Let’s get this straight from the start: The 3,000-meter steeplechase is by far the most peculiar—if not the most technically demanding and one of the most difficult—distance running races out there.
The “steeple” is a savage compromise of strength, speed and endurance, and it entails running nearly 2 miles at a crazy-fast pace (about 4:50-mile pace for women, 4:20 for men) while negotiating 35 barriers—seven of them in front of a daunting water pit—in what might best resemble a sadistic equestrian event.
The steeplechase barriers are not the lightweight aluminum hurdles set up by school kid volunteers that tip over when you brush your knee against them. A 30-inch high, black-and-white-striped steeplechase barrier is an unmoving, 13-foot-wide, 220-pound mammoth of an obstacle. Clip a toe and you kiss the track. Hit your shin and you have a scar for life. Or you end up submerged in the water pit to the cheers of bloodthirsty fans who bunch up at the edge of the pit, smartphones poised, praying for viral video-worthy carnage.
There’s a unique pain in watching an amateur steepler drag herself through the course, looking more ragged with each lap and more afraid as she steps on the water jump barrier. The pros aren’t exempt, either. In 2012, an Ethiopian athlete slammed into the final hurdle and exited the track in a wheelchair. A wrong step has sent thousands of athletes head first into water pits, most recently in the prelims of the 2015 U.S. track championships in Eugene, Ore., in June. Competitors have scars on their inner thighs from where the underside of a track spike sunk into their flesh during a group hurdle.
In reality, the 3,000-meter steeplechase is the track and field equivalent of a Benny Hill chase scene.
Why would anyone want to run the steeplechase? A runner would have to be crazy, masochistic or just a genuine badass to willingly submit to that event. Emma Coburn, who became the fastest American steeplechaser in history last summer, one of the U.S.’s great hopes for glory in Rio and the woman who will push the boundaries of what’s possible, is definitely the latter.