Can Evan Jager Do the Unthinkable and Win Gold: Worlds Men’s Steeplechase Preview

August 20, 2015


2013 World Champs top five
1. Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya 8:06.01
2. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:06.37
3. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, France 8:07.86
4. Paul Koech, Kenya 8:08.62
5. Evan Jager, United States 8:08.67

2015 five fastest performers (among men entered)
1. Jairus Birech, Kenya 7:58.83
2. Evan Jager, Unite States 8:00.45
3. Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya 8:01.71
4. Conseslus Kipruto, Kenya 8:05.20
5. Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, 8:10.09

The United States’ best chance for a distance gold medal at the World Championships is in the men’s steeplechase. Let that sentence sink in for a moment. Four years ago, the U.S. didn’t qualify a single man for the World Championship final in Daegu — the third straight time that had happened. It wasn’t particularly close, either. Billy Nelson finished dead last in his heat. Ben Bruce was second to last. The top American, Dan Huling, was over 10 seconds back of the final time qualifier. The event was dark and didn’t appear to be getting much brighter.

Jager has been phenomenal in 2015 Jager has been phenomenal in 2015

The events of the ensuing four years have been nothing short of remarkable. Evan Jager, who qualified for Worlds in the 5,000 as a 20-year-old in 2009, made the switch to the steeple, giving the U.S. a true blue-chip talent. Donn Cabral dropped 13 seconds off his PR in 2012 to set the American collegiate record; suddenly the U.S. had two hot prospects. And Huling, after failing to break 8:20 from 2011 to 2013 regained his form — he’s run 8:14 and 8:15 in his last two steeples. Now as the World Championships open in Beijing, the U.S. has the #2, #6 and #7 fastest men on the entry list. Huling, the third-fastest American, has run faster than the top runner from every single country in the world this year, save two: the U.S. (duh) and Kenya, long the lords of the steeple.

But from an American perspective, this race is about Jager. In Paris on July 4, he delivered one of the most astonishing performances from an American in recent memory, fearlessly attacking world #1 Jairus Birech over the final laps en route to an 8:00.45 American record that would have been a few ticks faster had he not fallen over the final barrier. That performance established Jager as a legitimate gold medal threat and struck fear into the heart of Birech and the rest of Kenya, the birthplace of every world/Olympic champion since 1987. A medal by Jager would be historic — the U.S. has never won one in the men’s or women’s steeple at Worlds; Jager’s 5th in 2013 was the best finish by an American in 20 years — but well within Jager’s capability. To win gold however, Jager will have to take down one of the greatest steeplers of all time — plus a man who is on his way to joining that group.

The Big Four

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They only hand out three medals at the World Championships, which means that one man in the men’s steeplechase is going to leave Beijing very unhappy. Jager will be expecting a medal. Jager was fifth two years ago and has certainly improved in the interim; only one man has run faster than his 8:00.45 SB since the start of 2014, and Jager’s ridiculous 3:32.97 1500 in June was one of the fastest ever by a man whose primary event is the steeplechase.

Jairus Birech is another obvious medal threat. The presumptive favorite, with a 7:58.83 SB (world #1), Birech won the final six Diamond League steeples last year and has followed that up with three more DL victories this year. Not only has he been better than everyone else over the past two years; he’s also been more consistent. That’s hard to do.

Conseslus Kipruto, the reigning silver medalist, is the only man to have beaten Birech since the end of May as he defeated him in London on July 25 (Birech avenged the defeat a week later at the Kenyan Trials). Birech was reportedly battling malaria prior to London, but Kipruto, still only 20, is a big-time talent. He ran 8:03 as a 17-year-old in 2012 and hasn’t finished lower than third in five DL steeples this year.

The one man we haven’t mentioned is Ezekiel Kemboi. Kemboi won Worlds in 2013. And 2011. And 2009. Plus Olympic titles in 2004 and 2012. Quite simply, he’s a legend and a sixth global gold in Beijing would cement him as the greatest of all time (if he doesn’t already hold that title). His 8:01.71 is #3 in the world this year, but there are two serious concerns about him.

Will Kemboi celebrate another win in Beijing? Will Kemboi celebrate another win in Beijing?

1) He’s 33 years old

Here’s a list of the oldest men to win gold in the steeple at Worlds:

1. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2013 (31)
2. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2011 (29)
3. Ezekiel Kemboi, 2009 (27)
4. Patriz Ilg, 1983 (25)

The numbers are slightly different in the Olympics (over the same time period, two 27-year-olds have won Olympic in addition to Kemboi, who did it in 2012 at age 30) but the point is the same: Ezekiel Kemboi is an outlier. The question is, does Kemboi continue to be an outlier, or does age finally catch up to him in 2015?

2) He has run two good races in two years

Kemboi’s last two seasons have played out very similarly. In both 2014 and 2015, he won his first steeple of the year (Doha in 2014 and Eugene in 2015) and appeared set for a big year. Yet apart from those two races, Kemboi hasn’t run well at all the last two years. In 2014, he struggled to stay healthy and didn’t finish a race from mid-May until early August, where he finished third at the Commonwealth Games (not particularly impressive considering he lost to the other two Kenyans in the field). He then finished third at the African Championships (again, behind the two other Kenyans) and was 15th out of 16 in the DL final in Brussels.

