By Jonathan Gault
July 18, 2018
We are living in the golden age of American steeplechasing. The greatest male U.S. steeplechaser of all time, Evan Jager, has earned Olympic silver and World Championship bronze, has won seven straight national titles, and owns the eight fastest times ever by an American. The greatest female U.S. steeplechaser of all time, Emma Coburn, has earned Olympic bronze and World Championship gold, has won five straight national titles (seven overall), and owns nine of the 10 fastest times ever by an American. At last year’s World Championships in London, American steeplechasing experienced its finest hour, as Coburn and countrywoman Courtney Frerichs went 1-2 in the women’s steeple three days after Jager claimed bronze in the men’s event. That scenario seemed impossible just 10 years earlier, when the U.S. failed to qualify a single man or woman to the World Championship finals in Osaka.
But for all the hurdles American steeplers have cleared in recent years, two barriers remain (pardon the puns). No American man has ever broken 8:00. And no American woman has ever broken 9:00.
If those times are to be beaten by an American in 2018, it will likely happen this Friday in Monaco, as Jager, Coburn, and Frerichs are all entered in a pair of loaded steeplechases. So there are three obvious questions:
- Can Jager break 8:00?
- Can Coburn or Frerichs break 9:00?
- Will any of them do it?
The answers to #1 and #2 are the same: yes. Jager ran 8:00.45 in 2015, and would have run 7:56 or 7:57 in that race without a fall on the final barrier. Coburn (9:02.58) and Frerichs (9:03.77) aren’t quite as close to sub-9:00, but both beat several sub-9:00 women at Worlds last year. If they weren’t in sub-9:00 shape at London 2017, they weren’t far off.
The answer to #3 is more complicated; that’s why I’ve written this article. Let’s begin by taking a look at Jager before moving on to the women.
Will Evan Jager break 8:00?
The first thing required for a sub-8:00 is fitness. And I can’t say for sure whether Jager is in sub-8:00 shape. Jager doesn’t race a lot, and even when he does, that doesn’t necessarily tell us whether he can break 8:00. Jager hasn’t raced since June 24 at USAs, where he won easily in 8:20.
So rather than try to speculate further on his fitness, we can conclude that, when Jager is in peak fitness, he can get very close to sub-8:00 shape. He ran 8:00 in 2015, 8:04 in 2016 (in the midday heat of Rio in an Olympic final), and 8:01 last year. Jager has been targeting Monaco all year; if he’s going to be in sub-8:00 shape in 2018, now is the time.
But even if Jager is in sub-8:00 shape, that doesn’t guarantee he’ll run that fast in Monaco. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a drought.
Since Moses Kiptanui became the first human under 8:00 on August 16, 1995, we’ve never had a longer gap between sub-8:00s. Jairus Birech was the last man to do it, on July 4, 2015; as of Friday, the drought will have lasted three years and 16 days; that’s 307 days longer than the next longest drought, from May 8, 2009 to July 22, 2011.
It’s not as if we haven’t had guys in sub-8:00 shape since then. It looked inevitable that Conseslus Kipruto would break 8:00 at some point in 2016, but it never quite happened — he ended up running between 8:00 and 8:05 six times. Had Kipruto gone out a little more conservatively that year in Birmingham (first k in 2:35, which is 7:45 pace), he may have been able to run 7:59 instead of 8:00.12. Kipruto’s best race that year was the Olympic final (where he closed in 2:37 to set an Olympic record of 8:03.28 despite celebrating with 100 meters to go), but that race (obviously) was all about place. Which goes to show that even for a talent as great as Kipruto, sub-8:00 requires a special day — only 11 men have ever done it.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been any signs that the sub-8:00 drought will end in Monaco. Earlier this year, Kipruto said his goal for Monaco isn’t merely just sub-8:00 but the 7:53.63 world record of Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, but Kipruto looked awful in Rabat last week, finishing 12th in 8:27.
