Hess expands her repertoire in steeplechase

Sophomore Jen Hess found a fit in the quirky track and field event with a water pit.

Lou Raguse

As a high schooler running on the gravel roads near her home outside Paynesville, Minn., Jen Hess likely avoided mud puddles when the weather got sloppy.

Now, as a sophomore on Minnesota’s women’s track team, Hess comes off a barrier and puts one foot into a water pit to propel herself over it – as part of the 3,000-meter steeplechase event.

Hess ran her first steeplechase Saturday at the Duke Invitational, finishing fourth with a time of 11:04.40 – already the fourth-best speed in Minnesota history.

“It’s a lot more exhausting than the 3K flat, obviously,” Hess said. “But it’s a good test.”

The steeplechase consists of a 3,000-meter race with five hurdle-like barriers to leap over on each lap. One of those barriers contains a water pit, setting the steeplechase apart as one of the quirkiest events in a track and field meet.

After the indoor Big Ten meet Feb. 29, coach Gary Wilson was looking to add to his two-athlete steeplechase group.

Hess said she’d do it, and that was what Wilson was hoping to hear, as he had pegged her one of his favorites to run the event based on her endurance and toughness.

And Wilson was very pleased with her first go-around.

“Her performance at Duke was the best opening performance I’ve ever seen from any kid in any event I’ve ever coached,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to negotiate 35 barriers, and you’ve got to be tough to do that – mentally and physically. She handled it like a champ.”

As one of the Gophers’ top distance runners, Wilson thought Hess would make a strong contender in the event.

In the 2003 season, Hess was Minnesota’s top finisher at the Big Ten meet in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. She was also usually near the front of Minnesota’s cross country pack in her first two seasons.

After her showing in her new event, Hess said she’d like to stick with it.

“It’s my style, I guess,” Hess said.

The Duke Invitational was also freshman Stacia Kalinoski’s first time in the steeplechase. She didn’t have quite the same success, finishing 20th with a time of 12:09.19 and falling into the water pits twice.

“For me, it can only get better,” Kalinoski said light-heartedly.

The runners will compete in the steeplechase again April 22-23 at the Drake Relays. There, they will shoot for a 10:57 time to qualify for NCAA regionals.

This Saturday, at the Oregon Invitational, Hess will compete in the 3,000-meter open – a return to a “flat” race.

Hess said her improvement this season in distance running has been slow but steady.

With two years left with the Gophers, Hess has plenty of time to make her mark in Minnesota – whether it be running hills, on the track or leaping over water pits.

“I don’t want to put any limits on my goals,” she said.

Others in Oregon

The rest of the Gophers women are also looking for success in the Oregon Invitational, which pits the Ducks, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington against one another.

“Every meet is a work in progress,” Wilson said. “We’re going to put some kids in events they’re not necessarily used to just to score points. This is a neat meet, because every kid counts in the standpoint of scoring.”