Gophers aiming to make splash pursuing national steeplechase title

Matt Wilkinson’s first experience with the 3,000-meter steeplechase didn’t go well.

“I actually face-planted,” he said.

Alec Basten offers advice for those new to the event that mixes distance running with hurdling and leaping over a water pit.

“They should try it a couple times before completely wearing it off,” he said.

Wilkinson got up from that face-plant, and Basten didn’t wear off the event. Together as Gophers teammates, they’ll be chasing a national championship in the steeplechase this week in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Basten, a senior from Green Bay, Wis., is the reigning NCAA runner-up in the event and enters Wednesday’s second heat with a qualifying time of 8 minutes, 33.91 seconds, third best among the 24 entrants. Wilkinson, a graduate transfer from Carleton and a former Minnetonka High School runner, won the NCAA Division III steeplechase last year for the Knights and brings the top qualifying time, 8:32.61, into the second heat. The top five finishers in each heat, plus the two next-best times, advance to Friday’s final.

“They’re both competing for a very high place at nationals,” said Gophers assistant coach Brad Wick, whose duties include leading the steeplechasers. “They’re not just happy to be there.””

They are, however, happy to be competing for the Gophers and in a unique and quirky event as the steeplechase. On each lap, competitors must hurdle four barriers of 36 inches tall, plus leap over another 36-inch barrier that has a 12-foot water pit at its end. That’s a total of 35 jumps — seven over or through the water — during the course of the 3,000 meters.

Wick sees the event as one that attracts those with a daredevil streak.

“They’re not as crazy as pole vaulters, but it’s the distance equivalent of the pole vaulter on the track,” he said. “You definitely have to be fearless when you get to that water pit and you’re super tired and all eyes are on that water pit. Sometimes they’re lined with spectators waiting to watch somebody fall. You have to game up at that time because it’s either that or you fall in the pit.”

Both Basten and Wilkinson take pride in their event and its peculiarities. Neither had a chance to participate in the steeplechase in high school, but both warmed to it in college.

“People who don’t know track look at the steeplechase and are like, ‘Whoa! What is that? What’s going on there,’ ” Basten said. “It’s a really unique event that people are interested in.”

Added Wilkinson, “A lot of people look at distance runners in track and think, ‘Oh, they’re not real athletes. They just run around in a circle.’ The steeplechase proves them wrong.

Long road to the U

Wilkinson wasn’t a highly recruited runner out of Minnetonka High School, so a Division III career was his first option. He made the decision work well, earning his undergraduate degree in biology at Carleton while excelling on the track. At last year’s Division III outdoor championships, he added a victory in the 5,000 meters to his steeplechase title, in the process being named D-III Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year. Wilkinson also was the 2020 D-III Indoor Track Athlete of the Year and earned eight All-America honors (two in track, six in cross-country) while at Carleton.

The move to the Gophers made perfect sense for Wilkinson, who’s working on his master’s degree in public health-epidemiology.

“I had some remaining eligibility left over due to COVID, which ended up being a blessing in disguise,” Wilkinson said. “In high school, I always wanted to be a Gopher.””

Wilkinson isn’t concerned by the move up in divisions, nor does he expect to be fazed by college track’s biggest stage at Hayward Field. He finished second to Basten in the Big Ten championships, then edged his teammate and Oklahoma State’s second-place Ryan Smeeton with that personal-best time at the NCAA preliminary meet in Fayetteville, Ark.

“I PR-ed by seven seconds at the regionals, so it was nice to see that time and know that it still was not my best race of the season,” Wilkinson said. ‘I can take some time off that.’

One more chance at a title

Basten didn’t compete in cross-country at high school until his senior season, playing football instead, but he showed he was a quick study by placing second in Wisconsin’s state meet. He’s progressed to the point where he reached the final in last year’s US Olympic Trials in the 3,000 steeplechase. Along the way, he’s completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in kinesiology and will enter physical therapy school at Washington University in St. Louis in August.

First, though, for Basten is one last chance to chase down an NCAA championship — be it either he or Wilkinson.

“It’s awesome to have another teammate in there, and we checked off our couple goals we had all season, going 1-2 at the Big Tens and making the national meet,” Basten said. “Making the final and doing well there is our next goal. It’s the final season for me, so this is on my bucket list. Matt’s got one more, so we’ll see him again.”