03417_000_010Henry Marsh: World-Class Steeplechaser
When Henry Marsh loses a race, it’s news. He made that kind of news twice last year, not at all in 1982, and once in 1981. One of the items of news he made last year simply involved getting overtaken at the finish line. That’s very very rare. The other news he made was even rarer. At the World Championship in Helsinki, Finland, he hit the barrier on the last water jump and went into the water, making not only news but a splash heard ’round the track world.
Henry Marsh is a steeplechaser. Steeplechasers run a 3,000-meter race, clearing 28 hurdles and 7 water jumps. Each water jump is a hurdle followed by a 12-foot square water pit. The three-foot-high hurdles are heavy and cannot be knocked down.
Steeplechasing is a demanding sport, requiring a unique combination of strength, speed, and strategy. “You have to be strong because it’s a two mile race with lots of jumping involved,” Henry says. “You have to be flexible because it makes you more efficient over the barriers, and if you’re efficient over the barriers you won’t use as much oxygen. And you have to be quick because it’s not that long a race. You still have to be fast at the finish, so it’s a race that involves a lot of different dimensions.”
“Down” was a rather new dimension when Henry discovered it on the last water jump in Helsinki. He not only lost the race and his number one ranking, but came out of the water pit with painfully bruised ribs. There was no way he could run the following week in Berlin, Germany.
But he did. Although his ribs screamed at him to stop, he not only won the race in Berlin, but turned in an American and personal record of 8:12.37. But that’s not really news, is it?
Henry has been the top American steeplechaser since 1977, and was three times the top steeplechaser in the world. He travels all over the world to compete, and he has every right to expect to bring a medal from the Olympic games in Los Angeles to his home in Bountiful, Utah. When he won the U.S. Olympic trials in 1980, Henry was ranked top in the world and had seemed to be headed for the gold in Moscow. But America boycotted the Olympics, and that dream had to be put on hold for another four years.
He likes to sum up his racing strategy with a scripture in 1 Corinthians 9:24 [1 Cor. 9:24]:
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” He takes little interest in who is in the lead during the first or second or third or even fifth or sixth laps. “It isn’t a question of how fast you are,” he likes to say, “but of how fast you are at the end of the race.”
In fact, he runs in last place for much of the race, taking the barriers smoothly and efficiently. Unlike most steeplechasers, he can hurdle the barriers with either leg, never breaking his stride, building up no unnecessary oxygen debt. Only in the last few laps does he begin making his move, slowly closing on the leaders, until he comes off the last barrier on the shoulder of the front runners, ready to run them down with his withering kick.
He started running competitively as a seventh grader in Dallas, Texas. In the ninth grade he broke the city record for the 1,320-yard run. From then on, he put all his efforts into running, although he was also talented in football, swimming, and other sports. His sophomore year in high school he was seventh in the state in cross-country, the mile, and the two mile.
Then the family moved to Hawaii, where Henry became state champion in both cross-country and the mile his last two years in school. He was also champion once in the two mile and half mile.
But he discovered when he arrived at BYU as a freshman, that Hawaii is a rather small pond, and the large splashes he had made there became tiny ripples in the world of intercollegiate sports. At BYU he was a 4:18 miler competing with the likes of Paul Cummings who was under four minutes. It looked as if Henry Marsh had come as far as his talent would take him.
But then came one of those wonderful turning points that can only be recognized much later for what they are. Not knowing what else to do with him, the coaches stuck Henry into the steeplechase, where they had a slot to fill. When they announced their decision to him, it was hard to react one way or the other, because he didn’t even know what the steeplechase was. He listened, worked, and did his best, but he was still able to run only an undistinguished 9:25 that year.
At this point, Henry interrupted his steeple-chasing to fulfill a mission to Brazil. He grew spiritually in the mission field, and to his chagrin he grew physically as well.
“For about 12 months in the middle of my two-year mission I didn’t run a step. I put on 20 pounds, and I was pretty out of shape. But the last six months I started running and trying to incorporate running with missionary work. I went to an athletic club, and we taught the people as we ran with them.”
Nevertheless, the Henry Marsh who returned home in August of 1975 struck no terror in the hearts of the world’s other steeplechasers.
