2014 LRC Year-End Rankings: Men’s 3000 Steeplechase: Jairus Birech Is World #1, Evan Jager World #3

By LetsRun.com
December 29, 2014

2014 is almost at an end and with not much going on in the world of running until the New Year, it’s the perfect time to release our end-of-year rankings. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be ranking the top 10 men and women in the world in every Diamond League event (800, 1500, 3000 steeple, 5000) and the marathon. Don’t worry, U.S. fans: we’ll rank the top five Americans in each event as well.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance in big races. How the athlete fared in major races (World Indoors, Diamond League final, continental championships, Continental Cup and Commonwealth Games) is the most important, followed by Diamond League races and then all other races. For U.S. athletes, their performance at the USATF Outdoor Championships also factors heavily in the rankings.
  • Season-best times matter but they’re less important if the time wasn’t run against good competition.
  • End-of-season performances are weighted more heavily than those at the start of the season (but less so than a normal year as their was no Worlds so various runners had different goals)
  • Runners who specialized in one event will be considered for other events but can be penalized in the rankings for not running enough races.
  • Indoor races will be considered and can help an athlete’s ranking, but they won’t be valued as much as outdoor races, but we certainly recognized the fact that World Indoors was the only global championship this year.

World Rankings – Men’s Steeplechase

For a while, it looked like 2014 would go down as the first time in four years that no man was able to break 8:00 in the steeple. Heading into the final Diamond League race of the season in Brussels on September 5, Jairus Birech‘s 8:02.37 stood as the fastest time in the world, which would have been the slowest world-leading mark since 2000. Birech changed that, blasting a 7:58.41 for the win to become just the 11th member of the sub-8:00 club — more men have gone sub-12:50 in the 5000 (16) than have broken 8:00 in the steeple.

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Birech was the unquestioned best in the event, winning the final six DL races and taking home gold at the African Championships. Behind him, the event was relatively shallow, as only eight men broke 8:10 (the lowest figure since 2008). There’s still talent in the event — global medallists Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France, Conseslus Kipruto of Kenya and four-time defending global champ Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya are all kicking around, as well as up-and-comers Jonathan Ndiku of Kenya and Evan Jager of the U.S. But for whatever reason, few of the event’s top men ran many races on the DL circuit this year. Check out the year’s 14 fastest men (we chose that number because the average DL race had 14 finishers) and how many DL races each of them ran:

Name (LRC ranking) # of DL races in ’14
Jairus Birech (1) 7
Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad (2) 1
Ezekiel Kemboi (5) 3
Brimin Kipruto (9) 7
Evan Jager (3) 3
Paul Koech (8) 7
Hillary Yego (7) 6
Conseslus Kipruto (6) 4
Jonathan Ndiku (4) 1
Gilbert Kirui 4
Matt Hughes (10) 2
Hamid Ezzine 4
Bernard Nganga 6
Brahim Taleb 4

Four of the top five in our rankings ran fewer than half of the DL races. We’re not trying to shame them but for the steeple to become more popular, it might make sense for the top guys to race each other more frequently. If we were an elite steepler, we’d be running as many DL races as possible. The steeple is a niche event; there’s not a ton of prize money in it, but the top eight finishers in each DL race get paid. Running DL races would seem to be the best way for a steepler to increase his earnings.

Despite a lack of blazing times, between Mekhissi-Benabbad’s shirt-removing antics at the European Championships and Birech hurdling the final barrier in Birmingham sideways, the steeple was one of the more interesting events to watch this year.

1. Jairus Birech • Kenya • 22 years old • 7:58.41 sb (#1) • African Champion • Diamond League Champion • Commonwealth Silver

DL results: 4th Doha, 1st Rome, 1st Oslo, 1st Lausanne, 1st Monaco, 1st Birmingham, 1st Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: 2nd Commonwealth Games, 1st African Championships, 1st Continental Cup

If you were to pick someone to dominate the steeple at the start of 2014, you might have chosen Ezekiel Kemboi, who was coming off his fourth straight global title. If you felt the 31-year-old Kemboi was too old (he turned 32 in May), perhaps you would have gone for 19-year-old Conseslus Kipruto, who finished .36 seconds behind Kemboi at Worlds and looked to be the next big thing in the event. Few expected it to be Birech, who had never qualified for a global championship and ended 2013 with just the ninth-fastest sb in the world. But that’s exactly what happened, as Birech won nine of his last 10 races, including the final six Diamond League events.

