2015 LRC Year-End Rankings, Men’s Steeplechase: Jairus Birech & Evan Jager Are Your World And U.S. Number Ones
December 23, 2015
2015 is drawing to a close and since there aren’t many major races from now until the New Year, we’re putting out our annual end-of-year rankings. Over the final days of the year, we’ll rank the top 10 men and women in the world in every Diamond League distance event (800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeple, 5000) as well as the marathon. We’ll also rank the top five Americans in each event.
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 the World Championships is obviously a major consideration but winning Worlds doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will earn a #1 ranking. 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.
- 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, especially because there was no World Indoors this year.
LRC 2014 men’s steeple rankings *LRC All 2014 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2015 WC steeple Recap Ezekiel Kemboi Cements Status As Greatest of All-Time; Evan Jager’s Medal Hopes Come Up Short
1. Jairus Birech • Kenya • 23 years old • 7:58.83 sb (#1 in world) • 4th at Worlds • Diamond League Champion
DL results: 1st Shanghai, 2nd Pre Classic, 1st Oslo, 1st Paris, 2nd London, 2nd Zurich (DL final)
If not for his Worlds performance, Birech would be a slam-dunk choice for the #1 spot in our rankings. He won three Diamond League races and placed second in three others; excluding Worlds, no one beat him more than once this year.
Yet in Beijing, Birech didn’t just miss out on gold; he missed out on a medal entirely. Countrymen Ezekiel Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto and Brimin Kipruto grabbed the medals, leaving Birech as the unhappy portion of a historic 1 through 4 Kenyan sweep. On the whole, however, Birech still did enough in 2015 to earn the #1 ranking. For the second year in a row, he was the only man to break 8:00, and in all, he had half of the world’s top 10 times.
More importantly, head to head against our #2-3-4 and 5 ranked runners he had the following records this year – he was 6-2 against Conseslus Kipruto, 4-2 against Ezekiel Kemboi, 4-0 against Evan Jager and 4-1 against Brimin Kipruto.
The one area Birech needs to improve is his kick. When Birech wins, he generally wins big (his average margin of victory in DL races was 6.27 seconds last year, this year his three wins were by 6.03, 6.29 and 1.62 seconds) but when he’s unable to drop the field, he struggles to outkick his rivals:
Birech’s Near Misses in 2015
May 30, Pre Classic: 2nd to Ezekiel Kemboi by .08
July 25, London DL: 2nd to Conseslus Kipruto by .34
August 24, World Champs: 4th to Brimin Kipruto (missing a medal) by .08
The winning time of 8:11 in Beijing clearly favored Kemboi, not Birech. Birech did go to the front in Beijing during the second half of the race, but he didn’t push it hard enough to drop the big boys. Perhaps he felt confident in his kick. More likely, he simply could not summon the strength at that point in the race. Whatever the reason, Birech has some work to do if he is to become Olympic champion in 2016.
Here’s some unsolicited advice for Birech – get with American Evan Jager and agree to share the pace. Yes, it’s unconventional for a guy to team up with a guy from another country but both runners could use a more honest pace.
2. Conseslus Kipruto • Kenya • 21 years old • 8:05.20 sb (#4) • Silver at Worlds
DL results: 3rd Shanghai, 3rd Pre Classic, 2nd Oslo, 3rd Paris, 1st London, 6th Zurich (DL final)
Like Birech, Kipruto was extremely consistent in 2015, claiming a Diamond League win in London and saving his best race of the year for the World Championship final. He was only two meters back of Kemboi in the final straight, and would have had a chance to catch him late but after almost losing his shoe on the final water jump, he stutter-stepped heading into the final barrier and Kemboi was gone. Had he won Worlds, he might have garnered our #1 vote despite his 2-6 record against Birech.
