U.S. Runner Evan Jager's Triumph… and Face-Plant

07_07_Jager_01
US runner Evan Jager falls after tipping his trailing foot on the hurdles, allowing Kenya's Jairus Kipchoge Birech to win the men's 3,000m Steeplechase race during the Meeting Areva - IAAF Diamond League at Stade de France, on July 04, 2015 in Paris. Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu/Getty

What will Evan Jager remember longer about his 3,000-meter race last Saturday in Paris: the fact that he shattered his American record or the fall that cost him both the race and the distinction of being the first non-African to eclipse the 8-minute barrier in track’s most unforgiving event?

“I’m incredibly pissed right now,” Jager said after his second-place finish at the Diamond League meet during which he ran an 8:00.45, obliterating his U.S. recordon Independence Dayby more than four seconds.

For the 26-year-old University of Wisconsin alum, Saturday’s race turned from ecstasy to agony in the final 100 meters. After clearing the penultimate barrier, the water jump, Jager led Jairus Birech of Kenya by approximately 10 meters. Victory, as well as a time that began with a “7” appeared imminent.

Rounding the final turn, the Algonquin, Ill., native spotted a ground-level timer on the track’s infield. It read 7:40. “I just got really happy and I was like, I’m gonna break eight!” Jager told reporters moments after the race. “This is crazy. A split-second after that I was like, You gotta focus. You gotta get over this last barrier.”

The buzz inside the Stade de France swelled. The lanky Jager, clad in red and black, with his blond ponytail tied in a bun, planted his left foot. He kicked forward with his right foot toward the 3-foot tall barrier. It cleared the hurdle. Now he just had to get his trail leg up and over...

For nearly half a century Kenya has owned the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics the Kenyans won gold and silver, a feat they would replicate in 1972, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. With the exception of the two Olympics Kenya boycotted (1976 and 1980), this African nation has produced a gold medalist in every Olympics since ‘68.

At the biennial World Championships, Kenyans have won gold 10 of 12 times since 1991. They’ve also won silver 11 of the past 12 times. This tortuous race, 7 ½ laps and 35 barriers, is their domain. Five of the top six finishers at last Saturday’s meet were Kenyan. The sixth? Jager.

Jager’s left leg cleared that final barrier. As did his knee, his ankle, his foot… no. A toe, at most, clipped the top of the red barrier. Jager landed on his right foot, but then the lanky runner took a wobbly stop on his left before he stumbled and fell. Jager, who finished sixth at the London Olympics two summers ago, barrel-rolled one revolution and then sprang up. But it was too late.

Birech whizzed past Jager and won in 7:58.83. Jager sprinted home in 8:00.45 and then slapped a barrier with both hands. The next-closest finisher was a full nine seconds behind.

“After I crossed the [finish] line, all [the Kenyans] were congratulating me,” said Jager. “But I was pretty annoyed at the time, so I was just yelling at myself.

“I couldn’t believe how fast I was running.”

Neither could the Kenyans. They’ll all next meet at the end of August in Beijing at the World Championships, where an American has never medaled in this event.