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Inside the Steeplechase Final: Lessons in Listening, Balance and Mastery

Runners reveal the preparation, strategies and mindsets that led to success — or failure — at the race-defining moment.

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In the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and so in life, it’s the little things that make the big differences.

More so than other “flat” races, the steeplechase requires competitors to stay laser focused on every tiny detail and anticipate subtle shifts in order to achieve success.

That was the case in the final of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase on June 25 in Eugene, Oregon. While pre-race favorite Hilary Bor (8:21.34) sprinted to victory with his training partner Benard Keter (8:21.81) in tow and Mason Ferlic (8:22.05) closed hard to gobble up the last Olympic team berth.

How did they pull it off? And what causes other favorites to fall short? Looking at each runner’s approach, and the little things that happened — or didn’t happen — provides a few key lessons that can apply to runners at any level in any race.

Sean McGorty at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials
Sean McGorty at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

McGorty Listens to His Hot Tired Legs

Lesson No. 1: Mind Your Mental State

With PRs of 3:55 for the mile and 13:06 for the 5,000m, Sean McGorty was potentially one of the fastest closers in the field. But he checked himself out of the race before ever having the chance.

Having been so patient amid a shoe snafu in his preliminary heat just four days earlier, McGorty says he took himself out of contention in the final by letting his tired legs create negative self-talk even before the pace began to wind up with two laps to go.

In hindsight, most of the competitors in the race said they were OK with the hot weather, but several said they felt flat or had tired legs as soon as the race started. McGorty was one of those, but he held his place in the large pack during the consistent 68-second laps that the veteran Donn Cabral, a two-time Olympian in his last go-round in the sport, led them through.

When, however, with two laps to go, Bor, Keter and Isaac Updike picked up the pace, Cabral and McGorty, fell off the pace and never recovered. For the 31-year-old Cabral, it was physical, given that he did the yeoman’s work to set up the race, but for the 26-year-old McGorty, a rising Nike-sponsored pro, it was mental.

McGorty admitted after the race he should have trusted his training and abilities and realized that everyone was dealing with the heat and fatigue instead of giving in to the doubt created by his heavy legs.

“The first word that comes to mind is disappointment, obviously,” McGorty says. “I felt like I did a good job positioning myself right early on in the race, right on Cabral’s shoulder. But then my legs started feeling a little heavy, and I think that I let that go to my head a little bit and let it frazzle me. I think I let myself get out of the race mentally and the next thing you know, there is a gap and then you’re watching your Olympic dreams fade away.”

After falling off the lead group with two laps to go, McGorty could only muster a 63-second final lap wound up seventh in 8:27.05

“There’s no guarantee I would have made it if I stayed with them,” he says. “But I’m just disappointed that I let the way I was feeling determine my race.”

Mason Ferlic celebrates after the Men's 3000 Meters Steeplechase Final at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 25, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.
Mason Ferlic celebrates after the Men’s 3000 Meters Steeplechase Final at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 25, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Ferlic Finds His Groove

Lesson No. 2: Combine Focus and Balance

Early in the race, Ferlic had been content to run off the lead, biding his time focusing on precise hurdling technique while knowing he had done the work to put himself in position to finish in the top three. He conserved emotional energy early on, so when the pace started to increase, he was able to trust his training and the entire process that led him to be in contention with 600 meters to go.

After clearing the second to last water pit, he calmly covered the moves of Bor and Updike, but saved energy until the top of the backstretch before channeling all of his resources into a robust kick. He was in fourth place with 200 meters to go, but he surged into the final water jump and, when Updike stalled a bit in the water, Ferlic unleashed a sprint to the finish that was five years in the making.

Five years ago, Ferlic was riding high. He entered the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials steeplechase as the reigning NCAA champion with sights on a pro career. He ran a good race in the Trials finals that year and placed fifth. But the ensuing years were a bit of a rollercoaster filled with highs and lows, self-doubt and intense over-analysis of everything he was doing. In hindsight, he admits he was often forcing himself to do too much, increasing his training volume and intensity because he believed it’s the only way he could elevate his performance.

That didn’t lead to him getting faster or more competitive, but instead led to injuries and lackluster performances. Not surprisingly, he says he lost his way and felt a bit listless and rudderless heading into 2020. That’s hardly the way to enter an Olympic year, but that’s where he was 15 months ago when the pandemic shut the world down and put the competitive running scene on pause.