In the end, we feel #2 is where Kipruto belongs. Yes, Kemboi won Worlds and had the faster SB, but Kipruto was 4-2 vs. Kemboi and Kemboi had three stinkers (10th Oslo, 11th Paris, 14th Zurich) that were worse than anything Kipruto did this year. Kipruto turned 21 earlier this month while Kemboi turns 34 in May, so Kipruto will be hoping that his time will come in Rio after consecutive silvers at Worlds in 2013 and 2015.
3. Ezekiel Kemboi • Kenya • 33 years old • 8:01.71 sb (#3) • World Champion
DL results: 1st Pre Classic, 10th Oslo, 11th Paris, 14th Zurich (DL final)
Line everyone up with a World Championship on the line, and we’re taking Kemboi any day of the week. His championship record is simply phenomenal: four World Championship golds, two Olympic golds, and three World Championship silvers. He’s won the last five global golds in the steeple and at this point has to be considered the greatest steepler of all time.
But aside from Worlds and the Pre Classic (which he won in 8:01.71), Kemboi was horrible this year. He finished 10th or lower in three Diamond League meets and failed to break 8:30 in two of them. Kemboi said after his victory at Worlds that he only focused on two races this year — the Pre Classic and Worlds — which is curious. His results support that assertion, but it’s an odd strategy. If he seemingly didn’t mind running poorly in other Diamond League races, why would Pre be any different? Or did Kemboi develop an injury after Pre that prevented him from running at 100% until Worlds?
Whatever the reason behind Kemboi’s inconsistency, it doesn’t make sense to change things up at all next year. Clearly the man has figured out a system that works and as long as age doesn’t catch up to him, he should add to his medal collection in Rio.
4. Evan Jager • USA • 26 years old • 8:00.45 sb (#2; American Record) • 6th at Worlds • U.S. Outdoor Champion
DL results: 4th Pre Classic, 2nd Paris, 3rd Zurich (DL final)
Jager’s 2015 season was full of buts. Jager won his fourth straight U.S. title … but he wasn’t the top American at Worlds. Jager ran 8:00.45 to reset his American record … but he fell on the final barrier in that race, preventing him from earning his first Diamond League win and the first sub-8:00 by a non-African-born athlete. Jager continued to show that he can mix it up with the world’s best in the event … but he couldn’t earn the first U.S. steeple medal since 1984.
Inarguably, Jager had a good year. In fact, he had perhaps the best year ever by an American steepler. He recorded two of the three fastest times in U.S. history, won USAs and was 6th at Worlds. Five years ago, that would have been viewed as nothing short of miraculous — and we haven’t even mentioned his 3:32.97 1500, which was the world leader when he ran it back on June 14.
And yet Jager’s first three years of steeplechasing were so good that, fair or not, the expectation was that 2015 was the year to earn a World Championship medal. Jager holds himself to a high standard too. When we spoke to Jager earlier this month as we were working on these rankings and asked him whether he was happy with his 2015 season, Jager paused for a few seconds before he replied:
“No, not really,” Jager said. “[Going] into the season, my top two goals [were] to run under 8:00 and to medal at the World Champs, with medalling at the World Champs being number one. I obviously got close but didn’t achieve either of those things and that was extremely disappointing for me.”
Jager went into Beijing with the mindset of winning not just any medal, but gold, and that approach may have cost him. He was level with leader Conseslus Kipruto entering the final lap, but he ran out of gas and faded to sixth. If Jager had run more conservatively and simply for bronze, would he have been able to medal? Perhaps. But he chose to go for the gold, and for that, no one can fault him.
Our only fault with Jager is he allowed the pace to go too slow. Yes we know Jager ran 3:32 for 1500 and that Jager spent most of 2015 placing a greater emphasis on his raw speed, with plenty of short, fast intervals with full recovery (Jager told us he ran his fastest 300 ever in practice — 36.6 — and those sessions played a big part in helping him clock that 3:32 — only Matthew Centrowitz ran faster among Americans). But Jager himself knows it’s almost impossible to beat Kemboi in a somewhat slow race over the last 300.