Birech was absurdly dominant this season. He was the only man to dip under 8:00 (he ran 7:58.41 in the DL final in Brussels on September 5) and posted four of the world’s top five fastest times (and eight of the top 16). His average margin of victory in his six DL wins was a staggering 6.27 seconds (he won his closest race by 4.33 seconds). Birech would likely have finished with more than one sub-8:00 clocking if he had someone to chase; generally Birech would take it out hard, break the field early and gain a huge lead before fading over the final kilometer and watching sub-8:00 slip away. That’s what made it so satisfying to watch Birech finally break through with his 7:58 in Brussels (the same race in which Evan Jager reset the American record).

More evidence of Birech’s brilliance: his race in Birmingham on August 24. In that race, he mistimed his approach to the final barrier and had to throw his arms forward and brace himself on the barrier to halt his momentum before hopping over sideways. And he still won by 8.81 seconds, his biggest DL margin of victory.

Click for a Mehiedine Mekhissi Benabbad Day 3 Photo Gallery Mekhissi-Benabbad wouldn’t be celebrating for long; he’d later be disqualified.

2. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad • France • 29 years old • 8:03.23 sb (#2) 

DL results: 2nd Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: none

The record will show that Mekhissi-Benabbad officially finished three steeples this year. He actually finished four, but the third one — the European Championship final on August 14 — didn’t count because Mekhissi-Benabbad took off his shirt and celebrated his victory by holding it in his hand — and at one point, his mouth — for the final 100 meters of the race. It’s not the first time Mekhissi-Benabbad has acted out (scroll down to Quick Take #1 for his infamous resume) and it made evaluating Mekhissi-Benabbad’s season just a tad more complicated. We can’t ignore the fact that Mekhissi-Benabbad was clearly the best guy in the race on that day — it would have been his third straight at Euros — but it’s still at the very least a gray mark on his resume.

The other problem with Mekhissi-Benabbad’s candidacy is that he rarely raced top competition. His sole Diamond League race was impressive as he ran 8:03.23 in the DL final in Brussels to finish second and move into the #2 spot on the 2014 world list. He also ran a very impressive solo 8:07.45 at a small meet in France on June 14. Clearly, he was fit this year. Had there been a Worlds, he would have been a solid bet to medal, as he has in four of the last five global championships.

asdf Jager came close to knocking off Birech at the Continental Cup but lost by .90 secs.

3. Evan Jager • USA • 25 years old • 8:04.71 sb (#5) • U.S. Champion

DL results: 2nd Oslo, 6th Monaco, 3rd Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: 1st USAs

In 2014, Jager continued on his path to becoming the first American to medal in the steeplechase since Brian Diemer in 1984. Jager, who finished sixth at the 2012 Olympics and fifth at Worlds last year, would have been a serious medal threat had there been a Worlds this year and ended the season with another pb (8:04.71 in Brussels, besting his 8:06.81 American record from 2012) and two impressive DL finishes (second in Oslo on June 11 — his highest-ever finish — and third in the final in Brussels).

Aside from a hiccup in Monaco (where he was sixth), Jager was competitive in all of his steeples this season, coming within a second of Birech at the Continental Cup on September 14. No one was touching Birech this year, but Jager was finally able to beat heavyweights Ezekiel Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto and Brimin Kipruto, against whom he was a combined 0-6 heading into 2014. Jager has worked on his closing speed (he beat USA 1500 runner-up Pat Casey in running his 3:53.33 mile pb at Pre) and he’s got the championship experience — and now the confidence — to medal at Worlds in 2015. At 26, next year will be Jager’s best chance yet of ending America’s medal drought in the steeplechase.

4. Jonathan Ndiku • Kenya • 23 years old • 8:10.44 sb (#9) • Commonwealth Champion • African Silver

DL results: 3rd Lausanne
Championship results: 1st Commonwealth Games, 2nd African Championships

Ndiku raced just once on the DL circuit, but he achieved plenty in his other steeples. He was third at the Beijing World Challenge and was the only man to defeat Birech after May 21 when he took him down at the Commonwealth Games. Ndiku raced well in another championship setting two weeks later at the African Champs (beating Ezekiel Kemboi for the silver) but unfortunately didn’t race the Diamond League final in Brussels.

The knock on Ndiku is that he didn’t run a really fast time (his 8:10.44 in the CG final was his sb) but that’s logical considering he only ran one Diamond League race. He’s a talented tactician and figures to be in the medal hunt at Worlds next year if he can make it onto the perennially-stacked Kenyan team.

More championship success than Jager, but Jager couldn’t run CG or Africans

5. Ezekiel Kemboi • Kenya • 32 years old • 8:04.12 sb (#3) 

DL results: 1st Doha, DNF Rome, 15th Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: 3rd Commonwealth Games, 3rd African Championships

Kemboi ruled this event from 2009-13 but he never dominated the Diamond League circuit. During that five-year span, Kemboi won four global titles (there was no Worlds/Olympics in 2010) and six Diamond League races. He’s never won a Diamond League points title, but after his impressive 8:04.12 season-opening win in Doha, it looked like that might change in 2014. Then Kemboi DNF’ed Rome and missed the next four DL meets — likely the result of a nagging tendon injury. He put it together for gutsy bronzes at the Commonwealth Games and African Champs, but was a disappointing 15th at the DL final in Brussels.

