The 3,000-meter steeplechase is run over 7½ laps on a 400-meter track, and the contestants have to clear four barriers, one of which sits in front of a water pit, on each lap. The barriers all stand three feet high, weigh between 180 and 220 pounds and are well anchored. If a racer hits one of them, he goes down, with a splat or a splash. "The steeplechase is the most trying of the middle-to long-distance races," says Bill Bowerman, former head track coach at the University of Oregon and still guru to runners of all sorts. "It's a race for men, men who are talented, intelligent and tough."
Meet Henry Marsh, 29, who is all three. The U.S. record holder in the steeplechase at 8:15.68, Marsh has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the past two years by Track & Field News and is favored to win the event at next week's World Championships in Helsinki. In Europe, where fans appreciate the challenge of the steeplechase, Marsh is well known. In the U.S., though, where most people associate the word steeplechase with horses, Marsh is about as obscure as a world-class track athlete can be. Marty Liquori, who competed in the glamorous mile and 5,000-meter races before he became a TV commentator, once told Marsh, "If you want to get on TV, all you have to do is fall in the water."
Which is exactly what most American steeplechasers have done over the years. Only two Yanks have won Olympic gold medals in the event: James Lightbody, the outstanding performer of the 1904 Games, and Horace Ashenfelter, a surprise in 1952. Last year America's second-best steeplechaser, John Gregorek, didn't rank among the world's top 15.
What makes Marsh's preeminence even more remarkable is that track is a sideline, not his day-in, day-out preoccupation. Marsh is a full-time attorney with the Salt Lake City law firm of Parsons, Behle and Latimer. While most members of the U.S. World Championship team were competing in Stockholm last week, Marsh was trying a case in Salt Lake City. His father, Howard, who is on the board of directors of the firm, says, "I'm not conscious of having encouraged Henry to become a lawyer." Henry himself says he is merely following a family tradition. His great-grandfather James Henry Moyle was one of the first Mormon attorneys, and his maternal grandfather, Henry Dinwoodey Moyle, after whom he was named, also practiced law. Howard Marsh practices corporate law, Henry concentrates on litigation.
August 7, 1983
Marsh is married to the former Suzi Wallin, a handsome blonde woman with an air of quiet authority, and they have two children, Jimmy, 4, and Danielle Dorothy (Dee Dee to everyone), 1. The Marshes met when they were students at Brigham Young University, and now live in a red-brick house in a small upper-middle-class section of Bountiful, an aptly named community on the outskirts of Salt Lake, high above the valley. A devout Mormon, Marsh has never tasted coffee, tea or alcohol—or tried tobacco. Most Sunday mornings the four Marshes spend three hours at the Val Verda Eleventh Ward Mormon church in Bountiful. His legal work, his family life and his commitment to the Mormon church would not seem to leave him much time to pursue a track career, but Henry Marsh knows how to pace himself.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the track. Marsh starts almost every race by settling into last place. For several boring laps he seems to be struggling there, a medium-sized man with an ungainly gait who overstrides a little and generally looks as though he might call it a day at any moment. He appears to be so out of it that even his fans, though familiar with his style, are ready to give up, too. "Oh, Henry," they mutter. "Henry, get up there. You're not going to make it, not this time!" Up ahead, runners jockey for position. Way back, Marsh lumbers on—alone. Can this be the runner called Stormin' Mormon?
Out on the track, his face is a frown, and his windswept locks reveal a receding hairline. Maybe his stormin' days are over. But hold it! Suddenly Marsh is on the move. He passes one runner, and now he's making up ground every time he clears a hurdle. He pops over them without a hitch, sometimes leading with his right leg, sometimes his left; he never chops his stride the way his rivals sometimes do in order to lead with the same leg. By the time Marsh starts his last lap, he has reeled most of them in, one by one, and is just behind the leaders, poised to unleash his devastating kick off the last turn. In a classic Marsh finish, he flies over the last hurdle and sweeps past the startled leader, often on the inside, where he is least expected. Was there ever any doubt?
Marsh explains his tactics this way: "It's not how fast you are, it's how fast you are at the end of the race. This depends on how you handle the hurdles, whether you hurdle efficiently or have to chop your stride and then accelerate to get back to where you were. That takes a lot of energy and oxygen. I try to take them in a fluid motion and stay in stride."