“I feel like what makes Kemboi so great is he can all-out sprint four or five separate times over the course of the last lap while still going over barriers,” Jager said. “It’s not like where in a flat race you can start your kick at 300 meters to go and continuously pick up the pace and be very smooth and run a continuous pace. In a steeple, with the way that Kemboi runs it, in the last lap you basically have to all-out sprint with 300 to go and then slow up a little bit for the barrier and then all-out sprint again and then slow up for the water jump and then all-out sprint again and then hit that last barrier and all-out sprint again. It’s very hard to do, especially since changing gears isn’t something that comes very naturally to me. I think I’m more of a long, extended kick kind of athlete. So it’s definitely something I have to work on and I’m sure that we’re going to start doing something to help me with that come springtime.”
Trying to get better at a crazy fast last 300 is a good idea as athletes always should try to get better but setting up a fast pace with Birech seems like a win-win for both of them.
Now that we’ve given out our free unsolicited coaching advice, let’s try to fully appreciate Jager’s run in Paris. His 8:00.45 in Paris will go down as one of the races of the year, not just for the time (amazing) or what might have been (7:56 or 7:57 was not out of the question if he stayed on his feet) but, more than anything, for the way Jager ran the race. Jager wasn’t just in contention to win a Diamond League race; he was dominating the best men in the world, taking the lead with 1k to go and putting a hard move on world #1 Jairus Birech that gave Jager a 10-meter lead by the final water jump. In an event dominated for the Kenyans for decades, an American was putting on a clinic.
In the 15 years that LetsRun.com has existed, other than Galen Rupp‘s 2014 Pre Classic 10,000 win which didn’t include Mo Farah, we don’t think we’ve ever seen a male American-born distance runner win an international long distance race that was loaded with talent and not tactical. Considering Paris had everyone who was dreaming of a medal in it, Jager came within seconds of doing something that might not have been accomplished in 30 or 40 years (Related discussion: MB: When is the last time a male American born athlete won a big international long distance event that wasn’t tactical?). Just to get to that level of fitness is special and Jager realizes it.
“I was extremely happy with the level that I got to this past year,” Jager said. “I feel like I made a huge jump in fitness from years prior. I took myself to a new level of athlete and really proved to myself that I was one of the best steeplechasers in the world and not just hoping I was one of the best.”
It’s that attitude, along with his immense talent, that makes Jager special. He’s unafraid to take it to the Kenyans, and they respect him for it. It didn’t pay off with a medal in 2015, but at 26 Jager is far from finished. We can’t wait to see what he has in store next year.
Might this year’s disappointment in Paris and Worlds end up be a blessing in disguise? Jager still goes into 2016 as the hunter, not the hunted.
More: MB: When is the last time a male American born athlete won a big international long distance event that wasn’t tactical?
*In A Brave, Brave Run, Evan Jager Nearly Crushes The World’s Best In Men’s Steeple, Settles For 8:00.43 American Record
5. Brimin Kiprop Kipruto • Kenya • 30 years old • 8:10.09 sb (#5) • Bronze at Worlds
DL results: 6th Shanghai, 4th Paris, 7th Zurich (DL final)
Like his countryman Ezekiel Kemboi, Kipruto keeps chugging along, grinding out medals on the biggest stage. Though 2015 marked just the second year since 2004 that he failed to break 8:10 (the other was 2008, and he made up for it by winning Olympic gold), he took third in Beijing to add another medal to his ever-growing pile. He’s now got two golds (’07 Worlds and ’08 Olympics), two silvers (’04 Olympics and ’11 Worlds) and two bronzes (’05 and ’15 Worlds).
