Q&A: Evan Jager on His Return to the Steeple, Taking on New Rivals from Ethiopia, and How Long He Plans to Continue Running Professionally

By Jonathan Gault
May 19, 2021

Nine-hundred and ninety-three days have passed since Evan Jager finished a steeplechase at the Diamond League final in Zurich on August 30, 2018 (Jager has no plans to race this weekend, which means he will pass the 1,000-day mark a week from today). That was the race in which Jager landed hard on his left foot during a water jump, fracturing the talus bone in his ankle, an injury that would be misdiagnosed and lead to the most frustrating year of Jager's career. The greatest American steeplechaser of all time did not race at all in 2019, snapping his streak of seven straight national titles and preventing him from seeking a third global medal to go with the Olympic silver and World Championship bronze he won in 2016 and 2017.

Jager returned in 2020 with solid performances at 3000 (7:38) and 5000 meters (13:12), but as of today, less than a month out from the US Olympic Trials, he still has not raced a steeple since 2018. As a result, Jager does not have the Olympic standard of 8:22.00 -- which he will need in order to make his third successive Olympic team in June.

Jager, 31, has not been invisible. He ran 7:42 for 3000 meters at the Prickly Pear Invite in Arizona in February and has served as a pacemaker for his Bowerman Track Club teammates at The TEN in February and, most recently, at Mt. SAC on May 9, where he paced the first two kilometers of a race in which Sean McGorty ran 8:20.77 in his steeple debut.

But the fact that Jager didn't run the full distance in the latter race raised some questions. So I reached out to Jager last week, where we chatted on the phone about his rabbit job at Mt. SAC, when he plans on opening up (for real) in the steeple, how the event has changed since he last raced it, and much more.

Note: Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

LRC: I’ve gotta ask: why didn’t you race the full distance at Mt. SAC?

EJ: You saw the bruise on my shoulder, right?

I did see that. We’ll get to that.

No, that’s not why. I’m just joking. I thought it was funny that you thought I didn’t finish the race because of the bruise on my shoulder.

I tried to word my tweet carefully -- I said it was something to consider.

[caption id="attachment_251288" align="alignright" width="400"] Jager performed cupping treatment on his right shoulder ahead of Mt. SAC[/caption]

[laughs] No, I know. I’m just giving you shit. That was nothing. I just did a little cupping on my shoulder because it tends to get really tight and throw some other things off.

I had some Achilles issues this winter and spring and it just really, really delayed my training a lot more than I was hoping fo

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By Jonathan Gault
May 19, 2021

Nine-hundred and ninety-three days have passed since Evan Jager finished a steeplechase at the Diamond League final in Zurich on August 30, 2018 (Jager has no plans to race this weekend, which means he will pass the 1,000-day mark a week from today). That was the race in which Jager landed hard on his left foot during a water jump, fracturing the talus bone in his ankle, an injury that would be misdiagnosed and lead to the most frustrating year of Jager’s career. The greatest American steeplechaser of all time did not race at all in 2019, snapping his streak of seven straight national titles and preventing him from seeking a third global medal to go with the Olympic silver and World Championship bronze he won in 2016 and 2017.

Jager returned in 2020 with solid performances at 3000 (7:38) and 5000 meters (13:12), but as of today, less than a month out from the US Olympic Trials, he still has not raced a steeple since 2018. As a result, Jager does not have the Olympic standard of 8:22.00 — which he will need in order to make his third successive Olympic team in June.

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Jager, 31, has not been invisible. He ran 7:42 for 3000 meters at the Prickly Pear Invite in Arizona in February and has served as a pacemaker for his Bowerman Track Club teammates at The TEN in February and, most recently, at Mt. SAC on May 9, where he paced the first two kilometers of a race in which Sean McGorty ran 8:20.77 in his steeple debut.

But the fact that Jager didn’t run the full distance in the latter race raised some questions. So I reached out to Jager last week, where we chatted on the phone about his rabbit job at Mt. SAC, when he plans on opening up (for real) in the steeple, how the event has changed since he last raced it, and much more.

Note: Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

LRC: I’ve gotta ask: why didn’t you race the full distance at Mt. SAC?

