After rollercoaster year, Jager reflects on the rise and fall
When Evan Jager walked off the track at the Zurich Diamond League last month, having finished a tired third in 8:18.39, he knew, there and then, his season was over.
The residual fatigue from a summer in which he climbed some lofty peaks — though never quite reached the highest summit — was apparent in his performance, the psychological sucker-punch from falling short of a medal at the World Championships still evident in his words.
Jager had been pencilled in to run the 5000m at the Brussels Diamond League a week later but with his tank beginning to run on empty, his Achilles tendon sending out warning signals, he decided that with just 11 months to go until the Olympic Games, it was time to call a halt.
“I’m feeling pretty spent right now,” he said. “I’ll be okay with shutting it down, taking my break early and gearing up for next year.”
Before the grind towards 2016 commences, though, the 26-year-old planned to luxuriate in being able to do something he hasn’t done in a long time: nothing.
“I just finished college,” he said. “I’ve been taking it part-time since I turned pro, so this will be my first fall with nothing to do, my first true break since I turned pro.”
Jager, who completed a degree in health studies at Portland State University, turned his focus from the track to his vacation — which included plenty of outdoor exploring in Oregon — and, he said, “drinking a lot of beer”.
It’s something he deprived himself of all season in a bid to reach the top; though he didn’t quite get there this year, he got close.
Agony and Ecstasy
Rewind a couple of months, back to a warm Saturday evening in Paris, early July.
Thousands of French fans are rising to their feet, creating the biggest cheer of the night as they throw their support behind an American — a long-haired, long-striding steeplechaser from Algonquin — trying to achieve the unthinkable and beat the Kenyans at their own game.
Evan Jager had gone into race as the American record holder and having run a world-leading 3:32.97 1500m earlier in the summer, the Bowerman Track Club athlete seemed primed to re-write his mark of 8:04.71 and possibly even challenge the eight-minute barrier.
There were nine Kenyans in the field, including many of the best exponents of their steeplechasing supremacy — athletes such as Jairus Birech, Conseslus Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto.
The early pace was strong, but when it began to lag with two laps remaining, Jager was the first to take action, moving to the front and opening up that long stride of his, daring the Kenyans to give chase. Only one, Birech, was able to match his pace, but soon even he had to give way as the American poured it on at the front.
“I didn’t really know what was going on until I looked at the screen with 300 to go,” he said afterwards. When Jager did steal a glance on the final lap, he could see he had drawn clear of Birech and was on his way, bar a fall, to not just to his first Diamond League victory but also his first sub-eight-minute clocking.
He turned into the home straight with a 10-metre lead, but having stumbled off the final water jump, it was clear the tank was beginning to empty. At the final barrier, his trailing foot brushed the top, causing him to stumble and inevitably, given the fatigue, his legs buckled on landing.
“I don’t know if I was running too fast or was too tired,” he said. “I gave it everything I had to get over the barrier, but my toe just barely clipped it. I couldn’t stop myself from falling. I just tried to get up as fast as I could.”
As he rose to his feet, Birech powered past en route to victory in 7:58.83, with Jager gathering himself for one final sprint to the finish, which he reached in 8:00.45.
His run, as agonising as it was, proved a surprise to many, but afterwards Jager was aware that the Kenyans would be ready for him when it mattered most – in Beijing.
“Kenyans have absolutely dominated the steeple since they started running,” he said. “They’re extremely proud, train really hard and a lot of them are really talented. There’s a pride thing with them. I’m worried that I kind of damaged that pride tonight and they’re going to come back and tear my head off at World Champs.”
Outkicked by Kenyans
Fast forward seven weeks, and Jager is standing in the bowels of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, having to face up to the realisation that his prophecy was painfully fulfilled, that the Kenyans had indeed come back with a vengeance — their quartet of Ezekiel Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto, Brimin Kipruto and Jairus Birech all leaving him for dust on the last lap of the 3000m steeplechase final.
Jager finished an exhausted sixth in 8:15.47, having been passed by teammate Dan Huling on the run to the line.
“I don’t know if I lost form or the way I ran tonight just sucked the energy out of my legs,” he said afterwards. “It’s really disappointing. I wanted to be the type of athlete I was in Paris and I feel like I didn’t show that at all.”
The race, unfortunately for Jager and fourth-placed Birech, was nothing like Paris. In Beijing, the field ran the opening kilometre in a pedestrian 2:49.50, the race essentially boiling down to a 300m dash to the line with Kemboi, as ever, proving the master of the championship setting.
Jager, meanwhile, was left to consider his options, wondering how he could reload and rethink his strategy in order to defeat the Kenyans.
In the absence of different race tactics, the key, undoubtedly, would be speed.
“Kicking that fast over those barriers is really hard at this point, so I’ve got to figure out how to change that,” said Jager. “Kemboi is the greatest championship runner of all time. I’m sure he’s straight up faster than me over 200, and it’s hard to sprint with someone like that.”
After Beijing, Jager admitted falling below his expectations proved a thumping blow to his morale. “It took about a week for me to not want to quit for the year,” he said. “I was in a rough place and my body generally felt like crap.”
Nonetheless, there were races to be run, Diamond League points to be won, and how better to get over a recent fall than climb straight back on the horse and try again?
With that in mind, Jager took himself to Zurich, but on a cold, drizzly night, his mind was willing but his flesh was weak.
Jager took to the front in the early part of the race but had no answers when Paul Kipsiele Koech turned on the heat over the final lap, Jager finishing a tired third in 8:18.39, eight seconds behind the Kenyan.
“I tried to run tough from the front as that’s more my style race than sit and kick but I was always tired and struggling,” said Jager. “Everyone’s head wasn’t in the right mentality. It was a controlled death at the end, just hanging on, trying to run tough and stay as close as I could.”
Once again Jager had turned in a bold effort, but again it was not enough to defeat the strongest of the Kenyans on the night.
“I’m fine with it,” he said. “It doesn’t really mean a whole lot, but I’m glad I ran tough and didn’t give up when it stated hurting early on.”
Unsurprisingly, Jager pulled the plug on the 5000m in Brussels the following week, deeming the challenge of a sub-13-minute race one which would be counter-productive to his long-term goals.
Instead, he took flight back home to relax, recover, regroup and eventually re-focus for the year ahead.
When he sits down with coach Jerry Schumacher to review the year, there will likely be two main areas of contention. The first is whether he peaked too soon this summer, running as well as he did at the Diamond League in Paris, a performance he’d much rather have produced seven weeks later in Beijing.
“I did all the training prescribed by my coach, so it’s not like I missed training or was out partying or anything like that,” he said in Beijing. “I was totally focused.”
The most likely adjustment, though, may come in the form of race tactics. Though Jager is fast — as evidenced by his 3:32 1500m — he doesn’t possess the blinding finishing speed of the Kembois or Kiprutos of this world. Having proven in Paris he is good enough to beat them, it’s now a matter of finding a strategy to do so in Rio.
“I’ve got to figure out how to do it my way,” he says. “I don’t think I can do it their way and beat them. I’m not as good at [kicking] as I am at going out and riding that red line and putting myself out there. They just have that quick step and can put five metres on you in no time, so it’s really hard to play their game.”
In 2016, Jager will need a new plan of attack if he is to reach the ultimate summit, but it’s not as far away as you’d think.