I asked his agent, Michel Boeting, if anything was wrong with Kipruto, and this is what he told me:
“He complained about his back and weak legs,” Boeting wrote. “Seems that was connected. He got some treatment and it seems there was a blockage in the back. He feels much better now. He did a track-session today and that one was positive. He still believes Monaco will be fast.”
Kipruto has bounced back from injury well in the past (he did it last year at Worlds) but going from 8:27 to sub-8:00 in one week is a tall task.
Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali, who took the silver last year at Worlds, didn’t look great in Rabat either as he faded down the stretch to third in 8:09.
The best guy in the world this year has been Benjamin Kigen of Kenya, who clocked a world-leading 8:06.19 to win in Rabat. But one of the main things you need in a sub-8:00 attempt is someone to drive the pace in the middle and late stages. And Kigen, who has relied on a big kick to earn DL wins in Eugene and Rabat, doesn’t fit the bill.
Thus the task of driving the sub-8:00 attempt could well fall to Jager. In the past, that’s a role he’s taken up out of necessity to try to burn off the kickers. But Jager told us at Pre that he did not want to race that way in 2018.
“I just want to work on just not being the guy to push from a mile out in races this year,” Jager said. “Things happen to go slow and guys don’t want to push the last three laps, I’m not gonna feel responsible for making sure the race is going fast.”
However, if Jager really wants to break 8:00 in Monaco, it may be up to him to lead the charge. Last year in this race, he came just short (8:01.29), but his stellar close (2:35 last kilometer) suggested that a sub-8:00 may have been in the cards had he pushed from slightly farther out (last year, Jager only really dropped the hammer with 500m remaining).
It’s a fine line between pushing just hard enough and going too hard, too early, but that is the line Jager must navigate in this race. If you’re in 7:53 shape, you can run a couple laps too slow or too fast and still break 8:00. If you’re in 7:58 or 7:59 shape, every lap has to be close to perfect to get under 8:00.
Father Time on the horizon
If Jager fails to break 8:00 in Monaco, it’s fair to wonder: how many shots does he have left at sub-8:00? After Monaco, there are two DL steeples remaining in 2018: Birmingham on August 18, and Zurich on August 30. Jager could run both, but I imagine if he’s going to really chase sub-8:00 in one of them, it will be Zurich.
Now let’s say Jager doesn’t break 8:00 at all in 2018. How many more years can he remain at this level? Jager turns 30 next March, but with good coaching and access to top physicians — both of which Jager has — it is possible to run well on the track into your 30s. Just look at what Jenny Simpson, Nick Willis, Bernard Lagat, and Mo Farah have accomplished in recent years. Even within his own training group, Jager’s former training partner Dan Huling had his best season in 2015, a year in which he turned 32.
Jager hasn’t suffered a major injury since 2010, and he has yet to show any signs of decline. It’s not crazy to think that he could maintain his current performance level through 2021, when he would be 32. Beyond that, well…Jager will have to start declining at some point.
So while Monaco doesn’t represent Jager’s last chance at a sub-8:00, it does represent a rare opportunity. Because if you look at Jager’s history, he’s like a marathoner in that he usually doesn’t have more than two chances per year to run a really fast steeple on the circuit: one in July, and another at the DL final (the Pre Classic or anything before it is too early for an athlete trying to peak in August). And when you only get a couple of chances to run fast each year, you better make them count.
Will Emma Coburn or Courtney Frerichs break 9:00?
Unlike in the men’s event, which is in a sub-9:00 drought, there has never been a better time to break 9:00 as a woman; seven of the eight sub-9:00s have come in the past three years, most recently on June 30 in Paris, where Beatrice Chepkoech ran 8:59.36.
Now it should be mentioned that half of those sub-9:00s belong to a woman, Ruth Jebet, who has reportedly tested positive for EPO and has been MIA on the circuit in 2018. But since the start of 2017, Chepkoech (twice) and Celliphine Chespol have also gone sub-9:00, and Hyvin Kiyeng has run 9:00.12.
