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This steeplechase has hurdles, no horses

I've always had the philosophy that you're only going to be successful if you get up one more time than you fall.'' For Henry Marsh, it's a philosophy that has brought success in what is surely one of the strangest Olympic events: the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

America's premier competitor in the event, Marsh has been the top US steeplechaser since 1978 and a member of both the 1976 and 1980 Olympic teams. He calls the event, which has its final Friday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, ''a great race for spectators to watch.''

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And it looks like fun, with athletes leaping over barriers and splashing in a minipool of water. At each Olympics, though, millions either discover the steeplechase or are introduced to it all over again.

Although its name conjures up visions of galloping horseback riders, the steeplechase is, in fact, a footrace. But it falls outside the major track breakdowns, being neither a sprint, middle-distance, long-distance, relay, nor hurdles race. It's really a middle- to long-distance hurdles race - with a twist.

The twist comes in the form of four solid barriers around a 400-meter track. Three of them are ''dry'' hurdles,'' with the fourth a water jump abutted by a sloped pool. Today's steeplers don't negotiate fallen logs and streams anymore: ''Plasticized cross-country'' is the way one athlete describes his specialty.

There's nothing flimsy about the hurdles themselves, however. Not the knock-down variety used in regular hurdles races, they weigh in the vicinity of 200 pounds and are potentially hazardous roadblocks.

If he hadn't thought of them that way before, East Germany's Frank Baumgartl certainly did after the 1976 Olympics. Having pulled even with the leader, he caught his foot on the next-to-last hurdle and took a nose dive to the track. He got up, however, to win the bronze.

Even Marsh, who has been running the event for years and is generally a superb technician, has occasionally encountered trouble. Noted for coming from behind with a strong kick at the end, Henry was making one of his patented charges when he stumbled in last summer's inaugural world track-and-field championships at Helsinki.

He was so intent on catching West Germany's Patriz Ilg that he neglected the necessary mental preparations for the last hurdle. He got too close, tried to stutter-step, hit the hurdle, and landed hard on the track.

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Marsh was particularly disappointed because he would have broken his American record of 8:15.68. As it turned out, he clocked 8:20.45 to finish eighth.

On other occasions, too, Marsh has applied his ''get-up-one-more-time'' philosophy. He has endured several major disappointments besides his finish in Finland. In 1979 a physical setback contributed to his fourth-place World Cup finish. In 1980 he owned the best time in the world, but the United States boycotted the games. And in the 1981 World Cup meet in Rome, in attempting to ''shoot the gap'' between some other runners going over the final hurdle, he was shut off and forced to run around the barrier. He was disqualified for not going over as the rule requires.

Most steeplechasers prefer to leap completely over the three-foot hurdles, although it is permissible to step on the crossbar. Kip Keino, the noted Kenyan runner, used the latter style in winning at the 1972 Olympics. Steeplers also follow that same procedure in going over the critical water jump. The runner wants to push off enough to land at the shallowest part of the sloping pool. (The maximum depth is about 21/2 feet, close to the hurdle.) Landing in a little water softens the impact - and helps to cool feet shod in special shoes with drainage perforations.

Altogether, a steepler must cross 28 dry hurdles and seven water jumps during 71/2 laps of a 400-meter track. At 3,000 meters, says Marsh, the race is long enough to make tactics important - but not so long that speed becomes irrelevant.

During the early 1900s, the race ranged between 2,500 and 4,000 meters. But by 1920, the Olympic distance was fixed at 3,000 meters, or just 280 yards short of two miles.

The last time the games were held in Los Angeles, however, a stand-in lap-counter lost count, forcing the field to make one extra trip around the coliseum track. Officials considered revising the order of finish, but the only athlete who stood to benefit - because he stood in second place when the race should have ended but someone passed him during the extra lap - waived his right to the silver medal.

The United States has produced only two gold medal winners in the steeplechase - James Lightbody in 1904 and Horace Ashenfelter in 1952. The event doesn't seem to attract many athletes in this country, partly because it is not available in American high schools.

Then, too, it's a grueling race that defies runners' efforts to find a rhythm. Instead, steeplers say, they are forced to make constant adjustments as the race progresses.

Marsh got into the steeplechase at Brigham Young University more than a decade ago. He had dreamed of running the mile, but didn't show enough promise in that event even to make the cross-country team. Consequently, he was steered into trying the steeplechase - a decision he doesn't regret despite the sacrifice of time away from his family and his legal profession. An lawyer in Salt Lake City, he handed over a case to an associate in June that was scheduled the same day as the Olympic trials steeplechase.

''Next year I'll shift my priorities back toward the legal work,'' he says. Right now, however, he's chasing the end of his own rainbow.

''The top goal of my athletic career has always been to win a gold medal,'' he says. ''It means more to me than setting records; it is the ultimate.''

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