Marsh also runs at a steady pace, usually 66 or 67 seconds per lap, which keeps him fresh to run the last lap as fast as he needs to in order to win. And while he's loping along in the rear, he's staying clear of the pushing and shoving that goes on in the pack. Bowerman, who coaches Marsh by telephone, says, "Henry is trained to win—not to win a lap, but to win the race."
"There is a saying in the Scripture," says Marsh. " 'Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize; so run that ye may obtain.' When it comes down to the last lap, I want to be in a position to win—in contact with the lead runner, relaxed because I have been efficient during the race and, finally, ready to make a move or respond to one. Then I can finish strong and win."
Marsh has always had a knack for making the right move at the right time, and not just on the track. Howard Marsh remembers that when the family was living in Hawaii in the early '70s and young Henry was running the mile in high school races, the announcer would regularly inform the crowd, "Henry Marsh runs as if he invented pace." Indeed, pacing is his secret to a full life.
For one thing, Marsh does not believe in the 100-mile-a-week training routine of many world-class runners. "Some runners don't race well unless they have a lot of miles behind them," he says. "That's not important to me. I like to run less but do more quality work, more at race pace." Sometimes Marsh will have son Jimmy stand in as a hurdle. However, if he wants to train with a water jump, Marsh must drive 30 minutes to Ogden or an hour to Provo. For his longer runs, he often takes to nearby Bountiful Boulevard, which offers a splendid view of the Great Salt Lake and, pale in the distance, the Oquirrh Mountains. In winter, when snow reaches up to his mailbox, he spends much of his training time on the 10-laps-to-the-mile indoor track at the Deseret gym in downtown Salt Lake. His basement is equipped with a treadmill, which records speed, distance, time and heart rate; Marsh does as many as 10 miles at a six-minutes-per pace while watching sports on TV.
Also in the basement is a storage room where most of Marsh's trophies are thrown in with the canned tomatoes and the canned peaches. A picture lying facedown shows him shaking hands with President Carter during the reception in Washington that was held as a consolation prize for the 1980 Olympic team that had no Olympics to go to. "I don't dwell on the past," Marsh says. "When I get something, I throw it in there. I like to look to the future rather than the past."
Displayed in his study is the one trophy Marsh truly likes: a silver bowl inscribed to the OUTSTANDING U.S. OLYMPIAN 1980 IN TRACK AND FIELD. He got that for setting his American record in the Olympic Trials.
Marsh almost died when he was 1½ years old. He was found lying facedown in the goldfish pond of his grandparents' rose garden, but was revived with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. His lungs retained some scar tissue from that accident, and that led to several bouts with pneumonia during his elementary school years. A doctor told Henry's parents that exercise would be good for him. With five brothers and two sisters, Henry saw exertion aplenty. John is the oldest, then come Henry, Kathy, Robert, Ricky, Elizabeth, William and Michael. The Marshes grew up in Dallas, Corpus Christi, Texas and Hawaii before Howard moved the family to Salt Lake City in 1972 and joined the law firm. Virginia Marsh, in a futile attempt to start a family philharmonic, once had her children sit down and try various instruments. Henry picked up the cello, but soon switched to the piano; he can play a mean Baby Elephant Walk.
At 11 Henry played split end on the Optimists' Colts, a Little League football team in Richardson, Texas that won the state championship and went on to play the Oklahoma champion in the annual Turkey Bowl. In that game Henry picked up a fumble but got confused and ran the wrong way. He cried a lot during halftime.
Marsh began to have success on the track in high school. When he was in 10th grade he finished seventh in the mile in the Texas state championships. His family then moved to Honolulu and in both his junior and senior years of high school there he was state champion in cross-country and at distances from the half-mile to two miles.
By then he had read Jim Ryun's biography. "He was the only track hero I ever had," says Marsh, who dreamed of following in Ryun's footsteps. Howard Marsh also hoped his son would become a sub-four-minute miler, but Henry didn't show much promise in that respect. To this day his fastest mile is a 4:02. When he enrolled at BYU in 1972, the school had plenty of good milers, and Marsh wasn't even able to make the cross-country team that year. Cougar Assistant Coach Pat Shane came up with the idea of teaching Marsh to hurdle. "I was a steeplechaser myself," says Shane, "and I needed steeplechasers."
"I had never seen a steeplechase until I got to college," says Marsh. Nevertheless, in his first race, in April of 1973, he finished fourth in 9:25. In his second, he stumbled at the second water jump and went for a swim. He got up and ran on, only to hit a barrier a couple of laps later. He staggered, but ultimately finished, his knee looking like a balloon.