His quick SB (third-best in the world) and two bronze medals mean we can’t drop Kemboi lower than fifth, but it was a disappointing year from a man who hasn’t lost a global steeple title since 2008. Here’s hoping a fully-healthy Kemboi will be back to his best by Beijing 2015.

6. Conseslus Kipruto • Kenya • 20 years old • 8:09.81 sb (#8)

DL results: 2nd Lausanne, 2nd Monaco, 5th Birmingham, 5th Brussels (DL final)
Championships results: none

Kipruto didn’t have a bad performance in 2014 — second, second, fifth, fifth in his four steeples, all DL races — but he didn’t have a signature performance either, something along the lines of his 8:01 win in Shanghai last year or his 8:03 win in Monaco in 2012. His resume may not blow you away, but he was consistent and demolished his closest competition for the #6 spot: Paul Koech, who twice ran faster than Kipruto’s sb this year, but Kipruto was 4-0 against Koech on the season. Kipruto showed flashes of the brilliance he displayed during the previous two years; he’s certainly a threat to medal at Worlds next year.

7. Hillary Yego • Kenya • 22 years old • 8:09.07 sb (#7)

DL results: 5th Doha, 3rd Oslo, 5th Lausanne, 3rd Monaco, 4th Birmingham, 8th Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: none

Yego was consistently solid on the circuit with six top-fives at DL races, a feat that only Birech can match. He’s only seventh because of his modest sb and the fact that many of those ranked above him didn’t run many DL races, making it easier for Yego to rack up top-fives (against a strong DL final field in Brussels, he was only eighth). We considered putting Paul Koech in this spot considering Koech ran 8:05 and 8:06 while Yego’s fastest time was 8:09, but Yego was 6-2 against Koech on the season which settled the debate for us.

8. Paul Koech • Kenya • 33 years old • 8:05.47 sb (#6)

DL results: 3rd Doha, 2nd Rome, 4th Oslo, 8th Lausanne, 7th Monaco, 9th Birmingham, 9th Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: none

Koech ran faster than 8:06 and finished in the top six on the world list for the 13th straight year in 2014, which is one of the more amazing statistics we’ve ever come across. Koech has been incredibly consistent in posting fast times, year after year (his 8:05.46 sb ranked him sixth in the world this year but was his worst sb since 2001) yet he’s struggled at major championships and in recent years has only run well at the start of the season. Despite breaking 8:00 nine times in his career (world record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen is the only other man to do it more than three times), Koech has just one global medal, his bronze from the 2004 Olympics.

2014 played out similarly to 2013 and 2012 for Koech. Each year, his two fastest steeples were his first two of the season. That wasn’t as much of an issue in 2012, when his first two races were 7:56 and 7:54 — he still managed to break 8:10 five other times and win the DL title. But in 2013, his first two steeples were 8:02 and 8:05, and those times went up to 8:05 and 8:06 in 2014, with Koech failing to break 8:10 the rest of the way in ’14.

Koech was one of only four runners to beat Birech (and the only one to do it twice) but it was inevitable that Koech would start to fade as he ages (he turned 33 in November) and that was the case in this year. Who knows how many fast times Koech has left in him, but don’t count him out from posting another quick one early in 2015.

9. Brimin Kipruto • Kenya • 29 years old • 8:04.64 sb (#4) 

DL results: 2nd Doha, 3rd Rome, 10th Oslo, 4th Lausanne, 10th Monaco, 2nd Birmingham, 6th Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: none

Kirputo had a solid DL season (four top-fours) but he struggled in the more competitive DL races (Monaco and Brussels) and has no championship results on his resume. His fast early time at Doha and solid finishes in Rome, Lausanne and Birmingham were enough to earn him a spot in our top 10, but the 2007 World/2008 Olympic champ no longer the perennial world title contender he was a few years ago.

10. Matt Hughes • Canada • 25 years old • 8:12.81 sb (#11) • 4th at Commonwealth Games

DL results: 13th Lausanne, 4th Monaco
Championship results: 4th Commonwealth Games, 7th Continental Cup

Hughes, a two-time NCAA steeple champ at Louisville, broke out with his 8:11.64 Canadian record last year that was good for sixth at the World Championships. His pb was just 8:24 prior to last year, but Hughes proved that 2013 was no fluke as he ran 8:12.81 in Monaco and took fourth at the Commonwealth Games. He narrowly edged Gilbert Kirui (not the Iona freshman) for the final spot in our rankings. Kirui broke 8:21 four times (Hughes only did it once) but Kirui’s DL finishes (6th, 10th, 5th, 12th) weren’t good enough to surpass Hughes.