EJ: You saw the bruise on my shoulder, right?

I did see that. We’ll get to that.

No, that’s not why. I’m just joking. I thought it was funny that you thought I didn’t finish the race because of the bruise on my shoulder.

I tried to word my tweet carefully — I said it was something to consider.

Jager performed cupping treatment on his right shoulder ahead of Mt. SAC

[laughs] No, I know. I’m just giving you shit. That was nothing. I just did a little cupping on my shoulder because it tends to get really tight and throw some other things off.

I had some Achilles issues this winter and spring and it just really, really delayed my training a lot more than I was hoping for and so I’m just kind of getting into the swing of things now and still having some minor, lingering issues with the Achilles area. And so I haven’t done a ton of steeple work yet and I just didn’t want to go full-on, 100% into an 8:20s or 8:10s steeple race for basically my second steeple session in three years. I was just trying to be smart and take things step-by-step and just do what I thought was right for my body.

Obviously, [the] 2k went pretty well. I was happy with being able to pace it as evenly as I did and I felt really strong going through 2k leading the whole time. So that was definitely a good step forward for me. There will be another opportunity at Portland Track Festival [on May 28] and we’ll probably race there and try to get the Olympic standard (8:22.00) there.

The race at Mt. SAC, how did it feel going over barriers again. How often had you run over them since August 2018?

I’ve done some hurdling intermittently. I probably hurdled maybe a couple of times over the winter last year, 2020. And I was still having some lingering foot issues all of last year, so with the Olympics being postponed, we didn’t think it was incredibly necessary or smart to hammer full training. So we kind of left it on the backburner last year.

This year, I did some this fall and obviously my Achilles flared up. So my first steeple workout was eight days before Mt. SAC. I hadn’t gone over water jumps until that day since 2018. Definitely hasn’t been ideal, but I actually felt surprisingly good in that rabbit job. I was telling [Bowerman TC assistant coach] Shalane [Flanagan] yesterday that I wasn’t really expecting to feel like this, but I was super excited to get back into a steeple and be in my event, back what I’m most comfortable doing. It was a ton of fun. I wasn’t expecting to feel like that, I thought it was just going to be another race. There’s still room to get smoother over the barriers with hurdling, but I felt pretty good.

Jager winning his seventh US title in 2018 (Courtesy Talbot Cox)

I know 2019 with the injuries was a really frustrating year for you. And now in 2021, it’s an Olympic year and it might not be as severe, but you say you’ve got these Achilles issues. You’re still not 100% healthy. How frustrating is it that even after all that time you missed in 2019, that now it’s time to go again and your body’s still not quite where you want it to be?

Right now, I’m actually not frustrated at all. The foot thing was the most frustrating thing I’ve ever been through. It either didn’t feel right or hurt pretty much every single day walking around or running from the time I injured it in Zurich [in August 2018] all the way up until a couple months ago. I feel like I’m at a point now where the foot issues are behind me and having a minor Achilles or calf issue right now, I feel like I know how to deal with a calf issue or an Achilles issue. So it’s much less frustrating for me. Whereas the foot, it just felt like no matter what I did, it was not getting better. Not feeling like myself when I was running was the most frustrating thing in the world for me, so I feel like that’s behind me and having a little soft tissue injury, it’s like a gift for me at this point. So actually, I’m okay with this.

For the full backstory on Jager’s 2019 injury struggles, click here.

I did want to ask about that red discoloration on your shoulder [at Mt. SAC]. You said it was cupping. Was that extreme cupping or something? Because I’ve seen the cupping marks before and that was way bigger and broader than I’ve ever seen.

No. I just did it myself. I’ve got a silicone cupping set of my own and I just realized that things weren’t feeling great after the travel to Mt. SAC. I’m like, hmm, what’s going on? I stretched, I did a bunch of activation drills and it didn’t really help. And then I noticed my shoulder was really, really tight. And so I probably only did a few minutes of cupping, but I guess it was so big because I did it in like four different spots all in the same area and each one made a little bruise. So I guess that’s why it looked that big. It made things feel a lot better, so it’s obviously nothing to worry about. It’s just a shoulder.