6. Paul Kipsiele Koech • Kenya • 34 years old • 8:10.24 sb (#6)
DL results: 2nd Shanghai, 5th Pre Classic, 3rd Oslo, 6th Paris, 3rd London, 1st Zurich (DL final)
Though Koech’s ridiculous 13-year streak of breaking 8:10 came to an end in 2015 (he missed out on extending it by less than a quarter of a second in the DL final in Zurich), he was remarkably consistent, running between 8:10 and 8:16 in seven of his eight non-altitude races.
Koech, the third-fastest man of all time, was 9th at the Kenyan Trials and did not qualify for Worlds. There are several reasons for that, including his advancing age, but he has never been as good in championship races as he has on the circuit and he’s never been good at running at altitude which he must do to make the team in Kenya. Koech owns just one global medal – Olympic silver in 2004 – and that came in a year when the Kenyans just put him on the team, he didn’t earn it at the Kenyan champs. Koech has never ever finished top 3 at the Kenyan champs. The year’s he’s competed on the global stage were years that the Kenyans just put him on the team – 2004 (doesn’t appear in Trials results), 2005 (5th at Trials), 2009 (6th at Trials), 2013 (12th at Trials). Koech’s legacy will be his times and 10 (and counting) Diamond League victories, not his big-race performances.
Rather than focus on what Koech didn’t accomplish in 2015, let’s applaud him for what he did do. Even at 33 (he turned 34 in November), he remained a fixture near the top of Diamond League races and he took advantage of the field’s post-Worlds fatigue by winning the DL final in Zurich handily on September 3.
7. Daniel Huling • USA • 32 years old • 8:14.11 sb (#11) • 5th at Worlds • 3rd at USA Outdoors
DL results: 13th Pre Classic, 7th Paris, 14th Zurich (DL final)
You don’t often see the fifth-place finisher at Worlds fist-pump as they cross the line, but in Huling’s case, it was well-deserved. Before this year, Huling was 0-for-3 in making World Championship finals, and even after he made it, top five seemed like a long shot given the presence of four Kenyans plus U.S. teammates Evan Jager and Donn Cabral (Huling was 3rd at the U.S. Champs). But Huling executed a perfect race (for him), staying out of trouble by running patiently toward the back of the pack before closing quickly on the final lap. His finishing time of 8:14.39 was just a second off his personal best, and he was even able to beat Jager, just the second time ever that Jager had lost to an American, and the first in over three years. How good was Huling’s run? Among Americans, only Brian Diemer (4th in 1987) has placed higher at Worlds in the steeple.
Huling’s DL results weren’t amazing, but he’s in this spot for his brilliant run at Worlds and another strong effort at USAs (3rd in 8:14.11). The fact that Huling was able to run his second- and third-best times of his career in his two biggest races (USAs and Worlds) shows that he was in the best shape of his life this year, and the 32-year-old certainly made it count.
8. Clement Kemboi • Kenya • 23 years old • 8:12.68 sb (#8)
DL results: 5th Shanghai, 5th Paris, 5th London, 4th Zurich (DL final)
Kemboi was extremely consistent in 2015, finishing in the top five in all four of his Diamond League outings. If he was from any country other than Kenya or the U.S., he’d have made Worlds easily, but given the presence of Kenyan studs like Ezekiel Kemboi and the Kiprutos, Clement Kemboi had to settle for 6th at the Kenyan Trials. At 23, he has several more chances to make a Kenyan team, but the competition is so good there year after year that he’ll need to get down to the low-8:00 range to make it happen in 2016.
In a few years, things should get easier as Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto and Paul Koech are all over 30.
9. Hillary Yego • Kenya • 23 years old • 8:13.10 sb (#9)
DL results: 7th Shanghai, 7th Pre Classic, 4th Oslo, 8th Paris, 4th London, 3rd Stockholm
Yego had winning records against two of his main rivals for this spot — Brahim Taleb of Morocco and Donn Cabral of the U.S. — and broke 8:20 on seven occasions this year (only Jairus Birech did it more times). Curiously, Yego decided to run the Stockholm Diamond League meet instead of the Kenyan World Championship Trials and as a result, his season ended in July.