Honorable mention: Gilbert Kirui, Hamid Ezzine

U.S. Rankings

It would be a stretch to say that the steeple is a strength for the U.S. (is it really a strength for any country other than Kenya?) but this year did represent a nice step forward from 2013. Evan Jager, in Year 3 of his steeple career, lowered his American record to 8:04.71 with his third-place showing at the DL final in Brussels. He now has to be regarded among the world’s best in the event and has a great shot to medal at Worlds in 2015.

Other Americans made strides in 2014 as well. Dan Huling ran his fastest time since 2010 and was fourth in the DL final. 2012 Olympian Donn Cabral returned to the podium at USAs after a one-year absence and came within a second of his pb. Cory Leslie was fourth at USAs, his best-ever finish. If Jager can medal in Beijing and the U.S. can send another guy to the final (both distinct possibilities), 2015 could be the best year for American steeplers since 1984 (when Brian Diemer and Henry Marsh went 3-4 at the Olympics).

1. Evan Jager (see above)

A Happy Dan Huling Huling opened his season with an 8:17.00 victory at Oxy on May 15.

2. Daniel Huling • Bowerman Track Club/Nike • 31 years old • 8:15.61 sb (#2 in U.S.) • 2nd at USAs

DL results: 7th Oslo, 12th Monaco, 4th Brussels (DL final)
Championship results: 2nd USAs

Huling enjoyed a resurgent season in 2014, dipping under 8:20 for the first time in four years. He hung tough with Jager at USAs before succumbing after the final water jump but had enough to hold off Cabral for his second consecutive runner-up finish. Jager is clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the American steeplers right now but there was a pretty big gap this year from Huling back to Cabral in terms of overall performance (though Huling only beat Cabral by .31 seconds at USAs).

After a disappointing 8:24 in Monaco on July 18, Huling rebounded in the DL final with a season-best 8:15.61 to finish fourth and take the scalps of Conseslus Kipruto, Brimin Kipruto and Ezekiel Kemboi. Huling isn’t a medal threat in 2015, but between him and Cabral, the U.S. has a shot to put two men in the final at Worlds for the first time since 1993. Huling was 15th on the world list in 2014 (15 men make the final at Worlds), but when you subtract superfluous Kenyans (Kenya has nine of the top 15 but can only send a max of four to Beijing), Huling comes in 10th. Likewise, Cabral was 26th on the world list but after subtracting extra Kenyans, he was 16th.

3. Donn Cabral • NJ*NY Track Club/Nike • 25 years old • 8:20.04 sb (#3 in U.S.) • 3rd at USAs

DL results: 8th Birmingham
Championship results: 3rd USAs

Cabral made the Olympics the summer after graduating from Princeton in 2012 but struggled with what was later revealed to be Lyme disease in 2013. The 25-year-old was back to his old self this year, almost matching his pb of 8:19.14 by running 8:20.04 in the 90+ degree heat of Sacramento in the final at USAs. He ran in the 8:20s in four of his five steeples (the other was the prelim at USAs, which doesn’t really count) and also busted out a nice pb of 13:22 in the 5000 in May. Cabral is in good position to make his second U.S. senior team in 2015.

4. Cory Leslie • Furman Elite/Nike • 25 years old • 8:26.30 sb (#6 in U.S.) • 4th at USAs

Championship results: 4th USAs

Leslie posted his highest-ever finish at USAs this year (fourth; previous best was ninth). He didn’t PR in 2014, but only finished one other steeple outside of USAs. With a 3:53 mile in Dublin in July, he looked like he might have been able to challenge his 8:20 steeple pb in the right race, but Leslie never got into one.

5. Donnie Cowart • 29 years old • 8:29.08 sb (#8 in U.S.) • 5th at USAs

Championship results: 5th at USAs

Cowart only ran four steeples this year (two of them were at USAs), which partly explains why three guys (Craig ForysAndy Bayer and Billy Nelson) ran faster than him in 2014. However, Cowart crushed those guys at USAs (beat Forys by eight seconds, Bayer by 11 and Nelson by 23). Yes, putting Cowart fifth means that our U.S. rankings exactly mirror the finish of the U.S. Championships, but the top American steeplers race each other so infrequently that USAs carries outsize importance. Sacramento was the only time Cowart raced Forys, Bayer and Nelson all season and he has to be rewarded for beating them so convincingly. Cowart has now placed in the top six at USAs four years in a row.

Honorable mention: Craig Forys, Andy Bayer, Billy Nelson

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