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Runner (steeple) chasing Olympic dream

Dennis Webb

These days, the steeplechase and 1,500-meter runner lives in Carbondale, often working out only in the company of what she calls her “Carbondale supermutts,” Basha and Mazzie. And she couldn’t be happier.There’s nothing like the local scenery to take the edge off grueling track workouts at Roaring Fork High School.”I have the best view from the track of any track in the world,” she said. “I mean, (Mount) Sopris is right there.”Maybe it’s appropriate that the 27-year-old professional runner’s career has taken her back to a high school track. Some of her fondest memories as a runner come from her high school days in Evergreen. These days, she’s finding joy in running again, thanks in part to the change of scenery that came from becoming a full-time Carbondale resident, and thanks also to her discovery of steeplechase.The sport is a bit of an oddity of track and field – a mix of middle-distance running and hurdling, including a jump across a water pit.”I’ve always been kind of a rough-and-tumble tomboy girl and thought steeplechase would be kind of fun. … It’s crazy; it’s different,” Messner said.It also just may be her ticket to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Messner is shooting to qualify for those Olympics, and has some reason to think she can make the U.S. team. Though she just took up steeplechase this year, she finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials. That would have been good enough to qualify for this year’s Summer Olympics in Athens, had there been a women’s steeplechase there.But by the time of the trials, Messner already knew that the event wouldn’t be part of the Games. Though there traditionally has been a men’s steeplechase in the Olympics, the event’s debut for women was put off until 2008 – a decision that didn’t sit well with Messner.”It’s 2004. It’s ridiculous it’s not in, and I haven’t heard a good excuse why it wasn’t put in” at Athens, Messner said.She chose to compete in the steeplechase at the Olympic trials even though it was only an exhibition event, just to show her support for the event. Entering the steeplechase probably hurt her chances in the 1,500. The steeplechase finals were the night before the 1,500 preliminaries, and she was exhausted enough that she didn’t qualify for the 1,500 finals.But Messner isn’t complaining about her results this year, given the ups and downs of her running career.That career had its start by accident. Messner and her brothers were ski racers while growing up. She remembers being about 10 and discovering she could keep up with her brothers during dryland training.Messner got more into team sports such as volleyball, but one of her brothers encouraged her to run track. She joined her high school team as a freshman, and at that point the team was small and not very strong. By her senior year about 10 percent of the girls in the school were on the team and they won state, she said.”I have the best memories of my high school running. We had so much fun and my coaches were great and we had a blast,” she said.College was a bit of a different story. Messner attended the University of Colorado at Boulder on a running scholarship. She ran well, earning All-America honors four times and taking fourth in the mile in the NCAA indoor championships. But she also went through a succession of coaches and fought a lot of injuries.She says running for CU taught her to compete and train hard. But when she finished college she took a year off from running. She thought it might be time to let it go and move on to other things in life, such as possibly returning to helping her family with raising horses and breaking colts.Yet Messner wondered if she could go further with her running.That’s difficult after college, due to the limited funding available to professional athletes. But Messner was fortunate to get a sponsorship with Asics to help defray her expenses.Messner continued to fight injuries, and learned she needed a change in her training. High-mileage, high-intensity workouts took their toll on her body.Then, two years ago, she hooked up with her current coach, Bobby McGee. He also coaches distance running standout Colleen De Rueck and Olympic triathlete Barb Lindquist.”He just made all the difference in the world,” she said.McGee preaches the value of recovery days, Messner said. Before, she probably ran too fast on days when she should have been taking it easier.McGee had Messner wear a heart rate monitor to make sure she slowed down.”If I’m dying on a run I’ll walk for five minutes,” she said.That might be surprising admission for a professional runner, but Messner also notes that she doesn’t hold back much on her hard training days.Messner runs about 65 miles a week off-season but increases that to about 85 miles as the next racing year approaches. She also lifts weights and does core training and drills.She also finds time to work part-time jobs at Susan’s Flowers & Gifts in Basalt, and as a veterinary assistant at Alpine Animal Hospital in Carbondale. She has a degree in wildlife biology, and is interested in someday pursuing veterinary medicine as a career, or possibly physical therapy.Messner works with her coach mostly by e-mail and telephone, and she doesn’t miss Boulder.”It’s such a running town that everyone knows your business; it’s too overwhelming for me,” she said.”This is where my home is,” she said of Carbondale. “It’s pretty ideal, and I find it pretty similar to Boulder.”It can be a lonely place to train sometimes, and a place where people aren’t so accustomed to seeing runners, she said. But she gets support from her boyfriend, Matt Vickers, and her family, which now lives in Gunnison.Training on her own seems to be paying off.”I feel like I’m taking it up another notch this year,” she said.She ran personal bests of 16:01 in the 5K and 4:13 in the 1,500 meters. But the steeplechase has proven to be her best surprise of the year. She ran her first one ever in Greeley – in the snow.”That was it. I was hooked; it was so much fun,” she said.Messner’s speed in the 1,500 appeared to pay off in her newfound event. For a while, after running only her third steeplechase, she held the year’s fastest time in the world in the event.”My coach and I were kind of shocked at how quick that came,” she said.She’s now ranked 22nd in the world. If she can increase to 15th, she’ll get funding from USA Track & Field.Messner loves the camaraderie between steeplechasers, and describes her fellow competitors as laid-back, “just kind of goofy … just a different group of girls.”She enjoys being in the vanguard of the women’s steeplechase movement. She said she expects 2005 to be “kind of our coming out year” because it will be the first year the event is part of track and field’s world championships.Messner is used to competing on a world stage. She joined an American team competing in a relay event in Japan last month, and raced in Europe this year. She may go abroad in search of steeplechase races next year, due to their scarcity in the United States.For this winter, she’s doing base training in Carbondale – mostly outdoors, for she hates treadmills and uses them only as a last resort.Her four-legged training partners help get her outside, even when it’s cold and dark.”I even had to get them strobe lights so I could run with them at night,” Messner said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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