10. Brahim Taleb • Morocco • 30 years old • 8:16.56 sb (#15) • 7th at Worlds
DL results: 6th Oslo, 2nd Stockholm, 5th Zurich (DL final)
Taleb’s SB was only 15th-best in the world this year, but he came through when it counted, taking 7th at Worlds — the best finish by a Moroccan man in 10 years — and closing out the year with a 5th-place showing at the Diamond League final.
Honorable mention: Jonathan Ndiku (Kenya), Donn Cabral (USA)
1. Evan Jager (see above)
2. Dan Huling (see above)
3. Donn Cabral • NJ*NY Track Club/Nike • 26 years old • 8:13.37 sb (#2 in US) • 10th at Worlds • 2nd at USA Outdoors
DL results: 8th Pre Classic, 5th Oslo, 9th Paris
Unlike 2013, when Cabral was battling Lyme disease, or 2014, when he missed a chunk of time in training, Cabral was healthy and training at a high level throughout 2015, and the result was the best year of his career. Though he was not pleased with his 10th-place finish at Worlds, there’s little else the Princeton grad can be upset about. He was consistent on the circuit, breaking 8:20 in all three of his DL races (very impressive for a guy who entered the year with an 8:19 pb) and ran a tremendous race at USAs to earn a big pb of 8:13.37 (under the old meet record and #7 all-time U.S.) and finish second to Jager.
4. Andy Bayer • Bowerman Track Club/Nike • 25 years old • 8:18.08 sb (#4 in US) • 4th at USA Outdoors
DL results: 6th London, 4th Stockholm
When Bayer decided to move to the steeple last year, it seemed like an odd move. After all, this is the same guy who was an NCAA 1500 champ at Indiana and finished 4th in that event at the 2012 Olympic Trials. Initially, Bayer said that he decided to tackle the steeple to ease into coach Jerry Schumacher‘s training as it was an event where he faced fewer expectations. And given that 2014 was an off year, Bayer had time to experiment.
Bayer showed some promise in 2014, running 8:25 and taking 7th at USAs, and after 2015, he appears unlikely to go back to the flat events anytime soon. Bayer was 4th at USAs in a PR of 8:21 and lowered his best to 8:18 a month later in London. Bayer broke 8:20 again in Stockholm five days later and capped his year with a win at the NACAC Championships.
Bayer trains with the country’s top two steeplers (plus Canadian stud Matt Hughes) and a pair of great steeple coaches in Schumacher and Pascal Dobert, so expect more progress in 2016.
5. Stanley Kebenei • University of Arkansas/Nike • 26 years old • 8:23.93 sb (#5 in US) • 5th at USA Outdoors • 2nd at NCAAs
DL results: 10th London, 8th Stockholm
The Kenyan-born Kebenei, who earned his U.S. citizenship in 2014, has had his share of heartbreak over the past three years. He’s finished 3rd, 2nd and 2nd at NCAAs in that span, losing to UTEP’s Anthony Rotich each time, including a tough tumble on the final barrier in 2014. This year, in his first U.S. Championship, Rotich was in contention to make the team to Beijing but again went down on the final lap after clipping a hurdle on the backstretch.
Still, Kebenei put together a very strong 2014-15 season overall for Arkansas (he was 6th at NCAA XC and 8th at USA XC) and should be in contention for the next few U.S. teams. It won’t be easy for him, though. Even though he just graduated from Arkansas in the spring, he’s only eight months younger than Jager and older than both Cabral and Bayer.
LRC 2014 men’s steeple rankings * LRC All 2014 Year-End Rankings *LRC 2015 WC steeple Recap Ezekiel Kemboi Cements Status As Greatest of All-Time; Evan Jager’s Medal Hopes Come Up Short *LRC In A Brave, Brave Run, Evan Jager Nearly Crushes The World’s Best In Men’s Steeple, Settles For 8:00.43 American Record