Mason Ferlic And Steeplechase Redemption
Mason Ferlic of today — let alone three years ago — can’t fathom his fortune.
Ferlic, a senior at Michigan, is the collegiate leader in the steeplechase by a little more than four seconds. He posted the nation’s best mark of 8:28.77 two weeks ago at the Payton Jordan Invitational.
“This is really something special,” Ferlic said. “People are looking at me as the guy to beat and there are definitely expectations and pressures that go along with that.”
“It’s been a work in progress, for sure. Running sub-8:30 has been a big goal of mine and I hadn’t been able to put it all together until now.”
Ferlic — who considers himself naturally suited for the discipline because of his gangly, 6-foot-4 frame — only took up steepling as a redshirt freshman. Back in May of 2013, Ferlic had yet to post a qualifying time in the 5000-meter run and Michigan’s coaches wanted to see what he could do with five fewer laps and 28 waist-high barriers in his way instead, so they entered him in the steeplechase at the Toledo Invitational.
“I had never done it in practice or raced one, so in my mind, it was more about getting over the barriers and not falling than it was getting a great time,” Ferlic said. “I knew I had decent enough speed, so if I didn’t fall I was going to be OK.”
Long story short, Ferlic stayed upright (more on this later), qualified for NCAA Prelims (8:51:55) and picked up his first collegiate win the process (has since added 15 more).
Two weeks later, Ferlic took fourth in Greensboro, North Carolina and dropped his time by nearly 10 seconds (8:41.83). He punched his ticket to Eugene, Oregon, where a 13th-place finish in the semifinals left him the odd-man out of the 12-man championship field.
Despite the outcome, Ferlic had already “fallen in love” with the steeplechase even though the relationship is rocky at times. Ferlic returned to Hayward Field each of the next two years and earned All-America status — highlighted by a sixth-place showing in 2014 — but it’s his headfirst dive into the water pit last year that will forever be part of his career narrative whether he’s a collegian or not.
“I feel fans like the steeplechase for the same reason they like NASCAR — for the crashes,” Ferlic said. “Everybody remembers those.”
Mason is right.
Trust me, I speak from experience.
Bring up YouTube and search "The Greatest Steeplechase Fall Ever."
Click on the first result. There you have it.
Eleven years ago last Saturday — May 7, 2005, to be exact — I left my lasting legacy as a member of the now-defunct men’s track & field team at the University of Delaware. My former teammate Matt Harrell can probably say the same for himself.
A few distance runners decided to give the steeplechase a go at our last home meet and through five laps, things went according to plan. As an aside, I hadn’t hurdled since middle school before then so it’s only by the grace of the track gods that I hadn’t fallen yet.
That all changed with two laps to go when my feet began to feel like cinder blocks and the impediment looked six-foot tall. Fortunately, I got my toes on the edge of the barrier, but with it being as old as the university (founded in 1743), the wood gave way.
Nothing could save me as I plunged into the water and ate a whole lot of track. Harrell, not wanting to trample me, pulled up and suffered complete submersion.
Little did I know that another teammate, Veronica Welsh, “got it on video” (excitedly so) and it went up on YouTube two years later. From there it’s taken a life of its own with more than 301,000 views and earned honorable mention on “America’s Funniest Videos.” (How could I baby eating cake beat us out for third?)
To this day, I’ll meet someone new and when they learn my last name (Mayforth) a lightbulb goes off. They’ll ask if I was the guy in that “steeplechase video” and I’ll nod.
P.S. — I steepled several other times in my collegiate career (including at the back end of a painful 5000-steeple double), lowered my time significantly (40 seconds) and never fell again. You better believe the cameras were out, though, in case I did.
Failing in such a public manner — either at a national-level track meet or for the entertainment of a viral audience — is incredibly humbling. The embarrassment doesn’t wash away as easily as one’s sweat does in the water pit.
Time — and perspective — heals all; but time is also something Ferlic didn’t have last year once he emerged from his unexpected bath.
"I immediately thought, ‘What do I need to do to get back in the race? This is a crash-course emergency situation,’" Ferlic said. "I had to connect back to the pack."
The St. Paul, Minnesota native turned in the field’s fastest lap between 1000 and 1400 meters (1:09.06) and remained within two seconds of the lead with two circuits to go. Exhaustion caught up to him as he finished last, 24 seconds behind eventual champion Anthony Rotich of UTEP.
Ferlic toed that same starting line three more times that month. The first being less than an hour later when he tried to complete the steeplechase-5000 double (Ferlic dropped out after 3000 meters). The second and third came at the USATF Championships where he qualified in the steeplechase out of prelims and finished 13th in the final.
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive looking at the barrier or going over it again," Ferlic said. "It gets in your subconscious and stays there."
Once Ferlic began training for his final season, however, he used the tumble as fuel. Ferlic focused harder in the weight room to improve his hip mobility and strength and tries his best to individually attack the barrier, rather than as part of a crowd.
More importantly, Ferlic knows his signature event is truly one of inches as much as it is one of seconds.
"I can’t take anything for granted," Ferlic said. "I might have the best time, but anything can happen when you step on the line at NCAAs. Just because I’m the favorite doesn’t mean I’m going to walk away as the winner."
You have to make every single step count in the steeplechase: You’ll be punished if you don’t.