Travis Mahoney loves the steeplechase.

He also hates the steeplechase.

"There are times, when there's something about it that just makes you feel alive," Mahoney said Thursday night after taking first place in the most distinctive event at the Penn Relays.

A Temple graduate who now competes for the Hoka New Jersey-New York Track Club, the 26-year-old Mahoney crossed the line in the grueling 3,000-meter event - a mix of distance race, hurdling competition and splash party - in a winning time of 8 minutes, 50.32 seconds.

He was happy to start his spring season in such emphatic fashion, especially since he outdueled Indiana University's Jeremy Coughler in a shoulder-to-shoulder, step-for-step dash to the finish line.

But it was still the steeplechase, so Mahoney conceded there were times on Thursday night when he got to wondering, "Why am I doing this event?"

Mahoney calls it a "love-hate relationship," and it's not uncommon for distance runners, given the unique demands of their specialties.

And that might go double for steeplechasers, since they also need to jump over a hurdle 28 times and land ankle-deep in the water seven times on their way around the track.

"Over time, I just came to really like it," said Coughler, an Ontario native who started running the steeplechase as an eighth-grader.

The steeplechase is the marquee event of Penn Relays After Dark, also known as Thursday night in Franklin Field.

By nature and design, the world's oldest and largest track and field carnival is loud - bright colors twirling around the track and swirling through the stadium, big and bold performances by sensational athletes.

Thursday night is different.

Thursday night is when the sun dips below the upper rim of the upper deck, and the air cools, and much of the crowd disperses, and the lights come up, and the long-distance runners - the athletes accustomed to countless lonely hours on the training circuit - take the stage.

There's a different vibe in the old brick horseshoe when the relay teams retreat to their homes or hotels, when the throwers pack up their javelins, when the traffic thins outside at the corner of 33rd Street and South Street.

It's a good time to run 5,000 meters.

Or 10,000 meters.

Or 3,000 meters while also leaping over hurdles and splashing through a water hazard.

"It's peaceful," said Mahoney, who graduated from Old Bridge (N.J.) High School and now coaches the team's distance runners. "It's great. It's just great in here. You can hear people cheering for you. It's a great atmosphere."

The steeplechase traces its roots to informal competition in England and Ireland - races from steeple to steeple, over low brick walls that separated estates and across low streams that snaked through the landscape.

Those streams now are the water hazard, which used to be a source of great anticipation as the field approached and fans gathered to see if a runner might actually wind up as wet as one of those dunk-tank participants at another kind of carnival.

That aspect has been lost since the re-configuration of the new track last year moved the water to beneath the scoreboard, a good distance away from the spectators.

But a small but enthusiastic crowd made its presence felt during the race.

"The fans, they get you so hyped up," said Coughler, whose second-place time was 8:50.48.

Competing in the event for Temple in 2012, Mahoney finished second in a tight battle with Indiana's Andrew Poore.

Thursday night, he found himself in another foot race in the final meters with "another Indiana guy" and this time was able to edge the Hoosier at the tape.

Poetic justice, perhaps.

Or maybe just another twist in his ongoing "love-hate relationship" with his unique event.

@PhilAnastasia