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New steeplechasers see unexpected success

BY MICHELE DANNO | APRIL 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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It’s Katie Ellis’ last season with the Iowa women’s track and field team, but it seems her career may just be beginning.

In her four years as a Hawkeye runner, Ellis said she was “a far cry” from scoring for Iowa, competing in the Big Ten championships, or qualifying for NCAA regionals.

But with the adoption of her new event — the steeplechase — Ellis said those are all realistic goals for her senior season.

They became apparent at the Iowa Invitational on April 17, when Ellis placed second in the steeplechase — finishing just behind teammate Danielle Berndt.

Neither woman had before competed in the event, an obstacle race that includes hurdles and a water pool. But their successful débuts forced their coaches to give it a second look.

“Going into this weekend, neither was in a position of being considered for running at the Big Ten championships,” head coach Layne Anderson said. “But now, they may have a chance.”

Berndt, a sophomore, finished first with a time of 10:56, and Ellis ran an 11:02. Ellis said the regional standard would fall around 10:46, which she and her teammates see as a realistic goal.

While they hadn’t given much thought to the event before, the two women stepped up when veteran steeplechaser senior Hannah Roeder decided to redshirt for the 2010 outdoor season.

Roeder has taken on the role of teacher and guide. She praised Berndt and Ellis and said they’ve done an “amazing” job of picking up the technique so quickly.

Within a few weeks of practice, the two distance runners applied their endurance with barrier jumping — 35 barriers in a 3,000-meter race to be exact.

“One of the big appeals to the steeple is that a lot of people don’t want to do it,” Ellis said. “Just finishing it is a challenge, and I wanted to run it just to say that I did.”

What makes the event less appealing to many is the water-pit jump, the most challenging portion of the race, which the runners encounter seven times.

Before their first race, Berndt and Ellis had only practiced the water jump once.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Berndt said. “But I thought it was really fun. Coach Anderson told me some paces to aim for each lap, so I tried to hit those, and it just worked out.”

Ellis said jumping the hurdles — referred to as steeples — intimidated her at first, and she almost fell into the water pit during practice.

But after her début, she said, the steeples actually helped her get through the race.

“I operate better if I have a distraction,” Ellis said. “Instead of just thinking about running, I was thinking about the jumps.”

Anderson said these types of natural quirks make for successful steeplechasers. More often than not, athletes land in the event by default, he said.

That was the case for Berndt and Ellis.

After unpromising careers in traditional distance races, the women said they wanted to find a way to break out and contribute to the Hawkeyes’ conference finish — their ultimate goal for the season.

“Often times, people just end up in the steeple because they can’t find another event they’re quite as competitive in,” Anderson said. “Danielle just asked to try it, and sure enough, it worked out well for her. Katie is a senior with nothing to lose, so she’s giving it a go, too.”


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