This year hasn’t gone much better. After taking down Birech in Eugene on May 30, Kemboi finished 10th and 11th in his next two DL races in Oslo and Paris. The only other steeple he’s run this year came at the Kenyan Trials, where he finished a well-beaten fourth (though he already had a bye into Worlds as the defending champ).

It’s never a good sign when you’re getting smoked on the Diamond League circuit. But Kemboi almost always times his peak perfectly — he’s won the last four global championships. So how does his 2015 season compare to years past?

2nd at his first DL meet in Oslo, then ran world-leading 7:59.03 in Paris on July 6. Only finished 6th at Kenyan Trials (again, he had a bye to Worlds)

4th in his only DL race on May 31. 2nd at Kenyan Trials (8:12 at altitude). No more races before Olympics.

Two 2nds and a 1st in his three DL races, including 7:55.76 in Monaco on July 22 (still his PR). Only ran the first round of the Kenyan Trials because of his bye.

Three wins (including a season-opening 7:58.85 in Doha on May 8, a PR at the time) and two 2nds in his first five races (he was also DQ’d at the Kenyan Championships) before taking third at the Kenyan Trials.

Compared to past years, Kemboi’s fourth at this year’s Kenyan Trials is hardly ridiculous. In fact, on the four occasions Kemboi has won the Kenyan World/Olympic Trials, he went on to win gold just once (2004). The problem is that Kemboi’s performances in Oslo and Paris this year are far worse than anything he did prior to his previous gold-medal-winning runs. In those years (2004, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013), he finished lower than third in just two races — and even then, he was 4th and 6th. This year, Kemboi was 10th in Oslo and 11th in Paris (not to mention 4th at the Kenyan Trials).

Given his age and poor 2015 performances, we can’t label Kemboi the favorite over Birech. But it would be foolish to count him out. And who wouldn’t want to see another celebratory dance?

We should also note that the fourth member of the Kenyan team, 2007 World/2008 Olympic champ Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, is no slouch himself, though his season best (8:10.09) is well back of the four favorites we mentioned (Conseslus Kipruto is the slowest among them this year at 8:05.20). Kipruto has five global medals in all, however, so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the podium in Beijing.

How will the race play out?

The agony (Jager) and the ecstasy (Birech) of the steeple was on display in Paris in July The agony (Jager) and the ecstasy (Birech) of the steeple was on display in Paris in July

Given his dominance over the past two years, Birech is the favorite, but if he has one vulnerability, it’s that his kick isn’t particularly strong. In his eight Diamond League victories between 2014 and 2015, Birech’s smallest winning margin is four seconds. And that’s obviously a good thing.

The concern is, Birech has struggled in tight races. And again, that’s not the worst thing in the world — it’s better for an athlete to lose in a close race than in a blowout. But in this case, it’s important considering Birech’s chief strategy is to take races out hard and try to drop the field early. When it works, there’s no problem. But when someone hangs with Birech until the bell, he becomes vulnerable.

In Eugene, he couldn’t drop Kemboi and lost by .08. In London, he couldn’t drop Kipruto and lost by .34. Obviously Birech isn’t getting smoked in these races. But considering Jager’s 3:32 speed and Kemboi’s killer kick (rewatch the final 200 of his 2011 Worlds victory if you forgot what it looks like), he’s most vulnerable in a close (read: slow) race. No one else has a strong incentive to push the pace, so expect a tight race if Birech chooses not to lead.

The Other Americans

As we mentioned in the intro, all three Americans have been among the best in the world this year, but the gap from the medal contenders to Donn Cabral and Dan Huling is too much for them to overcome. For one of them to steal a medal, they’d need three of the five guys seeded ahead of them to run poorly and that’s extremely unlikely.

Still, a 6-7 finish is not out of the question — and perhaps better if one of the favorites has an off day. Both men are enjoying career years. Cabral entered the year with an 8:19.14 PR and has bettered that mark three times this year, including an 8:13.37 PR in the final at USAs. Huling’s 8:14.11 at USAs was his second-best time ever and his fastest in five years. Additionally, in their most recent steeple, in Paris on July 4, they were 5-6 (once you remove the guys not running at Worlds) in a race that served as a de facto Worlds preview (Kemboi).

There are a few guys who could push Cabral and Huling back. Kenyan-born John Koech (representing Bahrain) is the next-fastest guy after Huling and has run 8:14.75 this year. Moroccans Hicham Sigueni and Brahim Taleb went 1-2 in the (admittedly weak) Stockholm DL event on July 30, and both have broken 8:17. Finally, there’s Canada’s Matt Hughes, Cabral’s nemesis during their college years (he beat Cabral out for the NCAA title in 2010 and 2011) who is the top returning non-Kenyan besides Jager (Hughes was sixth in Moscow). Essentially, there are two races in this one: the race for the medals, and the race for the top non-Kenyan/non-Jager. Both should be exciting.

LRC Jon Gault Prediction: 1. Birech 2. Jager 3. C. Kipruto
LRC Prediction: 1) JAGER!

Jager is extremely good, but Birech has been consistently better over the past two years. A gold from Jager wouldn’t surprise us but Birech is the safer pick. Kipruto grabs bronze as Kemboi goes home without a medal for the first time since 2008.

Race schedule (all times U.S. ET)
Prelims Friday, August 21, 10:25 p.m.
Final Monday, August 24, 9:15 a.m.

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