Let’s say you don’t get the Olympic standard at Portland Track Festival. Would you be worried if you go into the Trials without the standard?

I mean, yeah, I guess there would be a slight level of anxiety because of that. But most years at USAs or the Trials, we’ve run right around 8:20 or in the 8:10s. I would hope that I would be fit enough to do what was needed in either the prelim or final – to run the time. If I’m in that position, I’m okay with making the race a little bit faster. But I fully plan on getting the time at Portland Track Festival.

Do you still view yourself as the favorite at the Trials?

I don’t know. What would you say?

It’s a good question. That’s why I asked you it. I would say yes.

I would guess most people would think of me as the favorite.

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But do you think of yourself as the favorite?

Yeah, probably. I don’t think I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in leading into a USAs or a Trials, but I have got to imagine most people are thinking of me as the favorite.

So you medalled at the last two global champs that you competed at. 2018, you were third in the Diamond League final. Do you think you can get back to that level?

I do. I definitely do. I have no choice but to believe that, and I’m in a position right now where I’m going to be gaining fitness every week and I think I’m going to have a lot of momentum with me and a lot of positive energy because of that. And so I’m going to be thinking right now, my plan is just to slam training from now until the Trials and do my best to make the team. And if I do make the team, just slam training for another four to five weeks and gear up for the Olympics. Championship racing, you never know what to expect and I’m just going to put myself in the best position possible in first the Trials and then the Olympics if I make the team.

We’re skipping ahead here. But if you do make the team, do you feel it’s harder to medal this year than it was when you medalled in 2016? Because I’m sure you’ve noticed during your time away from the event: Ethiopia is suddenly good at the steeplechase now.

Yes. For sure. The talent at the top is definitely deeper right now. The two Ethiopians (2019 Diamond League champ Getnet Wale and 2019 World Championship silver medalist Lamecha Girma) are really good, [Soufiane] El Bakkali is really good, there’s a couple of other low-8:00s guys that haven’t been there in the past. And if Conseslus [Kipruto] is going to be there, obviously he’s really good. So yeah, I think the event is definitely stronger now, but I’ve always been a strength runner in the steeple and so I don’t necessarily think that a faster race is bad for me. So having more people to share the load, it’s kind of a relief. Because both in Rio and London, I had to lead from over a mile out, which is not easy to do. So hopefully, if I do make the team, I won’t have to lead a mile of the final.

When you saw the results from Lievin this year, with Getnet Wale running 7:24 and Lamecha Girma running 7:27…what’s your reaction when you see those times?

Uh, my reaction was, I’m in trouble. I was definitely super surprised that they ran that fast. I mean, 7:24 is not a time that I have ever thought that I would be able to run in a flat 3k. That’s a whole ‘nother level. It didn’t really seem like a good thing for me, personally.

But I do think that one of my strengths in the steeplechase is being really good at barriers and the water jump to where I can make up a little bit of ground on some of the other guys who might be faster than me over 1500 or 3k, for that matter. Definitely was a little wakeup call, just seeing how fast those guys are. But the steeple is a different event. It was impressive.

So you’re 32 years old. Do you think this is your last shot at an Olympic gold medal?

I don’t know. How old was [Ezekiel] Kemboi in 2016?

I can look that up right now. He was 33.

33? Oh wow.

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Sorry, that was in 2015 [when he won his last global title, so he was 34 in 2016].

Hmm. Yeah. It could be. I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m gonna feel. I guess the only benefit is the next Olympics is only three years away. It could be. I don’t know how I’m gonna feel three years from now. I probably on paper have a better shot this year than three years from now.

Well, that kind of leads to my next question. How much longer do you plan to continue running professionally?

Well, I just signed a new contract this offseason with Nike. I have three years and then two option years, so potentially five more years including this year. And then I think at that point, I would be in a situation where I’d probably have to wait until then to reassess.

But [retirement] doesn’t seem like something you’re really considering in the near term?

No. I’m still hungry. I’m still having fun. I love training with the guys. When I’m healthy, running is still one of my favorite things in the world to do. I want to keep doing it as long as I’m competitive and running well and having fun. I’m not starting to plan the next stage of life yet.

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