It's a course of obstacles

Hurdles: Every runner tries to avoid contact, but the competition sometimes gets directly in the way.

Boys Track And Field

March 20, 2002|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

At 5 feet 8, Mike Brown of Annapolis is shorter than most hurdlers, but he's no less fearless. He started at cornerback in football.

"You can't be scared to fall," said Brown, the area's top indoor hurdler this past winter. "I've got more scars from running hurdles than from playing football."

Brown won the state outdoor title two years ago in the 110-meter high hurdles, beating his cousin, Sonny Barnes, who was favored. Unlike some of his competitors, Brown thinks the hurdles are easy.

"If you can dance then you can hurdle," he said. "It's rhythm. I picked it up quick."

Brown's coach, Mike Ballard, said speed, coordination and aggressiveness are the key ingredients in a hurdler. "And you have to be able to run within yourself, or you come up on the hurdle too fast and end up on your face."

Another area hurdling standout, Shomari Taylor of McDonogh, is 6 feet 1, 200 pounds -- more of the prototype build for a hurdler. The Yale-bound athlete gave up on the more glamorous sport of basketball to run indoor track for the first time in the winter.

He said the hardest part of hurdling is maintaining a consistency in form. "One mistake over one hurdle and your race is ruined," Taylor said.

He doesn't worry about falling. "I've fallen a few times and it's not as painful as it looks," Taylor said. "It hurts your pride more than anything."

Michael Sye, the Woodlawn athletic director who was a state indoor and outdoor champion at Woodlawn, thinks hurdling is anything but easy.

"Hurdles is a tough event," Sye said. "It's a contact sport. You get punches and elbows. And cleats scratch your hands as you clear the hurdles. It's the toughest event. It takes a lot of technique and concentration. And it's such a specialized event that not many coaches can coach it."

Woodlawn hurdler Mark McKenzie agrees with his mentor about hurdling's toll on the body.

During the Class 4A-3A state championship race at Prince George's Sports & Learning Center, he took a pounding.

He took an elbow in the chest from a competing runner at the start of the race. Then, after starting slowly, he rallied only to receive another elbow while clearing the final of five hurdles. He finished a disappointing third.

"The start is the most important thing," McKenzie said. "I got elbowed and it threw me off. They knew I was the one to beat so they came after me."

McKenzie tried to stay low, keep his shoulders square and arms in tight, as he raced 13 meters in eight quick steps to the first of the 42-inch high hurdles, but it was tough to keep his concentration.

Brown commiserated with McKenzie, with whom he ran last summer during Ed Waters Track Club workouts. "That's why it's so important to get out fast, so you don't have to deal with all that stuff and you can stay focused on your race," Brown said.

Sye and McKenzie are part of a long tradition of excellence in hurdling at Woodlawn that includes Joel Brown, currently ranked No. 9 in the nation at Ohio State, and Jerry Roney, who still holds the state outdoor record.

Sye, who played football at Delaware, said he learned most of what he knows from Dick Estes, now the Western Maryland College coach.

"Good hurdlers are true sprinters. I tell them that hurdling is nothing but sprinting with an exaggerated step," said Sye, who was a tri-coach at Woodlawn from 1995 to 2000; he still helps out Woodlawn coach Mark Pryor as a volunteer.

"In a hurdler you are looking for an athlete with good speed and no fear. And outdoors you need stamina because there are 10 hurdles and kids start to tire after six."

His coaching methods include lots of repetition, filming to point out flaws in technique and stretching drills, because flexibility is so important.

"We work a lot on rhythm. I tell them to hear the music in their head. Hear your feet hit the ground. Click. Click. Click. The faster the click, the faster you know you are going," he said.

"The key is to get out in front and make the others focus on you so they can't focus on their own race."

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