Retired track coach Greg Dunston has influenced countless track athletes and coaches over the span of his career, but ask Dunston about his personal influences and his answer helps to explain why the steeplechase has been a staple event at the Woodward Relays for over 40 years.
"Back when I was in college," explained Dunston, "I had a coach who was an Olympic steeplechaser, Philip Coleman, and he got me interested in it. So when I came down here, I thought, 'OK, let's see if we can do it.'"
If you think the steeplechase is an uncommon event today, imagine what people thought in 1974. To passersby, it must have seemed like a rag-tag operation bordering on vandalism as Dunston and volunteers dug a hole just six inches deep inside of the Woodward High School track and assembled makeshift steeple barriers out of donated materials.
Despite the amateur assembly of the requisite equipment, the steeplechase event was a hit when it was introduced to the Woodward Relays in the early 70's. It inspired local print journalists to devote valuable page space to large photos and a local TV crew once covered the event.
One coach in particular was especially inspired by the Woodward Relays steeplechase.
Said Dunston, "Mike Horsey who was over here at Prep bought door mats to put at the bottom of the pit to add a little bit of cushion. He said, 'Greg, when I get a track at Prep and they let me build one, I'm going to add a steeple pit.'"
A track with a water pit came to fruition at Georgetown Prep School under Horsey's tenure in the 80's. It was a little more durable than Dunston's original makeshift water pit at Woodward High School, but not quite the same track as we know it today. The Georgetown Prep track was again remodeled with a new surface and a new water pit under the direction of Horsey in the mid-2000's. It was a beautiful track, but there was still no marriage between Georgetown Prep School and the Woodward Relays...not until 2007.
From the time that Woodward High School shut its doors in 1987 until Dunston took the coaching job at Georgetown Prep School in 2007, the Woodward Relays steeplechase went dry. That is not to say that the Woodward Relays ceased to exist. Of course we know that the Woodward Relays endured despite the closure of Woodward High School. Dunston packed up his makeshift steeple barriers and continued the Woodward Relays and its steeplechase at whichever school would host it, albeit without a crowd-pleasing water pit. The meet bounced around to Montgomery College, Richard Montgomery High School, and Walter Johnson High School for two decades, always with the steeplechase contested with makeshift barriers and no water pit.
Dunston lights up when he recalls one Walter Johnson High School student who took the initiative to create a water pit in 2005, approximately thirty years after Dunston's shovel first broke dirt at Woodward High School.
"Danny George ran for me at WJ. At WJ we had a dry jump with no water. Danny decided one year that he wanted to have a pit so he went out there and actually dug out a pit and we lined it with plastic like a pool liner and then we had a steeplechase with a water jump for a couple years."
In 2007, Dunston retired from teaching at Walter Johnson but was quickly gobbled up by Georgetown Prep to lead its track program. Dunston not only inherited a brand new indoor track facility, he inherited Horsey's new outdoor track which included a 36-inch-deep, 12-foot-long water pit.
The Woodward Relays steeplechase tends to attract a daring and reckless breed of distance runner. Many of the competitors practice going over barriers for the first time on the day of the meet. Having the most endurance in the field is usually enough to win this amateur high school contest, proper technique be damned.
But there is the occasional participant who seeks out the steeplechase with more than just the interest of a thrill seeker. Some steeplechase participants seek out the Woodward Relays as a stepping stone on the way to meets like the New Balance Outdoor Nationals, USATF or AAU Junior Olympic Nationals. Some have a genuine interest in competing in the steeplechase seriously in college. The 2016 male and female winners of the Woodward Relays steeplechase fall into that category.
According to Churchill High School head track coach Scott Silverstein, Churchill junior Julia Reicin aspires to qualify for the USATF Junior National Championships which will be contested in June this year. The qualifying mark in the 2000-meter steeplechase is 7:25.00. Reicin recorded a time of 7:26.62 in her first serious steeplechase attempt at the TC Williams Invitational last year and last July placed second at the USATF Junior Olympics in 7:29. She won the steeplechase at this year's Woodward Relays in 7:38.
Northwood's Andree' DiReumante experimented with the steeplechase last summer with outstanding results. He clocked 6:23.74 at the USATF Region 3 Meet and then finished fifth in 6:33.78 at the USATF Junior Olympic National Championships. He says that he wanted to break the Woodward Relays record of 6:21.45 today but it was not in the cards. His time of 6:26.61 was five seconds short of the record.
"I was trying to go for the record. I've been running the steeplechase for about a year now and that was my ultimate goal. The wind hit me real hard and then I was still going for that record. We've been racing in a lot of windy weather so I've been trying to get used to that and drafting off the guys in front but I had to end up pushing the pace...Around the third lap my coach told me to push it so I could stay on pace for the record."
DiReumante says that he will go back to focusing on the 800-meter for the remainder of this high school season but also said that he will return to the steeplechase in the summer and aspires to win the USATF Junior Olympic national title.