By Jonathan Gault
July 21, 2017
Two years ago in Paris, Evan Jager ran the fastest steeplechase ever by an American, 8:00.45. But Jager’s memories of that day are bittersweet; on pace for a sub-8:00 and a historic Diamond League victory, Jager fell after clearing the final barrier and had to settle for second place behind Kenya’s Jairus Birech.
Tonight at the Herculis Diamond League meet in Monaco, Jager ran the second-fastest steeplechase ever by an American, and while the time was slower, the performance was more impressive. In Paris, despite a healthy lead, Jager was struggling to hold on to the blazing pace over the final lap and ultimately that fatigue won out over the final barrier. In Monaco, Jager looked in total control as he demolished the field over the final lap. Only once he successfully cleared the final barrier and made a last-ditch effort for sub-8:00 did he betray any hint of strain, but by then the outcome was beyond doubt.
It was a magnificent performance by an athlete operating at the peak of his powers, and a historic one as well. Jager’s win was the first-ever in a Diamond League steeple by a non-African man, and his 8:01.29 winning time was a 2017 world leader. And with Olympic champ Conseslus Kipruto battling an ankle injury, it’s not blasphemous to say it: Evan Jager, an American, is the favorite for World Championship gold in London.
In a bit of revenge for Paris 2015, Birech was second in 8:07.68 while third place went to another American, Stanley Kebenei, who slashed 10 seconds off his personal best to run 8:08.30 and move to #2 on the U.S. all-time list.
This one was pretty simple. In our pre-race podcast with Jager, he told us that he planned to run near the front and challenge for the win and aside from the rabbits, he led every step of this one. The pace was fairly quick through 2k (5:25.40, or 8:08 pace) and once the final rabbit stepped off, it was Jager leading Birech, Benjamin Kigen and Kebenei in a pack of four up front.
Jager looked supremely comfortable and on the penultimate lap, with the chasers strung out single-file behind him, was threatening to break the race wide open. On the home stretch, that’s exactly what happened as Jager’s lead was 15 meters by the bell and would only continue to grow. Jager looked terrific and by the backstretch, the race was essentially over.
Only a fall could derail Jager, but he cleared the final barriers with no issues. Glancing the clock entering the home stretch, Jager launched into a sprint in an effort to get under 8:00 but it was not to be. Upon crossing the finish line, a wry smile spread across his face, Jager perhaps realizing that sub-8:00 was there for the taking had he moved a little earlier.
Jager’s close tonight was simply incredible. He ran his final kilometer in around 2:35 — 7:45 pace! — his final two laps in 2:03.3 and his final lap in 60.3. Closing that fast over barriers (with no one to chase) off such a hot pace is gold-medal stuff. Remember, last year in Rio, Kipruto set an Olympic record of 8:03.28 and closed his final lap in 60.1 (granted, he had essentially slowed to a walk by the finish line).
|2||Jairus Kipchoge BIRECH||KEN||8:07.68||7|
|3||Stanley Kipkoech KEBENEI||USA||8:08.30||6|
|10||Haron Kiptoo LAGAT||KEN||8:36.04|
|Justus Kipkorir LAGAT||KEN||DNF|
|John Kibet KOECH||BRN||DNS|
Quick Take: Yes, Evan Jager is the favorite in London
Considering Olympic gold medalist Conseslus Kipruto is banged up (he dropped out of Rabat and was a late scratch tonight, though he said he is running Worlds), it’s not a total shock that Jager, last year’s silver medalist, is now the favorite.
But historically, it’s a huge anomaly. Dating back to 1988, the last 21 World/Olympic champions have all been born in Kenya.
Considering the ease with which Jager ran that 8:01 tonight, he is the man to beat in London. Still, there are cases to be made for a few other guys. Let’s run through the men who could challenge Jager at Worlds:
1) Soufiane El Bakkali
You could make a compelling argument that El Bakkali should be viewed as co-favorite with Jager. The 21-year-old Moroccan ran 8:05.17 to win in Rabat last week, and his margin of victory over Birech was 5.79 seconds compared to Jager’s 6.39 tonight. El Bakkali also had a slower winning time (8:05.12) and slower last lap (60.8) but he was also celebrating and waving to the crowd with 200 meters to go while Jager was going all-out in the final straight.
2) Conseslus Kipruto
Kipruto’s ankle was not strong enough to run on in Rabat and he skipped Monaco as a precautionary measure, but he’s won both of the races he has entered this year, including an 8:04.63 head-to-head victory over El Bakkali in Rome on June 8. The first round of the steeple is 16 days from now. Kipruto will need every one of those days to get his ankle healthy as he’ll need to be close to 100% to win with Jager in this form.
“I will not be running as do not want to risk before London,” Kipruto told the IAAF after withdrawing. “It is a precautionary measure with my ankle. Running is going well but jumping is risky at this point. But no worries for World Championships, I will be there.”
3) Brimin Kipruto
The 2008 Olympic champ is getting up there in age (he turns 32 on July 31) but he was second at the Kenyan Trials and is the reigning bronze medalist. But he hasn’t run any Diamond League meets this year.
4) Ezekiel Kemboi
Yes, he’s 35 and has raced once all year (8:33 in Rome), but we’ll never count out the greatest steepler of all time. Kemboi has a habit of showing up to Worlds and winning after a string of disappointing performances. Could he possibly win a fifth straight world title in London?
Quick Take: What a run from Stanley Kebenei
If it weren’t for Jager, Kebenei is the one we’d be going gaga over as he absolutely crushed his personal best to run 8:08.30 tonight. As you’ll have noticed from the previous point, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the steeplechase right now and Kebenei could be the beneficiary. 8:08.30 puts Kebenei #5 in the world. Jager and El Bakkali both look like good bets to medal, but Kipruto isn’t fully healthy. The only other guy ahead of Kebenei this year is Birech, and Kebenei finished just .62 behind him tonight. Two American medals in the steeplechase? It’s not inconceivable.