After this calamitous beginning, Marsh's steeplechasing career came to an abrupt halt. Following the dictates of his religion, he went on mission—to Brazil. He spent two years there—"proselyting time"—knocking on doors for about 13 hours each day, talking to people about Mormonism and baptizing converts. He ran on only rare occasions, and food being the only reward at the end of a hard day, put on 25 pounds. "I got up to 184," he says, "and at 5'10" I looked pretty big."
In August 1975 Marsh returned to BYU for his sophomore year, a more mature man with a new outlook on life. "I no longer wanted to eat, drink and sleep track," he says. "My mission had put track in perspective." He began the 1976 season without a scholarship and, furthermore, felt the BYU track team could do well without him. He walked off the team for a couple of weeks, then decided to return and set himself some goals. The results were extraordinary.
His big goal for 1976 was to qualify for the NCAA championships. For that he needed an 8:55, a 30-second improvement over his best, the 9:25 in his steeple-chasing debut. He knew he couldn't run that fast at BYU's 4,600-foot altitude; he needed a meet near sea level. But BYU's head coach, Clarence Robison, was not about to pay Marsh's way to the Penn or Drake relays. Finally he relented and let Marsh compete at the Mount Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif. Marsh won that race in 8:40.3, breaking the BYU record of 8:41.6 in the process.
At the '76 NCAAs, Marsh hoped to place among the top six and make All-America. He finished second to UTEP's James Munyala in 8:27.88. The qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials was 8:32. Marsh was amazed that he had done so well. Until then he had never even thought about the Trials, much less about going to the Olympics in Montreal. The Trials were in Eugene, Ore. and Marsh was second again, behind Doug Brown. Within a year he had gone from being a worn-out, out-of-shape missionary to a 1976 Olympian.
At Montreal, Brown lost a shoe in his heat, and Marsh wound up the only American in the finals. "I just hung on and ran as fast as I could," he says. "They dragged me along to an 8:23.99." He finished 10th. Bruce Jenner, the decathlon gold medalist, told him, "Hey, Henry, that's where I finished in 1972." Had the U.S. not pulled out of the '80 Games, Marsh would have gone to Moscow with his 8:15.68 the best time of that year.
Next week in Helsinki, Marsh will try not to be haunted by the race he won and lost in his last world meet, the 1981 World Cup. In that Rome race, Marsh was a little more reckless than usual as he approached the water jump on the penultimate lap in a pack of runners. "Usually, when a bunch of runners approach the water together," he says, "they spread out. They don't want to jump on top of each other. That leaves a big gap in the middle, and I like to cut right through there. But Ralf Ponitzsch of East Germany had seen the. gap, too, and he was to my right, in front of me. He moved in; I was in his blind spot. We were about to collide. So I went around the water jump."
Marsh staged a typical sizzling finish and won in 8:19.31—but was disqualified. Fresh out of law school, he pleaded his own case before the Jury of Appeals. He lost, the jury ruling he had committed a foul. Boguslaw Maminski of Poland was declared the winner, and Mariano Scartezzini of Italy got second. Both probably will be in Helsinki, along with Patriz Ilg, a West German whose 8:17.04 last year was second only to Marsh's 8:16.17. Other top challengers: Julius Korir of Kenya; Ethiopia's Eshetu Tura, who was third in the Moscow Olympics; and Finland's Tommy Ekblom, who on July 6 became the first man in more than two years to outkick Marsh to the tape.
That race took place on the same track in Helsinki where the World Championships will be run. Marsh had been a little behind schedule all season, ever since hyperextending the muscles in his left calf during a race in April in Seattle. He had to be carried off the track that day, but after resting nine days he had come back to win every steeplechase he had run, which included races at the TAC championships and meets in Lausanne and Stockholm. In the last, on July 4, he had recorded the fastest time in the world this year, an 8:17.39. From Stockholm he went to Helsinki to check out the new Tartan track there, wondering how he would do with only one day's rest. During the World Championships he will probably have to run two heats and one final in a span of four days. "I thought that [July 6] race was going to be easy," he says. Marsh came off the last barrier and, as usual, sprinted past the leader, who was Ekblom, but Ekblom came back to catch him at the finish.
True to his nature, Marsh wasn't upset by that upset. "The loss just started my juices flowing," he says. "My goal is always to run better tomorrow than today." And not to fall in the water. Sorry about that, Marty Liquori.