Evan Jager hardly qualifies as a seasoned steeplechase veteran, but after 16 months competing in the grueling 3,000-meter race, he has reached a comfort level.
The 2007 Jacobs graduate finished fifth in the steeplechase at the World Track and Field Championships last month in Moscow, the 12th steeplechase race of his career.
“I’m more comfortable in the event, I’m more confident,” Jager said. “I don’t really feel like I have to do something way above my fitness level to be able to compete with the top three guys. I feel like I should be up there.”
While his finish was one spot higher than his place in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Jager feels like he has narrowed the gap. Olympic gold medalist Ezekiel Kemboi won the world race as well, in 8:06.01, but this time Jager finished at 8:08.67. Jager was 5.33 seconds behind Kemboi in the Olympics.
Jager returned to Algonquin recently to visit his parents, Joel and Cathy, and to attend the Jacobs High School Hall of Fame induction Friday night. Jager, John Bradshaw (1979), LaShawna Canty (2000), Eric Vierneisel (2004) and Kate Kelly (1987) will be inducted at the ceremony Friday before the McHenry vs. Jacobs football game.
Jager said, without hesitation, his race in Moscow was better than the Olympics race.
“Last year was a really slow race,” he said. “I went up to the front [in London], which I normally wouldn’t do, and I don’t know if it took much out of me, but to stay mentally and physically as relaxed as possible during a race, it’s easier to stay behind a couple guys and let them dictate the pace. I was very, very happy with the way this race went. It was a better race for me.”
Jager won four state running titles at Jacobs – one in cross country and three in track and field – and was recruited to Wisconsin by former Badgers cross country coach Jerry Schumacher. Jager achieved All-American status as a freshman in track, just before Schumacher was hired by Nike.
Schumacher saw Jager’s potential and invited him to Oregon with him to train and run professionally. After talking it over with his parents, he joined Schumacher in the Portland area. Schumacher and former steeplechaser Pascal Dobert coach Jager.
Jager competed at different distances, but Schumacher and Dobert looked at his natural athletic ability and his 6-foot-2 frame and figured Jager as a natural for the steeplechase, which has 28 hurdles and seven water barrier jumps. He ran seven steeplechases last year and five this year.
“He did an awesome job at worlds,” Dobert said. “From where he was a year ago, he was a lot closer at the end. Last year, when they pulled away, he was gassed and had a hard time keeping up. This year, he was pretty much with those guys. He did a remarkable job and made big, big steps from last year.”
While the U.S. has competed well in other distance races, it is still behind African and European nations in the steeplechase. Jager ran the U.S. record 8:06.81 in the steeplechase two weeks before the Olympics last summer.
Schumacher sent five of his athletes to St. Moritz, Switzerland, a few weeks before the World Championships to train at high altitude. Jager, Lopez Lomong, Dan Huling, Chris Derrick and Shalane Flanagan were based in St. Moritz for more than a month.
Although Jager and his teammates were in one of the most beautiful vacation spots in the world, their trip was all business.
“We were stuck in our hotel, pretty much all day, except for when we were training,” Jager said. “It’s great for training, really nice paths through the city and in the woods, there’s mountains all around you.”
Jager has seen some exotic places during travels for competition and is compiling a list of places to which he would someday like to return.
Jager has continued training while in Algonquin for Sunday’s Fifth Ave. Mile in Manhattan. Then, he will fly back to Oregon and take a break from training for a couple weeks.
“There’s supposed to be like 23 guys, mostly Americans, some great talent there,” Jager said. “It’s usually kind of a fun end-of-the-season race. It’s still fast, it will probably take 3:52 or 3:53 to win it, but it’s low pressure. You finish the race and have the day and night in New York and have fun with other athletes.”
The next step for Jager likely will not differ much from his last offseason. He feels sometimes that consistent training is underrated, so he, Schumacher and Dobert will try to build on what he has been doing.
There is one aspect of the steeplechase he wants to resolve – the final lap. The real race usually starts in the final two laps of the seven-lap race. The final lap is where the Kenyans really excelled.
“What the Kenyans do very well is accelerate a bunch of different times, they kind of base it off the hurdles,” Jager said. “They put in a short burst, slow up a little bit and take the hurdle, put in another short burst, then a hurdle. After the water jump, they’re almost sprinting, then they take the last hurdle and sprint hard again. I’m going to have to figure out how to try and make the last lap less of a gradual acceleration and put in some of those quick surges. It could be pretty tough to work on.”
Dobert looks forward to working with Jager the next year, since the 2016 Olympics are still three years away and there is no World Championships. Jager will run in some Diamond League series races and spend time training in Europe again.
“Evan’s such a good flat runner, he can pretty much run anything, his range is crazy,” said Dobert, pointing to Jager’s eighth-place finish in 13:02 in a 5,000-meter race in Brussels after the World Championships. “I’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of steeplechasers who can do that. You have some of the best guys in the world. For a young guy like Evan [24 years old], his first serious 5K, it was remarkable. And it was at the end of the season. He hit it out of the park.”