After a long day celebrating the Fourth of July followed by an excruciatingly slow drive through post-fireworks traffic, we finally got back the motel and prepared to collapse into bed. But then something made me pull out my iPad and check to see what had been happening in the running world. I knew there had been a Diamond League meet in Paris and I seemed to remember that Genzebe Dibaba was attempting a new WR in the women’s 5000, so I thought there might be exciting news.
When I landed on the LetsRun site, before I saw anything else I saw the banner at the top of the home page announcing “AR Evan Jager 8:00.43”. The next thing I saw was the headline congratulating Jager on “a Brave, Brave Race,” and I thought something crazy must have happened. So there, sitting on the edge of the bed, I ignored the urge to turn in, and instead watched the video from the last three laps of the race.
By now everyone knows that Jager was approximately 70 meters away from winning the race, and in the process beating the last two Olympic champions and the fastest steeplechaser in the world in 2014, when he barely clipped the final barrier, stumbled, and fell to the track. He got up quickly and finished the race, but not before Jairus Birech had sprinted past him to take the win in a world-leading time of 7:58.83.
Jager was, to use his own word, “pissed” to have fallen, to have lost the race, to have been on pace to break 8:00 and have to settle for breaking his own American Record by four seconds.
It was, no doubt, one of the most dramatic endings one could imagine, and, understandably, there’s been a ton of speculation about what Jager would have run if he hadn’t fallen. Some have even speculated (wildly, in my opinion) that he could challenge the existing world record of 7:53.63. But as hard as it is not to consider the fall and what might have been, I think it’s worth taking the time 8:00.43 at face value, that is, representative of Jager’s true fitness today. How should we think about a 8:00.43?
First, a little recap of Jager’s progression in the steeple. It has only been three years since he ran the event for the first time, running 8:26.14 and beating America’s top steeplechaser at the time, now training partner Dan Huling. Several weeks later, Jager won the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in 8:17.40. In his third steeple race ever, Jager broke Dan Lincoln’s American record of 8:08.82 by two seconds, running 8:06.81. He went on to make the final and finish 6th at the London Olympics.
In 2013, Jager again won the U.S. Championships and placed 5th at the World Championships in Moscow. Although he didn’t improve his steeple PR, he did run PRs at 5000 (13:02.40) and 3k and 2M indoors. In 2014, he lowered his American steeple record to 8:04.71. Earlier this year, he lowered his 1500m PR to 3:32.97.
Among Americans, Jager has been utterly dominant in the steeple and competitive in other events, including the 5000 (he made the U.S. team for the 2009 World Championships in that event). On all-time lists, Jager owns the seven fastest times ever by an American. On world lists, he is the 13th fastest man ever to run the steeple, and the only athlete in history to have run sub 3:33 for 1500 AND sub 8:01 for the steeple. Not for nothing Jager is now seen as a wholly legitimate threat to Kenya’s generational dominance of the steeplechase at the upcoming World Championships in Beijing.
Of course, much will be different. It will be hot and humid and polluted in Beijing. There will be preliminaries. There will be no pacers. And it’s likely there will be four Kenyan runners in the final, and team tactics do come into play in a distance race.
If Jager medals, it will be amazing. If he challenges for the win, it will be unforgettable. But pulling it off is still a long shot; Kenya-born athletes have won every Olympic final since 1984 and every World Championship final since 1991. Even if Jager has the wheels, overcoming that long tradition of excellence will require clearing every single one of the immovable hurdles between him and the finish line.