DES MOINES, IOWA — Emily Brown was confused.
She’d won the race. At the hallowed Drake Relays, she’d turned in the best time for the 3,000-meter steeplechase by an American this year, the fourth best by any woman in the world.
But, just past the finish line, after examining the 9:45.40 time on the giant scoreboard, she shrugged in frustration to the aficionados at jam-packed Drake Stadium.
“I can’t believe I just missed the time I wanted,” her face said. “Drats,” her outstretched arms suggested. “How could I be so close, yet so far away?” her cocked head asked as she muttered to herself.
Brown was in the throes of her own private Olympic-size confusion.
Saturday was a big day for the tall middle-distance runner from Minneapolis. But, at that moment, as the mid-afternoon sun drenched the blue Drake track and the 14,000 fans, Brown felt otherwise.
She believed she had failed. She was wrong.
The former Gophers All-America actually had nailed down a key plank on her road to Beijing in three months. She had done what she came to Drake to do.
She just didn’t know it.
The first steeplechase
It is an odd event, a bow to the 19th century days when cross-country running used town steeples as markers along the way. Legend says a few drunken Oxford students made a bet and one night mimicked the horseracing steeplechase. The race was born.
And what divides small towns but natural hurdles and bodies of water?
Thus, a 3,000-meter steeplechase on the track includes 28 high hurdles plus seven jumps over a small puddle of water. It is grueling. It is dirty. It is wet.
This year in Beijing, a decade after women’s steeplechase was recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, track’s global governing body, women will run in the steeplechase in an Olympics for the first time.
In order for Brown, 23, to get to Beijing, a few things have to happen. She has to finish among the top three at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., in July. But, more importantly, she has to meet an Olympic qualifying time, the so-called “A standard.”
That “A” time is 9 minutes, 46 seconds. That was Brown’s goal Saturday in Des Moines. Get under 9:46. Give her breathing room and confidence going into the trials.
Friday night, she chatted with Pat Goodwin about the time. Goodwin is the public relations chief at Team USA Minnesota, the local distance running club that keeps cranking out Olympic candidates.
Goodwin told her the qualifying time was 9:46. Brown insisted it was 9:45. She took that belief to the starting line Saturday in Des Moines.
Brown, who grew up in West Allis, Wis., went out in front of the huge pack and, pretty much, stayed there. She jockeyed for first and second most of the way with Rasa Troup, another former Gopher and Lithuanian national champ.
Brown was feeling good, having trained extensively for distance work, laying down 70-mile weeks. But those hours of running are fit into a real life; she’s a graduate student in nutrition and close to gaining her registered dietitian certification. She’s currently working a 40-hour-a-week internship while training.
“She has a lot on her mind,” said Team USA Minnesota coach Dennis Barker.
As she ran in Des Moines Saturday, Brown had no idea how fast she was running or what her time was, but she knew she felt good.
The timer clock for races at Drake is displayed at the top of the huge stadium scoreboard. The time of day is at the absolute bottom, under a giant video screen and corporate signage.
As she led the race or ran elbow-to-elbow with Troup, Brown mistakenly focused on the lower digital readout.
“I kept looking at the time of day,” Brown said afterward. “I should know because I’ve been here so many times before. But I was reading the wrong clock.”
Oops. At some point, 2:21 and 2:22 shouldn’t have made much sense, as she closed in on her final lap. It was 2:22 p.m., not two minutes and 22 seconds into her race.
“I finally recognized the correct clock with just over 200 [meters] to go,” she said. “I saw it click over to ‘9’ and thought, ‘You better get moving!'”
She did. Big time. After 2,800 meters, and lots of hurdles and a bunch of splashes, she sprinted towards the finish, widely separating from Troup.
Brown crossed the finish line, turned to that silly scoreboard, saw the 9:45.40 time — off a tad from the official time — and dropped her chin, turned to the crowd, shrugged.
“It was point-4 off,” she said, minutes later. “I really wanted that Olympic standard going into the trials.”
A reporter informed her that, in fact, she had met the time. Her official time was 9:45.38, and the “A” standard is 9:46, not 9:45.
“If somebody can confirm that, I’d be happy,” she said. “I guess it’s worth looking up again. Fives look like sixes some times.”
We looked it up again. She got the time, albeit by a measly six-tenths of a second.
Now, she has to get faster still. While hers was the top U.S. steeplechase performance of the year, it would have been the 11th-best time in 2007, and she would have been the sixth-fastest American steeplechaser. Barker is certain Brown has a low 9:30 steeplechase in her. He figures she’ll have to get there in Eugene on July 3.
Brown would love to be a participant in the first women’s Olympic steeplechase.
“It’s really a great race to showcase our athleticism,” she said, of the distance, the hurdles, the endurance, the strength required. “There’s something not pretty about steeplechase. It kind of shows girls that women can look ugly in sports almost, and it doesn’t have to be a beauty contest really.”
Sunday morning, Emily Brown was set to drive back to the Twin Cities. Yes, she reported. She’d heard the news. About 15 minutes after the race and after chatting with a reporter about it, she’d learned officially she’d met her goal. She’d cracked 9:46. That was the right number.
“It was a relief,” she said.
The confusion lifted, and Brown is a prime prospect for the U.S. Olympic team. That’s as clear as Saturday’s blue Iowa sky.