Steeplechase Champ On His Final Laps

Connecticut College Runner Still Hitting Highlights As His Career Winds Down

NEW LONDON — Michael LeDuc's Connecticut College track teammates were huddled around the computer the night of April 24, watching a live feed of LeDuc competing in the steeplechase at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

The announcers, his teammates told him later, knew their stuff — but only about the top runners. LeDuc, the only Division III runner in a field full of Division I talent, was seeded seventh, and nobody knew who he was.

The 3,000-meter race started. LeDuc, a senior from Canton who won the Division III national steeplechase title last year, sat on the back of the lead pack with runners from Texas A&M and Kentucky and Indiana, just like his coach, Jim Butler, had told him to do.

"They're announcing the people in the front pack and they're just not really mentioning me early on, even though I'm in the pack of four guys who have already separated," LeDuc said, laughing. "And then someone says finally, 'Oh, it's Connecticut. Is that Central Connecticut? UConn?'

"Then they figured out it was Connecticut College. 'Where's Connecticut College?' You can tell they're Googling Connecticut College. 'Oh, it's in New London, Conn. OK.' Then they're trying to figure out who I am. They looked at some stats. 'Oh, he ran 8:56 this year already. And he ran 8:50 last year. This guy's no joke.'

"So they eventually figured it out."

So did the rest of the field, because LeDuc broke away from the pack with 21/2 laps to go, running easily over the big wooden hurdles and the water jumps that characterize a steeplechase. He won in a personal best 8:47.94.

"The guys were making fun of me because in the video, I kept looking around," LeDuc said. "The last lap, I looked over my shoulder and thought, 'Wow, they're really not there.' But I still didn't believe it so I kept looking over my shoulder like two, three more times.

"Like, 'These are D-I guys, they've got to be coming.' With about 200 to go, I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm about to win the Penn Relays. This is really cool.'"

LeDuc not only ran the school record, breaking his own record from last year (8:50.58), he also ran the third fastest time in Division III history. It was the 15th fastest time in the steeplechase this year, including those run by professionals, in this country.

"It was almost run of the mill," said Butler, the associate head track coach at Connecticut College. "Another Mike LeDuc race, another Mike LeDuc highlight film."

LeDuc will try to defend his national title May 22-24 at Ohio Wesleyan University. Saturday, he set a school record in the 1,500 meters at the New England Division III championships at Springfield College, winning in 3:51.13.

He won't run the steeplechase again until the nationals, opting to train and race other distances, because the race is so grueling.

LeDuc is an eight-time All-American. Last fall, he won the Division III national championship in cross country. In the winter, he finished fourth in the 3,000 meters and seventh in the 5,000 at the NCAA indoor championships. He holds the school records in seven events, from the mile (4:05.27) to the 5,000 (14:17.32).

"After the Penn Relays, our former athletic director called me to congratulate me about Mike," Butler said. "He called him probably the greatest athlete to come out of Connecticut College. And as great an athlete as he is, he's an even greater person."

LeDuc first ran the steeplechase as a junior in high school, on a whim.

"It was a crazy race we joked about," LeDuc said. "Initially, that was the plan [to have teammates run], but everybody else backed out."

He laughed.

"So I just did it. We didn't have hurdles. We even didn't have a track. We went to Simsbury's track, we took four hurdles and put a two-by-four on top and bungee-corded the two-by-four to somewhat simulate a barrier. That was before I did it my senior year. My junior year, I didn't have any practice. I just went in cold. I got 11th or 12th."

He won the race his senior year. But before that, he caught Butler's eye at the 2010 Class S meet when he lost to Northwest Catholic's Nico Greco in the 1,600 by .23 seconds, then came back and beat Greco in the 3,200 by 12 seconds (Greco finished third). Butler liked LeDuc's gutty performance. But when he came to Conn College, Butler predicted that he might make all-conference a few times. Maybe qualify for nationals.

"I never projected him as a two-time national champion," Butler said.

But now, much to Butler's chagrin, this is it. LeDuc, who has a 3.78 GPA in botany, has a job lined up as a high school biology and horticulture teacher in Illinois, where he will be moving after graduation.

"I think running is going to be on the back burner for a while," he said. "I'll certainly miss it. I can't maintain the same level of competitiveness. It's draining. Especially without a team, and a structure. If I can't maintain it to a high level, it's just going to aggravate me that I'm not doing it well."

Butler offered to hook him up with a club team and his former college coach, but LeDuc said no.

"I tried talking him into it," Butler said. "I kept trying and he said, 'Coach, this has been tough. You know how much effort I give. You need to back off.' I said, 'OK. I respect that.'"

So now Butler is pouring his coaching soul into the last few weeks of the season for LeDuc. He wants to make sure LeDuc is perfectly tuned up for the national championship. He will train next weekend, then run the 4 x 800 at the ECAC championships in two weeks.

And then, maybe, just maybe, LeDuc will run an 8:40, which would qualify him for the USA Track and Field steeplechase championships in June. He chopped close to four seconds off his 1,500 personal record on Saturday. He would love to run the USATF meet if he can qualify.

So maybe it's not over just yet.

"This is the Mike LeDuc Farewell Tour," Butler said. "The only one not enjoying it is me because he's almost done."

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