NEW CANAAN, Conn. – The first time New Canaan’s Stephanie Benko ran the steeplechase as a competitive event, she got a taste of the dangers as a teammate clipped a barrier and took a face-plant on the track.
“She rolled over and kept on running,’’ Benko said. “But it freaked me out a little bit.”
Her teammate’s unfortunate fall has not deterred the Lafayette College runner. Earlier this month, the sophomore won the Patriot League championship in the 3,000-meter race in school record time.
A week later, she came back and smashed the school record again in the ECAC and IC4A Championships. Her time of 10:33.79 broke her previous mark by nearly 7 seconds. Benko finished seventh in her final race of the year and missed qualifying for the NCAA Regional championships by slightly more than 5 seconds.
“I started running it last year, but only did it three times,’’ said Benko, who won the Class L indoor 3,200 title as a senior in 2012. “It’s still a really new race to me, but it’s fun. It’s different from other types of racing.”
Steeplechase runners have to clear five barriers, one of which includes a water pit, on each lap of the race. Benko said she asked her coach in high school if she could run the steeplechase. “I always wanted to try it,’’ she said.
Benko played soccer before committing to running full-time as a senior. She thinks a background in another sport helps her.
“You have to be more flexible and have more agility than in just running a race,’’ Benko said. “You can’t be afraid, especially if someone falls. There are some physical and mental aspects about it that make it totally unlike any other race.”
One of the hardest parts for steeplechase runners is the variation in speed as they approach barriers. “You have to go out at a controlled pace,’’ Benko said. “The first time I did it with hurdles I went out so fast. You want to accelerate into the hurdle and out of the hurdle. I’m still working on my form. That’s where I think I have to make the biggest improvement.”
Former Wilton High runner Carrie Strickland-Dimoff emerged on the national scene as a steeplechase runner after picking up the event at Princeton and raced at the Olympic Trials in 2008. Benko is just a baby when it comes to the steeplechase and has even surprised herself with her quick success.
“That’s one thing I’m still getting used to,’’ she said. “At the ECAC meet I was psyching myself out. I had to convince myself I belong here and that I can run with these girls. I’m excited for my training through next year to see what I can do.”