The anxiety Evan Jager dealt with over the past year was unlike any he had experienced since becoming a professional runner at age 19.
The best steeplechaser in U.S. history missed the 2019 World Track and Field Championships in the fall in Qatar. Jager, 30, had not raced since August 2018 and hoped that time away from racing and intense training would provide what the slight fracture in his left foot needed to heal.
Yet, as the months rolled by and Jager continued training, but not hurdling, he grew more concerned.
The 2016 Olympic silver medalist, a 2007 Jacobs graduate from Algonquin, wondered when, or if, he would be able to race the 3,000-meter steeplechase, a demanding race with 28 barriers and seven barriers followed by water pits, again.
Finally, early this month, Jager followed the urging of his hurdles coach Pascal Dobert and tried hurdling again. Jager was with a group of 24 Nike athletes who work with coach Jerry Schumacher that was training near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I was pretty nervous going into it,” Jager said. “I did a couple warmup drills that we do, did a stride next to the hurdle and pretended that I was going to do it and jumped off my left foot. It felt OK. I thought, ‘I might be able to do this.’ Then I went over the hurdle, and it felt OK. It was like a 180 [-degree] turn of emotions. I hurdled 20 times and actually felt really good doing it. It was almost like riding a bike, like I had never stopped. I came away from that really, really happy.”
Jager hopes to keep taking steps forward to the U.S. Olympic Trials in June and beyond. The 2020 Olympic Games will be in Tokyo, starting in late July. He plans to run in his third Olympics.
The foot pain kept flaring in the summer, which forced Jager to pass on the world championships. He took some time off, then came back to training, without hurdling because of the pounding his left foot absorbed with that motion.
Dobert kept asking, but a worried Jager kept declining.
“It frustrated me because I was running with foot pain literally every day last year,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Can’t do it today.’ [Dobert] brought it up again before we came here [Woodland Park, Colorado]. He wanted to start hurdling again if I could at high altitude. I had just lost so much confidence in my foot being able to take any extra impact. I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to hurdle.”
While hurdlers normally measure their steps so they can take off and land on the same leg each time, steeplechasers usually alternate legs. The race is too hard and the barriers too far apart to have their steps that exact.
“I was kind of concerned about both [pushing off and landing],” Jager said. “Things have been so rough, anything other than running in a straight line, at times, had been painful. Any sort of hopping on my left foot was really painful. Last summer, I was pretty down in the dumps. I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about things.”
Jager is in much better spirits now.
The next step will be competing again. He plans to race frequently between now and June 19, when the Olympic Trials start in Eugene, Oregon. Jager ran in college for Schumacher at Wisconsin for one year, then came with him to Nike as part of Schumacher’s professional group.
Jager lives and trains in Portland, Oregon. He leaves the racing schedule up to Schumacher.
“I plan on racing a bunch,” Jager said. “The thought process is I’ve been away from racing so long that I should probably race a decent amount, just to get back into the groove of things and remember what the pain of racing feels like and the competition. Just kind of get back into racing mode.”
Jager’s time at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was 8:04.28, 1 second behind Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto. They own the two fastest times in Olympic steeplechase history.
“My whole goal is getting just as fit as I can possibly be and get back to the same level of fitness that I was before the injury,” Jager said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work in practice because it’s been so long since I’ve run at that level.
“I’m going to have to dig really hard and make sure I’m getting everything out of myself in the workouts to make up for lost time. I’m focused on working as hard as I can and getting as fit as I can. I’ll gain a lot of confidence racing as long as things go decently well.”