This is good news for Coburn and Frerichs as it gives them people to run with/chase. Chepkoech and Chespol are both entered in Monaco, as is Kiyeng (9:03.86 pb) and Norah Jeruto (9:04.17 sb). Sub-9:00 may be more than a target to aim at; it may be a necessity if Coburn or Frerichs want to win on Friday.
Neither Coburn (9:08.13 sb) nor Frerichs (9:18.69 sb) have been close to 9:00 in 2018, but their results don’t tell the entire story. Coburn clocked 9:08.13 in Rome on May 31, her fastest season opener ever, despite losing a few seconds when she fell on the final water jump. In her next race, in Oslo on June 7, one of the barriers was set at the improper height — which not only made it more difficult to hurdle, but caused some added stress when Coburn was the only athlete who seemed to notice and had to frantically wave to the stands to notify husband/coach Joe Bosshard. Coburn still managed to finish second in that race in 9:09.63. Most recently, Coburn won USAs in 9:17.70, but she’s clearly much fitter than that right now as she waited until the final two laps to really get moving in that race.
When you take into account the mishaps in Coburn’s first two steeples, and factor in that she’s had almost a month since USAs to build fitness, she could very well be in sub-9:00 shape right now.
Frerichs was further back in Oslo (4th in 9:20.84), though she was also more affected by the faulty barrier and spent essentially the entire race having to climb through the field from the back. She gave Coburn a run for her money at USAs (she finished .99 behind) and while Coburn is the more likely of the two to break 9:00 (Coburn is 13-0 against Frerichs all time), she’s close enough that Coburn isn’t a lock to beat her in Monaco.
All of which is to say that the chances of a woman breaking 9:00 in Monaco are better than the chances of a man breaking 8:00. 8:00 in the men’s steeple is a mark that has been shown over the decades to be an indication of true greatness; again, only 11 men have ever done it. It is possible that, 20 years from now, 9:00 is that standard in the women’s steeple (as of now, four women have done it). But the women’s steeple remains a young event globally. It made its Olympic debut in 2008, and as the event becomes more widespread in East Africa — and more of the top East African runners begin to race it consistently — it could well be that 8:55 is the new 9:00.
It’s been said that an easy way to think of a steeplechase is to think of it as being roughly equivalent to what someone can run for a full 2-miles. Well if that’s the case, an 8:00 2 mile converts to 7:26.5 for 3000 according to McMillan– a time only 6 men have ever broken outdoors. On the women’s side, 11 women have already run faster than 8:22.3 for 3000 which is the equivalent of a 9:00 2 mile. Thus on an equivalency basis, 8:00 is a slightly superior accomplishment for a male athlete ithan 9:00 is for a woman.
As for the chances of an American woman breaking 9:00 in Monaco vs. the chances of an American man, Coburn and Frerichs are the ones more likely to PR in Monaco (though, obviously, Jager’s PR is closer to 8:00 than Coburn and Frerichs’ PRs are to 9:00). Both Coburn and Frerichs set their PRs within the last year, and neither has been in a fast race with good conditions yet in 2018. Meanwhile Jager’s PR is now three years old, and since he set it, he has multiple chances to lower it.
Looking ahead, Coburn is 27 and Frerichs 25; both of them theoretically have more of their primes remaining than Jager. And in the coming years, an American sub-9:00 appears more likely than an American sub-8:00 — Coburn and Frerichs are both younger than Jager, there are more sub-9:00 races these days than sub-8:00 races globally, and there are two women chasing the barrier as opposed to one man. But it only takes one day to change that. Could it be Friday?
Prediction: Jager doesn’t break 8:00 in Monaco, and neither Coburn nor Frerichs breaks 9:00. Perhaps it’s in my nature as an Englishman to be negative, but the smart money is to say none of the Americans break the barriers in Monaco. That’s not to say they can’t do it — if you read the article, you know that I think it’s possible. But 8:00 and 9:00 are both seriously fast times, and while Monaco is a meet known for producing such times, there are enough question marks in both races that I don’t feel comfortable calling for a sub-8:00 or a sub-9:00 by an American. But it sure would be fun if I was proven wrong.
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