Sports Notes

In a Single Bound

By Adam Levin, Sports Information Director

Justin Easter ’03 of Jay, Maine, acquired a taste for sports competition at a young age. He ran his first road race at the age of 2. He did his first five-kilometer run at 6. In the third grade, he started Nordic ski racing and entered his first national championship in cross country running a year later.

While Easter has been cross country running and skiing most of his life, he found his greatest success in a quirky track event that fits his rugged physique and competitive zeal: the 3,000-meter steeplechase. In May, he won the national steeplechase title at the NCAA track and field championships held at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. (teammate Jaime Sawler ’02 of Stratham, N.H., won the national hammer throw title).

Easter has also collected three consecutive titles in Bates’ own league, the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Not bad for an athlete who took up track almost as a favor to a Bates coach.

“I’d seen some steeplechase in high school, but I wasn’t planning to run track when I arrived,” Easter explains. “Coach [Al Fereshetian] talked me into it.”

What convinced Easter to stick with the event was the thrill of challenging another steeplechase All-American, Matt Twiest ’00. “The whole experience of the event made track more fun than just running,” Easter says.

As Easter enters his senior year this fall, the three-sport standout is poised to become the first Bates athlete to qualify for NCAA championships every fall, winter, and spring over four years.

The steeplechase is believed to have originated in England in the mid-1800s, either as a wager between Oxford University students or as an adaptation of the popular horse race that connected villages from church to church — hence the steeple. The English made steeplechase part of their traditional track championships in 1879, and the event was run at the 1900 Olympics. Standardized as a two-mile race in 1908, the distance was adapted to 3,000 meters when metric became the standard for international track and field.

On a 400-meter course, such as the new Russell Street Track, the race is seven and one-half laps. Competitors confront 3-foot-tall barriers every 78 meters and a water jump after the third of five barriers. “The steeplechase draws the rugged individuals, the more physical types, to the track,” Fereshetian says. “Justin (6-1, 180 pounds) is a prototypical physical type for the event. It helps to be big and tall and strong, as opposed to your typical 5,000- or 10,000-meter runner.”

Easter says that his skiing experience gives him an advantage in the steeplechase. Most Nordic ski races have interval starts in which the competitors start 30 seconds apart. “It’s like you are racing yourself,” Easter says. “And I get a similar feeling leading the pack in a steeplechase, not worrying about what other people are doing.”

“Skiing makes him much more mentally tough on the track,” Fereshetian adds. “He’s a blast to watch, because you know he’s always going to lay it on the line totally.”

The physical and mental aspects of cross country running and Nordic skiing combine to help Easter get over the 35 barriers better than anyone in Bates’ ultra-competitive conference, NESCAC. Indeed, hurdling skill separates All-American steeplechase competitors from the others. “Hurdling is one thing that you can always work on and improve,” Easter says. “Speed helps you be successful early in the season, but getting better at hurdling helps you get better during the championship season.”

Unlike lightweight hurdles seen in the sprints, the three-foot dry barriers in the steeplechase are solid and heavy. Some runners leap onto the top of the barrier with one foot and then push off to the other side. Easter, like most top steeplechase competitors, leaps over the formidable barriers in a single bound.

The water jump also begins with a fixed barrier three feet tall. On the other side is a pool of water extending 12 feet from the barrier. The water is 28 inches deep right below the barrier and becomes shallower away from the barrier. While almost all runners jump onto the barrier and use it for leverage to leap beyond the deepest water, Easter has the rare ability to hurdle the water jump. “That’s an elite-level skill usually only used by international caliber athletes,” Fereshetian says. “Justin is a cagy competitor and chooses that technique in critical stages of a race — usually toward the end, when he senses that his opponents are tired or just even struggling a little.” When Easter does hurdle the water jump, the feat “has a devastating effect” on his opponents, says his coach. “It really gets the crowd going, which in turn fires Justin up all that much more.”

Easter says the key to the water jump is “hitting the water in stride. If you attack the barrier and pick up pace as you approach it, you don’t even notice the water,” quickly adding, “after a while, anyway.”

Easter’s first attempt at the event was less successful than his early running and skiing efforts. But he quickly discovered he could watch his teammates — and his opponents — and find ways to improve.

“The steeplechase is a learning game,” he said. “The more you watch it, the more you learn. And you fall in love with it. It’s the reason I do track.”

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