“When I came back from my mission, I wasn’t having much success in running. I quit the team in January. I thought it just wasn’t worth the time. But I couldn’t feel good about that decision because I had this nagging feeling that I hadn’t really reached my potential. I hadn’t really developed my talent to the fullest. Finally I realized that I couldn’t quit until I had given it my all.
“My philosophy of life is that you try to take advantage of all the opportunities that come, because if you don’t, they’re going to be gone. It’s very hard for me to sit back and watch things pass by. Every day that ticks off there are certain things that you have the potential to accomplish, and if you don’t that’s too bad.
“The thing in life that motivates me the most is the need to reach my full potential with the talents and capacities that God has given me. It was frustrating sometimes, but it was mostly a question of not being able to quit until I knew what my potential was.”
Henry’s reasons for going on a mission were tied in with this same concept. “The importance of a mission had been instilled in me since I was a child. I don’t think I would have felt fulfilled religiously if I had not taken advantage of the opportunity I had to go on a mission. It’s a lot the same type of need I have to reach my potential in running. Except that reaching my religious potential is even more important.”
The decision to stick with running was soon vindicated, because 1976 was pure magic. In one of the great Cinderella stories in the annals of sports, Henry exploded from a 9:25 weakling to an 8:23.99 star, top American, and tenth-place finisher in the Olympics, with the second fastest time ever by an American, missing the record by seven-tenths of a second. He literally came from nowhere to stun the American sports scene.
His goal for 1976 had been to run an 8:55 and qualify for the NCAA meet. At the beginning of the year it seemed like an ambitious goal indeed, but as the year progressed it began looking more and more possible. In an almost magical progression, his times dropped every week. Improvements that should have taken months, came in days. He not only qualified for the NCAA meet, but astounded everyone there by finishing a strong second with a time of 8:27, which qualified him for the Olympic trials.
Never except in his wildest dreams had Henry even thought about going to the Olympics, but now it was a possibility. Still, he felt his chances were only about 50–50. He would be competing with real names in the sport. He proved himself again, however, by finishing second in the trials. He was on his way to Montreal. At the Olympics he again surprised everyone by reaching the finals, the only American to do so, and the second youngest finalist in that event in the history of the games. His eventual tenth-place finish was a triumph for a 22-year-old in a sport where runners reach their peak at around age 30. And this 22-year-old had been an “also ran” to “also rans” less than a year earlier!
Henry feels a special love for the youth of the Church. He served as Explorer adviser for several years and has presented many firesides to youth groups. As an athlete, he is especially equipped to reach youth, and he gives to them unselfishly of his time and effort. Asked what advice he might have for them, he answers, “The first thing I’d tell them is to have a goal. If you don’t have a goal, if you’re not striving to accomplish something, you’re going to be thrown around by the winds of doctrine. Not only are you not going to progress, but you’re going to be putty in Satan’s hands. The very most important thing for youth is to be engaged in worthwhile activities and have goals in the five areas of life—social, mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. If they have goals that they’re actively pursuing in those areas of life, then they’ll not only stay out of trouble, but they’re going to be progressing and accomplishing their potential as a total person.”
Henry unashamedly acknowledges the hand of the Lord in his success. “I definitely feel the Lord cares whether I win or lose, and I feel that he has had an impact on my racing career. I take the philosophy that you work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on the Lord. I think the Lord takes care of you if you prepare yourself so that he can and if you put him first in your life. If you do these things, he can enlarge you so that you can do more than you are personally capable of. But that only comes after you have done all that you can, and if you are living a life that merits his coming in and helping you.
“And sometimes I get the feeling that he comes in and helps me even when I don’t merit it. A lot of times I think he has plans for me. He knows that in the long run I need to do certain things. I get this feeling that he wants me to excel in this for some reason, and he’s going to help me because somewhere down the road he needs to use me for something. And I want him to know that I’m available to be used in whatever way he has in mind.”
Although Henry is a fierce competitor who has made Olympic gold his goal for this summer, he can also see beyond running to the real goal in life. “The gospel is my life,” he says. “It’s what really gives direction in life. It’s what makes life worth living. If you didn’t have the gospel, I think it would be awfully hard to envision why you’d even be living. It would be more like an aimless wander through life to get as many thrills as you could.”
