Cooling vests, towels and water jugs strategically placed around the Michael A. Myers Stadium floor were the prerace tools that helped competitors at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships endure scorching temperatures in the mid- and upper-90s late Saturday afternoon.
The races themselves, amid those conditions, were more about athletic conditioning and mental toughness, a combination that helped Hannah Steelman of Orono earn first-team All-America status in both the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 5,000-meter runs at the University of Texas.
“Really it was just all about keeping yourself cool before the race started,” said Steelman, now a sophomore at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “Then I think once you got into it, it was really a mental game at that point.”
Steelman finished third in the steeplechase, braving a temperature of 98 degrees when the race started at 6:54 p.m. to clock a personal-best time of 9 minutes, 46.06 seconds.
By the time the 5,000 final started less than 90 minutes after she finished the steeplechase, the temperature was 94. Steelman regrouped to place eighth among 24 competitors in 16:14.58.
“I believed in my training that it was possible to place pretty high, but the goal is also to leave nothing out there, to run as hard as you can,” said Steelman, a 2017 Orono High School graduate.
Steelman has been running the steeplechase for barely a year, but her ascension up the collegiate ranks in the event that uniquely features a water barrier on each lap has been rapid.
She qualified for the NCAAs as a freshman, but her semifinal time was two seconds short of making the final. Last Thursday, she won her semifinal heat with the third-fastest overall qualifying time, then backed it up in Saturday’s final by remaining among the leaders throughout the race.
“The goal is just to run as hard as you can so I can’t really say we had a game plan,” Steelman said. “But we definitely wanted to stay with the front pack and not fall off too much because I think it becomes part of the mental struggle at the point you lose touch with the leaders,” Steelman said.
Steelman said she enjoyed the feeling of winning the prelim and staying up front with the leaders.
“[It] allowed me, first of all, not to have to worry about running into anyone when trying to get across the [water] barrier, and it guaranteed I would be positioned well with about a lap to go.”
Steelman was fourth at the start of the final lap, then fell back to fifth before using a strong finishing kick to move up two spots.
“It came down to the last 50 meters, and I usually don’t have that last gear,” she said. “That’s usually something others impose on me so it was pretty exciting to see the strength I had at the end of the race and to be able to pull off a third-place finish.”
Steelman had to recover quickly for the 5,000, especially in her mind.
“That was the biggest challenge, just staying mentally in it and taking it lap by lap,” she said.
Steelman ran near the back of the pack during the first half of the race. She refused to settle for just running it.
“I knew that, yes, the steeple went well but I was not about to sell myself short in the 5K because I knew I was tough enough to at least finish strong, and as long as I gave 100 percent I was going to be happy,” she said.
Her toughness revealed itself in the 5,000 much as it had in her steeplechase finish.
“I noticed with 50 meters to go there was a girl ahead of me whose legs started to give out a little bit,” she said. “I think the heat got to her so when the opportunity presented itself I capitalized and I found it in myself to get ahead of her. I wasn’t sure if that would be for the top eight but I knew I was around that position so I thought if I have the chance I’m going to go for it.”
Finishing in the top eight earned her first-team All-American status for the second time in two hours.
“It was a successful day, for sure,” said Steelman, who plans to rest before heading in late July to the Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Obviously I could have placed higher because third and eighth isn’t first, so it could have gone better. But in my mind it was a near-perfect weekend the way it all played out. I could not be happier with how it all went down.”