For Ferlic, it was a blessing in disguise. He equated the pandemic to a necessary wake-up call, similar to a water pit fall he took in the 2015 NCAA championships that sent him careening face-first into 4 inches of water. Just as that forced him to be more focused heading into his senior season and led to his 2016 success, so too did the pandemic force him to refocus and regroup.

“For me, the pandemic and the delay were a little bit transformative,” he says. “As terrible as it was, for me, it was this great re-framing and it gave me a different perspective of how I wanted to approach the next year.”

He went back home to Minneapolis to live with his parents for a while and realized he needed to focus on training with intention. When he returned to Ann Arbor, Mich., he listened to his body, trusted the workouts of coach Ron Warhurst, immersed in the training and camaraderie with his Very Nice Track Club teammates Nick Willis, Mitchell Black and Hobbs Kessler and stopped trying to control and analyze everything. He was working hard a first-year PhD student at the University of Michigan, and offering statistical analysis to his sponsor, Tracksmith, but those activities only provided necessary balance and perspective.

“I don’t consider all of that a distraction, but instead it was a complement to my running,” says Ferlic, 27, who earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2019. “I was in a situation that allowed me to focus on my workouts, but then when I got home I could put my feet up and pop open the laptop and not think about running. And doing that for two or three months, that is how you get sneaky fit. And all of that took pressure off training for the Olympics.

By the time the spring rolled around, he was as fit as he’d ever been and was running faster than he ever had. He set a new steeplechase PR for the first time in five years, lowering it to 8:18.49, plus ran PRs for 1,500 (3:35), the mile (3:55) and the 5,000m (13:24).

But for Ferlic, finishing third in the final and making the Olympic team was as much about his mental and emotional balance as it was his superior fitness.

“Tactically, I think I executed it the way I think I need to in order to make that team,” he says. “I was patient early and tried to converse emotional energy more than anything. I knew coming out of that penultimate water jump, we’re going to get rolling and guys were going to be in the spots that are going to be making the team. It’s one of those races where it comes together and you kind of black out in the middle and let it happen, but you’re conscious of every move you’re making and executing it the way you planned.”

Men's 3000 Meters Steeplechase Final at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 25, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.
Men’s 3000 Meters Steeplechase Final at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 25, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Bor Seizes the Opportunity

Lesson No. 3: Find Your Place and Master It

Bor, meanwhile, made his second straight U.S. Olympic team, by executing his race plan to perfection and closing with a 59.60-second final lap.

Growing up in Kenya, Bor was a talented athlete but his initial experiences in track and field came as a field events competitor. He loved the long jump and high jump and even won a district championship as a pole vaulter. When he combined that athleticism and his long-distance running prowess, he found his calling in the steeplechase, partially because he was inspired by the success his older brother, Emmanuel, had achieved.

But when Hilary was a freshman at Iowa State University, his coach thought he was too short to become a successful steeplechase runner and wanted him to focus on the 1,500 and 5,000 instead. At 5-foot-6, Hilary considered his height to be an advantage, allowing him to be fast and agile amid the congestion over the barriers and water jumps. That proved to be true and led to Bor earning fourth- and second place finishes in the NCAA Championships.

From there, he followed his brother’s path to U.S. citizenship via the U.S. Army in 2013 and the chance to train with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program based in Colorado Springs. He had his first big breakthrough in 2016, when he used his speed and agility to run a fast final lap in the Olympic Trials final to finish third and earn the opportunity to compete in the 2016 Olympics. He placed seventh in Rio and continued his progression under coach Scott Simmons, dropping his PR to 8:08.41 (No. 3 on the all-time U.S. list) en route to a ninth-place finish at the 2019 World Championships.

Bor, who is sponsored by HOKA, trains with a talented group of Kenyan-born American runners in the WCAP program, including fellow 2016 Olympians Paul Chelimo, Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchichir, as well as fellow steepler Keter and his brother, Emmanuel, who placed 10th in the June 18 10,000m final and is racing in Sunday’s 5,000m final.

It’s an inspiring setup that has helped Bor elevate his running and rack up five straight top-three finishes at the U.S. championships, including his first win in 2019.

After Updike made the first strong move with 500 meters to go, the diminutive 31-year-old was ready, and reacted by tucking in behind him until the backstretch of the last lap.

“I use the same move every year,” Bor says. “The goal was wait until last 300 and make a move. This year, I made a move at 500 to go, but there were a few guys running hard. I made a counter move at about 250 and took it hard over the barrier and then attacked the last water pit — and the rest is history.”