Henry serves as a great ambassador of the Church. Wherever he competes, all around the world, he is known as a Latter-day Saint. “When I compete in Europe I always have missionaries come up to me at races. I represent the Church wherever I go as far as people identifying me as being Mormon. When I was on my way home from the Spartakiad in Russia I was talking to a Finnish man on the plane, and I gave him a Book of Mormon. A couple of years later I was at a BYU basketball game when a guy came up to me and said, ‘Are you Henry Marsh? I was a missionary in Finland and I taught a guy you gave a Book of Mormon to.’ It’s a small world.
“I also talked to Alberto Salazar, the great road and track racer, in Rome last year when we were on the bus together. We got into a long discussion on the Church, and I called up my friend Wade Bell in Oregon, who was on the 1968 Olympic team and was seventies quorum president in Oregon. He gave Alberto a copy of the Book of Mormon.”
Henry has been the subject of many many articles in important magazines and newspapers, and his Church membership is usually mentioned. One article in Sports Illustrated was titled “Go, You Stormin’ Mormon.”
Henry keeps running in perspective. “Running is a temporary thing. You reach your peak early in life, and then you’ve got the rest of your life to live.”
His own goals reflect that. “My number one goal is to go to the celestial kingdom and have my family with me. My other goals are all the things that will get us there. I have many goals in different areas of my life, and there are so many aspects of life. I have goals in the area of family, vocation, racing. I’d like a gold medal in the ’84 Olympics for example. We set family goals constantly. The overall goal is to raise a good family. Right now we have a delightful boy and a charming little girl. I try to spend as much time with my family as I can. Sometimes when I go to a track to train I take my boy with me, and he’ll stand on the track and make me hurdle him as I go past.
“My family is certainly a lot more important than the steeplechase.”
Also important in Henry’s scheme of things is his work as an attorney in a Salt Lake law firm. “I want to make a real contribution to each client I represent. I feel a strong obligation to do all I can to be an effective advocate for his needs.” He tears into each case with the same white-hot intensity he gives the last 20 yards of the steeplechase.
In addition to his work as an attorney, he also donates many hours of his time to community service through speaking to youth and school groups and serving on the U.S. Olympic Executive Board.
After this exhausting schedule of service to family, church, employers, and community, it’s a miracle he finds the energy to train for the steeplechase, but he must. Only world-class training can produce a world-class athlete. And training isn’t always fun. “Some days running is drudgery. It’s hard work. But unless you put in the work, you’re not going to get the reward.” In good weather Henry often runs near his home, high on the hillside above Bountiful, enjoying the panoramic view. But when the snows come, as they do four or five months each year, he must switch to endless circuits around an indoor track. There is no poetry to such work, only pain. If he wishes to train on a real steeplechase course, he must travel 30 miles.
Henry’s philosophy of training is perfect for the athlete who must also hold down a job. He does not emphasize running a staggering number of miles as some runners do. But he runs hard, intensely, up on his toes just as if he were really in a race, wringing two miles worth of good out of every mile he covers. “I have goals I try to accomplish each time I work out, and my goals are not geared toward the number of miles I cover. I really don’t keep track of miles. Somebody may say to me, ‘I ran 100 miles this week, and you only ran 50,’ but it’s the type of miles you’re running rather than how many miles you’ve run, because my miles are intense. I might only cover six miles this afternoon, but I guarantee you they’re tough miles and they’re run to accomplish a certain purpose rather than just to see if I can jog six miles.” Of course training is not just a matter of running. There are stretching and warm-up exercises and hurdling techniques to be practiced and honed. Most days at lunchtime, instead of relaxing over an executive lunch at some restaurant, Henry can be found bouncing around in an aerobic workout session at a nearby gymnasium.
The steeplechase is by no means the most important thing in Henry’s life, but it certainly ranks high right now. And why not? It has put him through college and law school, helped to spread the gospel around the world, and taught some great lessons about the importance of clearing life’s hurdles and having a strong finish. And it has made Henry such a winner that he can make news just by losing. But his opponents can tell you that he doesn’t make that kind of news very often.