News & Updates

14 August 2023 • High Performance

Steeplechase rookie George can’t wait for Budapest test

George Beamish practises his hurdling technique in St Moritz, Switzerland ahead of the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Credit: Michael Dawson.

For 39 years Peter Renner was the proud owner of the New Zealand steeplechase record yet in just the eighth competitive steeplechase of his career George Beamish erased that historic mark from the books with a dazzling performance in Monaco last month.

Posting a stupendous 8:13.26 in the Principality – George wiped 0.79 from Renner’s mark and is now setting his sights on Budapest brimming with confidence and hoping to become the first Kiwi to reach a steeplechase final at a World Athletics Championships.

The US-based Kiwi has served up one of the most compelling success stories in what has so far proved an unforgettable season for Kiwi athletes. Yet his steeplechase journey can be traced back to his time at Whanganui Collegiate School. Coached by Alec McNab at that time the Scotsman saw the potential that the then 16-year-old student could prosper over the barriers.

Despite no specific preparation he made his steeplechase debut over the 2000m distance on a club night in Whanganui recording 6:15.97. In his next 2000m steeplechase – he secured the national U18 title in Auckland.

Not that the latter race was an event without incident for the then teenage athlete.

“I fell in the water jump that race,” he recalls. “To be honest, I thought it was a waste of time and I don’t know why I was doing it. I got to a level at the end of my Year 12 season when I was competitive enough on the flat that Alec never made me run steeplechase again.”

After George moved on to the US, his college years were punctured by injuries which prevented him attempting to run the steeplechase. Yet after joining the On Running team under the coaching of Dathan Ritzenhein in Boulder, Colorado the prospect of the steeplechase returned to the agenda once more.

“Even before I joined the team, I think Ritz thought of me steeplechasing, I just needed to get healthy enough and consistent enough to be part of the conversation. Last season I ran well and my body was in a decent place, and although I wasn’t super excited by the idea (of running steeplechase) I was willing to give it go.”

Believing his dynamic way of running, powerful stride and natural athleticism is well suited to the steeplechase after the 2023 indoor season – which included a stunning New Zealand 3000m record of 7:36.22 in New York – George then set out on his steeplechase odyssey. Not that his initial work over the barriers in March gave much room for optimism.

“My first couple of days hurdling was bloody awful,” admits George, who hails from Havelock North. “It was all about making those neural connections and learning how to approach it smoothly. I needed to learn how to sight the hurdle early and for some reason my brain would not let me hurdle off the other leg.” 

For some time, he struggled to re-order his brain to jump off both legs when suddenly a week before his first scheduled steeplechase race something clicked which allowed him to adapt to the skill.

In his first steeplechase for a decade, he ran 8:42.56 to win at the Mt Sac Relays in Walnut, California – a performance which gave him encouragement to persist with the event.

“It was necessary to get one in to see if it was physically possible,” he says. “Looking back, I was running so slowly, it made it so much harder to clear the barriers. The water jump was awful, but I got to the end in one piece which was all that mattered. But fitness wise I knew I had 20-25 seconds to be gained without needing to do too much.”

Following his senior steeplechase debut and with Ritz acknowledging he was no steeplechase specialist for one weekend in May he brought in steeplechase coach Pascal Dobert in to help George. Dobert, a former coach with the Bowerman Track Club and himself an Olympic steeplechaser, brought with him a raft of hurdling experience. A former coach to 2016 Olympic steeplechase silver medallist and US record-holder Evan Jager he understood the nuances of the event and the 26-year-old Kiwi found the experience invaluable.

Working on improving his hurdling technique and bolstered by the work the pair did together he felt much more ready for his second senior steeplechase race, where he ran a huge PB of 8:20.62 to finish second in Walnut, California.

“That performance gave me a tonne of confidence,” explains George. “I felt it wasn’t that hard, it made it quite enjoyable, and I felt I had another five or ten seconds to be gained. The Olympic standard was 8:15, so I thought If I aim for that, why not go for the New Zealand record (of 8:14.05) of Peter Renner? I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone.”

In his next steeplechase outing at the LA Grand Prix in Westwood he finished third in 8:21.84 in late May before heading to Europe where he posted a PB of 8:17.93 in Nice to creep closer to his twin goals.

Competing in cold, wet and windy conditions at the Stockholm Diamond League in early July he trimmed a further 0.30 from his lifetime best to place fourth before moving on to Monaco – a venue which has historically served up so many fantastic distance running performances.

“Frustrated” by his performances in the Swedish capital – in which he got caught in ‘no man’s land’ and running solo for several laps – he seized his opportunity inside the Stade Louis-II Stadium. Running in ideal conditions and to a healthy pace he stopped the clock in 8:13.26 for fifth to claim automatic entry standard marks for the 2023 World Athletics Championship and Paris Olympics as well as posting a national record.

“It was a good day, I was really satisfied,” he explains. “I felt like I knew it was possible for a couple of months, so it was rewarding to get it done. The stadium in Monaco is incredible, it has the reputation for fast races, it is pretty cool.”

Preparing for Budapest out of a high altitude training base in St Moritz with his On Running training partners, which includes the likes of US 1500m champion Yared Nuguse and Australia’s Commonwealth 1500m champion Ollie Hoare, he has enjoyed a good training block and is now all set for the steeplechase heats – which take place on Saturday from 21:35 – in the opening session of the 2023 World Athletics Championships.

So what does George hope to achieve in the Hungarian capital?

“I’d like to make the final and be competitive,” he says. “There are two top guys in the field that are two of the best two steeplechasers in history. One (Lamecha Girma of Ethiopia) holds the world record and the other (Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco) is the reigning world and Olympic champion, but there are good opportunities behind them. I think I can close the last lap faster than most of the field, there is places to be gained. I’m excited to throw my hat in the ring.”

For this year and next he sees the steeplechase as his main focus, and he is confident as a steeplechase fledgling he has huge scope to improve.

“I can’t imagine too many steeplechasers running 8:13 in their first year,” he says. “I know I can improve as a runner and as a hurdler, so that means there is time to gained. In the future I’d love to be running 8 0s – (8:00 to 8:09 range), running as close to eight minutes as I can.”