Lesson #409: Steeplechase

This week’s original lesson was going to be that there are technically 15 Winter Olympic sports and 42 Summer Olympic sports. But then, whilst discussing the fact that track and field is actually a dozen different sports, my cousin in a major Canadian city and I got into a discussion that devolved into a debate about whether steeplechase is a horse race or a people race. Clearly neither of us has any idea what steeplechase actually is.

So here we are. Learning about steeplechase.

It turns out there’s a reason I have no idea what steeplechase actually is. It sounds super boring to spectate.* Steeplechase is raced as a 3000m event for both men and women at the Olympics. Master’s steeplechasers and younger athletes compete at 2000m. The 3000m event has 28 barriers (don’t be fooled, they’re hurdles) and 7 water jumps. The 2000m event has 18 barriers and 5 water jumps. Water jumps are 12’/3.66m long and 27.5″/70cm in depth. In women’s steeplechase, the barriers are lower (30″/76.2cm) than for the men (36″/91.4cm).** That’s it. The fastest men in the world run this race in just over eight minutes. The fastest women do it right around nine.

Literally the only interesting thing about the steeplechase is that it is so called because sometime in the mid-19th century, a bunch of bored university students at Oxford decided to run from the church in one town to a church in another and this involved jumping over streams and hopping over low walls.

There is very little good reading on steeplechase, but if you’re super into it, the IAAF site is here.

Finally, my cousin and I were both right. Steeplechase is also a horse race. The Irish were racing steeple to steeple on horseback from the mid-18th century. So the running steeplechase basically came out of a bunch of college kids getting drunk one night and going, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without our horses?” And, that part actually sounds fun. Like I would definitely drink too much one night with my friends and decide to run from one town to another.*** But no one pulled the athletics association aside when they were like, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without the horses AND on a track?” and went, “that sounds boring AF, you guys”, and now here we are, 120 years into the Olympics, being reminded every four years that there are people who do this on purpose.****

*This is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist. Do you know how boring it is to watch someone swim a mile? Take what you’re imagining, multiply it by ten, and you’ll be close. Steeplechase sounds like the track version of watching someone swim a mile.

**Don’t ask me why a race that is measured in metres gives its measurements primarily in inches. That’s information straight from track and field’s governing body, the IAAF.

***This is a bald-faced lie. There are not words for how much I loathe running as a point-to-point exercise. I loved playing rugby; it was running for a violent purpose! But running to be like, “I ran four miles today!” Nope. Nope.

*****Again, this is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist and who continues to swim long distances (3-5 miles/swim). I am intimately familiar with people thinking my races were complete madness. My entire high school (200 and 500 yards) and university (500, 1000, and 1650 yards) careers were basically sprinters who were in and out of the water in under 30 seconds or a minute (depending on the race) and my friends who would show up to support me/the team going “why would you even do that?”

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