the race, I explained to my coach that my over-confidence and over-excitement in the beginning led to my quick demise, but like before, he seemed pleased with my attempt.

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we're having! Who wouldn't want to do that?!

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we’re having! Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

The thing about steeplechase is that there are water jumps involved, and to clear these water jumps successfully the only option is to approach them fast and without hesitation. Otherwise, there are a plethora of things that could go wrong (and did go wrong in our practice in the weeks prior): accidentally hurdling it, falling forward on the landing, not making it out of the deep part of the pit, etc. Even successfully placing a foot on the barrier is not a given, so any good water jump requires, quite literally, a leap of faith.

This is probably why, when I first discussed becoming a steeplechaser with my coach, he made it clear that to be a good steeplechaser, you have to be a little nuts. I assured him that I was more than a little nuts, and he agreed that steeplechase could become my new event. After a single experience with the actual race, I still very much have no idea what I’m doing. My strategy to learn is to put myself out there in every sense of the phrase and hope that along the way, I’ll find out what it takes. Consequently, this is also my strategy for life.

Vulnerability is a terrifying thing. It can result in quite a bit of anguish and frustration, but more importantly, it also leads to some incredible heights. And to me, these heights are worth all the heartbreak along the way. Sometimes, when these ratios are skewed, it feels like I’m living in a state of perpetual heartbreak. I often care too much, so I am often disappointed. But alongside this comes euphoric (drug-free!) highs. This is also the reward for the leap of faith in a water jump; for a few moments, you get to fly.

Just like steeplechase, I think that to be okay in life, you have to be a little nuts. The world is a big, confusing, intimidating place. A lot could go wrong, so putting yourself out there seems counterintuitive to protecting yourself. Why risk feeling too much when there’s already so much outside of our control? Why add in barriers and water jumps to an already excruciating race? My answer, of course, is because it’s worth it. Because imagine the possibilities that exist when you leap without knowing what’s next. Because if you really want to know what it feels like to fly, you can’t hesitate. You have to just go, and you have to start out way too fast.