Mike LeDuc says the steeplechase isn't for everybody.

"You have to be a little bit of a masochist," LeDuc said after his stunning victory in the signature event of the Thursday night segment of the Penn Relays.

LeDuc is a Division III guy from Connecticut College. He ran away from a field filled with Division I runners and won the college men's 3,000-meter steeplechase championship in a personal-best time of 8 minutes, 47.94 seconds.

He was thrilled to win. He was even happier that he ran his best in front of a raucous crowd in the corner of the stadium that turns the steeplechase into an event that's part distance race and part fun run.

Well, it's fun for the folks who rhythmically clap for the racers on their way through the water hazard and salute the cleanup crew that sweeps the water back into the reservoir like this: "Squeegee . . . squeegee . . . squeegee."

LeDuc spent half the race negotiating hurdles and splashing through the water and the other half shaking his head at the antics of the crowd.

"Those people are crazy," LeDuc said. "They don't even know me and they were cheering for me like crazy. What an atmosphere."

There's a different vibe in Franklin Field after the sun goes down and most of the crowd exits the old place on the first full day of the world's oldest and largest track and field carnival.

It's cooler.

It's quieter.

It's ideal for the distance runners.

They are used to the isolation. They are used to those long, lonely treks through the woods, to the purity of their singular pursuit - one step after another, and another, and another.

The steeplechase tends to bend the distance-running mold. It's an odd event - a long race with hurdles, and a water hazard, and a crowd that gathers around that big puddle and cheers every splash.

That happens in the northeast corner of the old stadium every Thursday night at the Penn Relays - college students and fans of the steeplechase and people who like to watch other people jump in the water crowd around the bend and root for the racers.

And for the guys with the squeegees, too.

Steeplechasers are distance runners, but they also are hurdlers and puddle-splashers - guys and gals who have taken to an event with a twist.

"It takes guts," said LeDuc, a Canton, Conn., native. "I'm not the fastest sprinter, not the strongest guy. But it takes guts to win this race."

Steeplechasers must negotiate 28 hurdles and seven water obstacles over the course of 3,000 meters. The hurdles are wider and thicker than hurdles in spring races, and steeplechasers can step on them on their way across.

The water obstacle is directly behind a hurdle, so racers use the barrier to try to clear the wet stuff - but they never make it and their shoes get wetter and heavier after a few grueling laps.

"You get used to it," LeDuc said.

The race and the crowd set a spirited tone for an evening that's best enjoyed by aficionados and family members who sit through the 3,000- and 5,000-meter runs with plenty of time to enjoy the cool night air and watch the city light up over the edge of the old stadium.

But only one set of runners takes its laps while also jumping over hurdles and splashing through a big puddle before a crowd that appreciates every wet step.

"I'm not going to say it's the most difficult track event, but it's up there," LeDuc said. "It's a crazy event, but I love running it, especially at a place like this."

panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

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