Paris report: The rise and Fall of Evan Jager

7 Jul 2015

Yet another Diamond League meeting this season had distance races as its major highlight. After the withdrawal of the injured Usain Bolt, the attention shifted to Almaz Ayana and Genzebe Dibaba with their 5000m world record attempt. They did provide quite a thriller on the track, but even more buzz was produced by a fearless feat of the US steeplechaser Evan Jager.

Jager, coming off another national title, was running for the victory and holding nothing back. He chased the Kenyan favorite Jarius Birech right from the start, at a very hot pace. The pacemaker led the first 1000m through at 2:37.8, which is a 7:53.5 pace—a world-record pace, and well beyond Jager’s personal best and American record of 8:04.51.

Over the second 1000m, the tempo settled down (2:39.9), but Birech and Jager were still going for a sub-8 performance. And with less than 2.5 laps to go, at a water pit clearance, Jager took over.

The American posted two 63-second laps and put his foot on the accelerator even more at the bell. Jager entered the home stretch 1.5 seconds ahead of Birech, clear and away. But having slightly clipped his hurdle with the trail leg, he fell, losing the lead. Jager got up and finished second, improving his American record by four seconds – 8:00.45, but the frustration of the lost opportunity was lingering.

What would Jager have run if he didn’t fall? At the bell, his time was 6:55.6, so if he’d recorded another 63-second lap, his time would have been around 7:59. But, in fact, he was going faster. He ran his penultimate 200m about 0.7 sec quicker than the same part of the previous lap, so if he’d maintained momentum, Jager could have stopped the clock at 7:58 low. Only ten athletes have run a sub-7:59 steeplechase ever, and nine of them were Kenyan-born, with the only exception—the Moroccan Brahim Boulami.

But track and field fans and pundits expected a breakthrough from Jager after he posted an impressive 3:32.97 over the 1500m in June, which made him the world leader for three weeks. What does this mark tell us about Jager’s current and future progress in his main event? Let’s look at Jager’s season’s bests.

Jager’s SBs, 1500m v 3000m SC

First of all, don’t forget that Jager started off as a miler, and a very successful one at that. In 2008, he was the national junior champion, the NCAA finalist (as a freshman) and the IAAF World Junior Championships finalist in the 1500m. Evan’s first steeplechase experience came about in 2012, and he made the Olympic final that same year. There is not enough yearly data to build out a valid correlation, even though a flat speed improvement definitely helped increase Jager’s competitiveness. But what about the best steeplechasers of all-time? How do they fare in the 1500m?

Top performers 1500m and 3000m SC times

Let’s look at the top-15 all-time performers and their 1500m and 3000m steeplechase times the years when they set their personal bests in the latter event. Brahim Boulami (#4) and Jarius Birech (#10) haven’t raced over 1500m, while *Saif Saaed Shaheen and Reuben Kosgei hasn’t raced it during their prime steeplechase season, so for them, we’ll use PBs.

Almost all of the steeplechase stars raced over the 1500m at least once a season, but no one has shown quite as much flat speed as Jager. The fastest runners in the mix are the world record holder Shaheen and non-Africans—Jager, Mekhissi-Benabbad and Tahri, with Jager the fastest.

He has the supreme speed, he can increase the pace over the last lap, his hurdling technique is arguably better than the one of Birech and many other Kenyan runners. What does Jager need to get closer to the all-time leaders? Is it some special type of speed endurance that translates the pure speed to the successful performance over the hurdles? Or just more experience and more luck? We might find the answer before the season comes to an end.

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