Virginia’s Kyle King finds niche in steeplechase — track’s full contact event

All of the truly embarrassing moments associated with the sport Kyle King has discovered he has a knack for have been reserved for practices at Virginia.

On race day this season, it’s a different story. King, a Grafton High graduate, isn’t familiar with any other position in the steeplechase event other than first place.

He’s 1 for 1 in 3,000-meter steeplechase competitions this season, winning last Friday in the Atlantic Coast Conference outdoor track and field championships in his only start in the event.

There’s a reason guys like King don’t participate in the steeplechase in every meet. With four hurdles and a water pit to clear on each lap of the 7 1/2-lap event, it’s as close to the full-contact variety of track as you can get.

“Typically, you don’t want to do it every meet,” said King, a U.Va. sophomore who won the ACC title in the steeplechase by nearly 3 1/2 seconds, finishing in eight minutes, 48.47 seconds — the fifth-best time in school history and the eighth-best time in the nation during this outdoor season.

“It’s very risky injury-wise jumping over barriers and landing on a slant in a water pit can kind of bang you up. You can get hurt pretty easily, so I think that’s why we shy away from running it every meet.”

Indeed, King has taken his share of tumbles in practice. He’s fallen on his face in front of all his teammates. He’s become track’s version of an amphibian, crawling out of the water pit to return to dry land after taking an unexpected plunge over a hurdle.

He’s used to seeing guys in steeplechase races face-planting over barriers into water pits — and subsequently getting spiked by fellow competitors clearing the barrier. None of the calamities befell King at the ACC meet, or in the one steeplechase event he competed in last spring before being forced to redshirt the outdoor track season due to mononucleosis.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed it won’t happen in competition,” said King, who added he clipped his foot on the first hurdle at the ACC meet and nearly went down, but managed to keep his balance, only to have a fellow competitor accidentally spike him in the hand later in the race.

“It’s definitely a totally different feeling that any other race. You just kind of physically all over are tired and you’re soaked. It’s just a different type of race, a different type of pain.”

King, who also is a regular competitor in the 1,500-meter run, has grown accustomed to pulling away from fellow runners in tight quarters. Since high school, he’s done it on the track and in the woods on cross country courses.

His steeplechase win was U.Va.’s first in the event at the ACC championship meet since 1994, when Rob Cook won the second of his back-to-back conference titles.

Pete Watson, who is U.Va.’s men’s cross country coach and men’s track distance runners coach, knew King had a good chance to win the conference title, even with his lack of experience in the event. Steeplechase requires a level of athleticism most distance runners don’t have, but King fits the profile.

“We figured he had a shot at it,” Watson said. “If he’s within 400 meters of anything, he’s always going to be really dangerous.”

Last November, King finished 18th in the NCAA cross country championship meet to earn All-America honors. It was the highest individual finish in the meet in school history.

At Grafton, he was chosen the Daily Press athlete of the year in 2011 after a senior year that saw him win the Group AA outdoor track and field state title in the 3,200-meter run, the state indoor title in the 1,000-meter run and his second straight state cross country individual championship.

During his short time at U.Va., King already has had to struggle through injuries. He’s dealing with an injury to the sheath surrounding his Achilles now, and he redshirted the ’12-13 indoor season because of a stress reaction in his tibia.

None of it has slowed down King. As a distance runner, his best days may not be until his late 20s. For now, Watson hopes to help King qualify for the steeplechase in the NCAA championship meet, which will require King finishing in the top 12 in the NCAA East regional meet May 29-31 in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s going to come down to him deciding if this is what he wants to do and continue making the sacrifices,” said Watson of King’s future. “As other people are starting to look for jobs and internships and going and making money, can he continue to focus on spending his life for the next five-to-10 years on just getting better?

“He’s still seven or eight years from being the best runner he can be. He’s got the tools. It’s just going to come down to if that’s ultimately what he wants to do. At this point, I think it is.”

Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.