Saturday, July 16, 2016

From Hurdler to Ultra-Endurance Runner

I've been running long distances since I was a sophomore in high school. It was that year when I decided to join the cross country team at Chugiak High School in Alaska. Up until then, I had run sprint and hurdle races during the spring track season. However, I wanted to also run during the autumn and decided to give cross country running a try. I made the varsity team and ran primarily with juniors and seniors, becoming the 7th fastest distance runner on the team during the start of my 10th grade year in 1980. However, running fast on the track appealed to me the most back then.

When I was 14, my track coach asked me if I would be interested in trying the hurdles. There were no other boys on the team that wanted to do hurdle events, so I decided to give it a try. As it turned out, I was pretty good at it. The coach worked on my hurdling form, since I initially started out jumping way to high over the hurdles and 'floating'... costing me valuable time. The idea is to get your feet back on the ground as quickly as possible. Fortunately, during my 8th grade year of track I went undefeated in the hurdles. I continued to run the 110-Meter High Hurdles and the 300-Meter Intermediate Hurdles throughout high school, advancing to the State finals and doing pretty well for a 5'9" guy with a 30" inseam.

During my senior year of high school I clocked 41.8 seconds for the 300-Meter Intermediate Hurdles and 15.8 seconds for the 110-Meter High Hurdles -- good, but not good enough to get on the medals podium at the State Championships. The high hurdles in high school were 39" tall and there were ten barriers to get over in 110 meters.

When I went to the University of Montana in 1984 I decided to walk onto the college track team and try competing as a high hurdler. The collegiate hurdles are 3 inches taller than in high school (42 inches), and I knew that would be a challenge due to my height and limited inseam.

The university coach was somewhat impressed with my high school times and decided to give me a shot. I practiced really hard and spent many nights icing the ankle of my trail leg, which I had a difficult time clearing the 42-inch barriers. I stepped up to the starting line of a race and looked to my right and left at hurdlers that stood 6 inches taller than me. Suffice it to say, I came across the line in last place. I was 19 years old and my coach told me, "Paul, you have a lot of heart... but not a lot of inseam. I think you've done all that you're capable of doing in this sport. You can continue if you want to, but I don't think we'll be able to squeeze any more speed out of you in the high hurdles."

I ended up leaving the track team and floundering for a few months as I thought about what I wanted to do in running. It was then that I decided to do long distance running (as I had done during the cross country season in high school, primarily to stay in shape for track season). So, my focus on running really far started by reaching my physical limit in the sport of high hurdling. I still enjoy watching high hurdle races whenever I get the chance, and back in my high school days I was inspired by such great hurdlers as Renaldo Nehemiah and Edwin Moses. I still own three hurdles and my old track spikes from high school are tucked away in a box somewhere, probably next to my race medals from over 33 years ago.

Since my competitive hurdling days in high school and college, I've been fortunate to be able to coach high school hurdlers -- some of them becoming state champions. Occasionally I'll stretch out and hurdle a collegiate/Olympic high hurdle height (42 inches), as I did last year. I'm not sure how long this 50+ year old body will be able to do that, but whenever I face a hurdle it seems to all come back to me... the form needed, the speed required, and the focus necessary to clear the 3 1/2 foot barrier with decent form and no fear.

In so many ways, life is like a hurdle race. There are obstacles to overcome and we learn with each barrier how best to approach and conquer the next one. In a way, I'll be a "hurdler" until my last breath.

Keep reaching for life's mileposts!

Gotta Run,

Paul Staso, Founder & President
The P.A.C.E. Fitness Foundation, Inc.

P.A.C.E. is a non-profit organization aimed at Promoting Active Children Everywhere.