Evan Jager in the 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris (© Jiro Mochizuki)
Bitter disappointment is not the normal post-race emotion when an athlete breaks an area record, but that’s what Evan Jager felt when he crossed the finish line at the end of the 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris on Saturday night.
Jager finished second behind Jairus Birech’s word-leading 7:58.83 in 8:00.45, smashing his own US and North American records by more than four seconds. For Birech, the 2014 Diamond Race winner, it was a third victory of the 2015 season while Jager clinched his first Diamond Race points of the year.
Plenty of reason for celebration, then, for the pony-tailed US runner. Or so you might think, but as Birech fell to his knees to give thanks for his win, Jager hung his head over a trackside barrier, utterly dejected.
It had been the run of his life, and a superb record. And finishing second to a Kenyan in any steeplechase is no disgrace. But Jager knew he was desperately close to achieving so much more.
But for a moment’s loss of concentration and a 91.4cm-high piece of wood, Jager would have beaten Birech by a healthy margin and almost certainly would have become the first athlete from outside Kenya, Morocco or Qatar to run faster than eight minutes.
Unfortunately for Jager, that piece of wood was the final barrier, set just 50 metres from the line. Having comprehensively outkicked Birech over the final 600 metres of the race, building up a 30-metre lead with 200 metres to go, all Jager had to do was clear it to secure a thrilling win and his own small place in athletics history.
But just when he needed to hold his form his tired legs failed him and he clipped the top of the wood, toppled forwards and fell flat on the track, allowing the fast-finishing Birech to streak past, delighted to accept such an unexpected gift.
“The stupid mistake cost me the sub-eight minutes, one of my big goals,” rued Jager afterwards. “I think I would have been able to run about 7:56 if I hadn’t fallen.”
A few hours later, the 26-year-old from Portland, Oregon, stood outside the dining hall in the Meeting Areva’s headquarters hotel, still kicking himself at missing such a golden opportunity.
“I just couldn’t believe how fast I was running,” he said. “I saw the clock said 7:41 with about 100m to go and I thought, ‘I’m going to run an amazing time here.’
“The last water jump was tough, so I knew I was tired, but it was a stupid error. I’m still not too sure what happened. I think I just caught a tiny bit of my toe on the top of the barrier.
“I got really excited thinking I could break eight, so it is a let-down. But it happened, what can I do?”
Afterwards, Jager fended off the congratulations of his fellow athletes, Birech among them, as NR and AR flashed up next to his name on the giant screen.
But later, after a few hours’ reflection, and a torturous period in doping control watching repeats of his fall, Jager could at least admit to being “extremely happy” with the way he had run and quietly pleased that he’d given the Kenyans such a thrilling wake-up call.
“Of course, I’m happy I made the Kenyans worried,” he said. “I trained for that. I know there will be other chances. I think I gave them a shock. I knew I had him.”
Despite being at world record pace up to 2000m, Jager admitted he had no idea of the race splits until the final lap. Indeed, he hadn’t event set off with the record in mind. “I was just running for the win,” he said.
That may have eluded him in the cruellest way, but Jager now knows he will be a genuine contender at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing this August. What’s more, the Kenyans know it too.
“Today, I proved I can compete for the top position at the World Championships,” he said. “After I crossed the line they were all congratulating me, but I was pretty annoyed at the time so I was yelling at myself.
“I think they were genuinely happy for me, but I’m sure they’re now thinking about what’s going to happen at the Worlds.”
Not that Jager is likely to get carried away. He’s far too level headed for that. And he knows that breaking the Kenyan stranglehold over global titles would be a historic achievement of some magnitude.
After all, no non-Kenyan athlete has won the Olympic title since Poland’s Bronislaw Malinowski at the 1980 Moscow Games, and only world record-holder Said Saeed Shaheen, a former Kenyan himself competing for Qatar, has won a world title for a non-Kenyan country since Italy’s Francesco Panetta in Rome 1987.
What’s more, there has only ever been one US Olympic steeplechase champion in history, and that was some 63 years ago when Horace Ashenfelter took gold back in Helsinki 1952 running a world record of 8:45.4.
“I think I will run for a medal and if there happens to be a good opportunity for me to actually go for gold, I will do that,” said Jager. “But I don’t want to go in thinking of gold and race for gold, then blow up and possibly not win a medal.
“It’s been quite a while since an American won a global title. It would be really cool. It would be awesome. That’s always been my goal in whatever event I’ve run in. I’ve always wanted to win a medal at the World Champs and the Olympics.”
Ironically, given his Paris trip, Jager moved up to the steeplechase from the 1500m partly because he thought he’d be good at clearing the barriers, that excelling at the technical aspects of the event would help make up for his relative lack of finishing speed which hampered his progress at the shorter event.
“I do really love it. I like having to focus on the hurdling and the water jumping technique,” he said. “I like working on that kind of stuff, the supplementary stuff outside of just the running.
“I like figuring out how to race in the steeple as well, as opposed to just the flat events. There’s always something extra there for me. It’s been fun trying to figure that out. Ideally, I like to work on my hurdling technique at least once a week.”
The switch certainly seems to have worked. Having failed to make it as a 1500m runner, Jager quickly adapted to the new event, first breaking the North American record in 2012 in only his fifth outing over the barriers. He lowered it again in Brussels last summer to 8:04.17 before his breakthrough last night in Paris St Denis.
Now Jager flies back to Portland to prepare for Beijing with his coaches, Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert, knowing he has history within reach.
“I’ll go back to Portland briefly, then it will be straight back to Park City, Utah, to work at altitude,” he said. “It will be more of the same stuff. Maybe we’ll pick up the pace on work-outs just a tad, but probably we’ll stay consistent with what we’ve been doing the whole year.
“There’s no reason to change much, just squeeze out a little bit more fitness between now and the World Champs.”
A “little bit more” that could make all the difference, as Evan Jager now knows, all too well.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF