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Evan Jager’s Return To The World Stage After Four Years Of Injuries, Setbacks and Emotional Lows

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“I’m honestly so happy to get back to this level of running and feeling healthy running again and feeling like myself again. U.S. Champs was one of the most rewarding races of my career, honestly. With everything that I had been through the last four years, the deep, deep belief in myself never went away but there was a lot of doubt that I couldn’t get past until I finally had the race result to prove it to me. That was that race. It did a lot for my confidence for the rest of the season for sure.”

My guest for this episode is American record holder, Olympic silver medalist and world championship bronze medalist Evan Jager of the Nike Bowerman Track Club. I had him on as a guest back in 2019 as part of a panel with his teammates but this is the first time that he’s on as a guest solo. Things are much different now. He missed much of the last four years due to injury but clawed his way back in 2022 to qualify for the World Championships with a runner-up finish at the USATF Outdoor Championships in June. He made the world championship final a month later and finished sixth overall. He shares his thoughts on that performance, the season overall and what he’s learned throughout some of the lowest points in his career. We also touch on how he envisions the next two years going through the 2024 Paris Olympics if all goes well.

You can now listen to our conversation on The CITIUS MAG Podcast. Catch the latest episode of the podcast on Apple Podcasts. We are also on Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify.


evan jager steeplechase


NOTABLE QUOTES

On how fast he thought he could run by the end of the 2022 season

“I honestly went into Lausanne thinking I could run like 8:10. I think there’s a couple of things going on that warped my perception…All those other years, from 2012 to 2018, I was healthy that entire stretch. I didn’t have any hiccups. I missed high-level healthy training in the last four years and I just don’t think I had that depth of fitness or strength to draw upon for a really true fast race. I ran some pretty good steeple workouts this summer. One of them was in Portland after Worlds. That was one of the best on-paper workouts I’ve ever run over barriers but then I realized that I rarely ever do steeple workouts at sea level. Generally when I’m doing that type of session it’s at altitude and that makes it way harder. I also didn’t do any water jumps in the workout so that obviously makes it harder as well. I just did straight hurdles. It got me thinking that I was fitter than I actually was. At the same time, my body was feeling so good in comparison to how good I had felt the last four years. I was like, ‘I feel so good I must be incredibly fit.’ I had those two things going for me. The travel took a little bit more out of me than I thought. I thought going into Lausanne, I could go out in 2:40 for the first K and then check off 2:45/2:45 for an 8:10. That sounded pretty reasonable to me. I did basically that. I went out in 2:40, came back in 2:45 but then just got my doors blown off and the wheels came off. I was like 2:51 for the last K. I just didn’t have that reserve strength and fitness to carry me that last K. We’ll leave more out there for next year, hopefully.”

On how the steeplechase has changed in the last four years

 “There are two guys who are running faster: El Bakkali and Girma. When I was starting out, there were multiple guys who were capable of running 8:00 like Brimin Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi, Conseslus Kipruto (never did but he showed that he had the fitness to, if he ever needed to) and Paul Koech. There were definitely guys who could run 8:00 and had…Right now, it’s mainly Girma and El Bakkali and then there’s this big group of guys that are in the 8:04 to 8:10 range. There are more guys in that range than there were before and there are more non-Kenyans doing it. That’s what is different. You have Wale and Girma, who are like 7:24 and 7:26 flat 3K guys from indoor season a couple of years ago. El Bakkali has run like 3:30 or 3:31 for the 1500m and he ran a fast indoor 5K a few years ago. Those three guys are really legit flat runners. I guess the biggest difference is that if you look at five years ago, I feel like I was the only steepler who was doing a bunch of flat races. Mekhissi would do a 1500m like once a year basically or a couple of times. Other than him, everyone else only did steeples. I think you’re getting a couple more well-rounded athletes doing the steeplechase that have improved on their flat racing as well. I’ve always been a believer that’s going to make you a better steepler just by pushing your boundaries in the flat events and becoming a better overall runner. There’s been a couple of changes but I feel like it’s gotten deeper and there are two major studs at the top right now.”

On how he’s approaching his comeback to top form

“There’s part of me that just innately feels I should be at that level. That’s always a motivator for me to push myself and work hard to get to that point. I think I realized at this point in my career – I do still think I can medal but I’m more in the position where I was at the start of my career where I can get to the fitness to where I can medal but I’m not in a position like 2015-2018 where I know I’m the strongest guy in the field and if I just make it a hard race then I’m going to medal. That’s how I felt going into those championship races. I felt like I was a sub-13 / 3:32 guy and if I just made it a hard race, there weren’t going to be enough guys that could hang with me or outkick me to where I don’t medal. That’s just how I felt. I don’t feel like I’m not in that position right now. Maybe I don’t get back to that position but I can still get fit enough to where I can run tactically sound, run my best race, allow other people to make mistakes and maybe sneak in for a medal. I think it’s pretty obvious after Lausanne that El Bakkali is a lot fitter than me right now. Regardless of the style of race, he’s just going to have so much reserve fitness and running in him that I probably won’t be able to beat him in a championship race. I think third place was up for grabs this year. Conseslus was there but he was fading on the home stretch. Someone could’ve been there to pick up on his mistakes and pick up the pieces. I still think I can be that guy and who knows maybe surprise myself and get back to pretty good fitness and see where things go. I’m not going into next year thinking, OK I’ve got a year of healthy running under my legs so I’m going to be back to running 8:00, dictating all these races, controlling things from the front and dropping everyone. It’s a pretty big leap to make. I think I’m two-sided. I know where I’ve been the last four years but I always think of myself as that same athlete and want to be back there regardless.”

On how he envisioned finishing his career in 2016 vs. his perspective now

“Going back to 2016, if you had asked me that, I was 27 at the time so I think I would’ve said, ‘I’ll definitely run the steeple through the next two Olympic cycles in 2020 and 2024.’ I felt at the time that I had a really good chance at medaling in 2017, 2019 and 2020 and through 2021. That was a goal that Jerry and I had put together. I remember talking to him immediately after the race in London in 2017. I was pretty disappointed in bronze at the time and he’s like, ‘Hey! We’ve got three more championships coming up so if you can get one or two more medals out of those three championships, that’s an incredible career. Not a lot of people get to do that.’ That was the goal for me. Through 2021, get two more medals. Then, I’d start the next phase of my career where you’re still competitive and you could still medal but you’re not in the position to know you’re going to medal or finish in the top three…I didn’t have any set long term plans for after 2024.”

“When I started feeling good this summer, I felt good enough where I definitely feel like I can steeple through Paris. That’s my goal right now. Obviously, I just think the goal is to make the team. I’m just going to go into it thinking that anything could happen. It would be so poetic for me to get redemption in Paris after falling and running 8:00. It would be the same stadium. I want to go there without any expectations and just run my ass off and see what I can do. I’ll probably be in a similar position to how I was this year on the outside looking in. I’m going to need everything to go my way to absolutely fight for the medals. That would be the dream scenario. Even if I could just make the team again, that’s a huge goal for me. After Paris, LA? There’s no way I’m going to be steepling at 39. I don’t see my body holding up and being able to do that in another six years. That’s pretty unrealistic. The plan is still the same – run through Paris and then reassess things. If I’m still healthy and running really well, maybe give another event a shot and try something else. I’m not putting my focus on that yet. I’m trying to stay healthy at this point and get to 2024.”


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