Evan Jager told the media that this victory was the hardest one of his national titles. Here is how Mark Cullen saw the race.
Men’s steeplechase final takes on a familiar look
Apparently the men’s steeplechasers did not wish to be upstaged by Thursday’s dramatic women’s steeplechase final. The men’s race mirrored the women’s: similar tactics, similar pacing, similar last lap sprints – and similar bumps and falls over the crucial last water jump.
Evan Jager was his usual masterful pacing and tactical self. He took the lead earlier than he had planned and tightened the tourniquet on this accomplished field by running the last 4 laps in 64-62-62-62. That’s world class and no one could stay with him. The American record holder finished in 8:22.48, won his fifth consecutive US title, and made his second Olympic team.
NCAA champ Mason Ferlic led the pack through the first kilometer in a slow 2:58.04 – warmup pace for this deep and talented field. Then Jager took over.
“Without really thinking about it too much, I was just planning on going at a K or three laps to go,” said Jager. “I had a good water jump and found myself barely moving ahead of Mason with just over four laps to go. I found myself there and just decided to go for it… when I got to three laps to go my thinking was to try and go pretty hard and break the guys behind me. I had guys on me the whole time so it put a lot of pressure on me. I just tried to keep squeezing it down and run hard. It was a very tough last four laps for sure.”
It was heartbreak for Jager’s Bowerman Track Club teammate, Andrew Bayer, and Arkansas and Iowa Central graduate, Stanley Kebenei. Bayer stumbled early in the last lap. Then, as Kebenei fell at the last water jump, he appeared to bump Bayer just enough to throw him off his stride. As Bayer tried to regain his momentum, Hillary Bor, who sprinted from 5th to 2nd on the final lap, flew past Bayer and Kebenei.
Donn Cabral, who had doubted his ability to stay in Olympic qualifying position on the last lap, instead found himself perfectly positioned to take advantage of the chaos ahead of him.
“I was gapped by the top three and it looked like I wasn’t in contention to make the team at that point,” said the 2012 Olympian. “I just told myself, ‘I need to close the gap as much as I can now, so that at 150 I can get into the top three spot.’ I was worried because I wasn’t feeling that good and the gap wasn’t closing. I knew that in the Olympic Trials so far there has been a lot of chaos and at that late in a race. I knew that if I stayed as close as I could that something would happen, either a bad hurdle or an inefficient one and I’m generally efficient at the end.”
This end found him clear of all but two; his 8:26.37 was third only to Jager and to Hillary Bor’s 8:24.10, and Cabral is going to his second Olympics.
“I became a (US) citizen in 2013,” said Bor, who hails from Eldoret, Kenya, home of Olympic gold medalists Asbel Kiprop and David Rudisha, among other Kenyan notables. Bor is a graduate of the esteemed Iowa State distance program.
“When I joined the (US) military I stopped running and then I started running for fun. Last year was when I thought I had a chance [to make the Olympics] and started my coaching program up to now. I can’t believe I made the team.”
Looks like running for fun is working for Bor.
Bor said he learned a lot from yesterday’s women’s steeplechase final. “… (W)atching the women’s steeplechase yesterday, I realized two ladies fell and died on the last two laps, so I wanted to be close to the leader, but make sure I have enough space that when I make a move, I’ll be able to close. The last 200m I realized three of the guys in front of me were not moving that fast. I just tried to boost the last 200m.”
Boost it he did, all the way to Rio.
Jager has high expectations of himself in the Olympic Games.
“The last three global championships I’ve been 6th, 5th and 6th, and last year… in my mind I thought with how well my race in Paris went (when he fell and still set the American record of 8:00.45) I thought I should medal and I put a lot of pressure on myself in a very short amount of time. I had to change my mindset from thinking I could medal to thinking I should medal. That was a mistake mentally. I think it stressed me out a little bit too much and I need to get back to my race for sure…
“My focus and my goal is going to be trying to medal in Rio. I think I learned enough last year to where I know what my mentality needs to be going into Rio and what my race strategy needs to be as well.”