Why Trail Runners Should Love Evan Jager
Trail runners? Love a 3,000-meter runner? From Algonquin, Illinois? That just ain’t right. At a graceful 140 pounds, the cleanshaven Evan Jager, 25, would look like a baby next to Rob Krar and his grisly mane. Karl Meltzer was slugging beer before Jager was born.
Jager, middle, in green, looking relaxed during the 2012 Olympic Trials. Photo courtesy of Phil Johnson, Tracktown Photo.
We trail runners are creatures of the woods—filthy socks and dirt-caked shoes warding off pavement and the rubber oval like talismans of garlic to the supernatural. Give us loose rocks and frozen slush and slick mud. Give us dusty legs. Give us eight-hour runs over the mountains. Don’t give us some hotshot track star.
Trail runners may disavow the delicate, slender-ankled athletes and the flapjack-flat quarter mile on principle, but to say there’s no overlap between the track and the trail would be a lie.
Just recently, Jim Walmsley—who was a 4:06 miler and 13:55 5K man at the United States Air Force Academy—careened his way to a first-place finish in the competitive Don’t Fence Me In 30K in the mountains of Montana. Max King, winner of the 2014 Chuckanut 50K, boasts a 10K road racing PR of 29:01. Megan Deakins, a contender in the 2014 La Sportiva Mountain Cup, ran a cool 16:32 5K while on the Duke University Track Team.
While some trail runners appreciate the sport’s quiet, peripheral existence, those of us who despair that cross country—or any other derivative of trail running—has not been an Olympic sport since 1924 may find comfort in the fact that there is one track-and-field event with off-road-running lineage—the steeplechase.
The event originated around the start of the 19th century as an equestrian race through the English countryside. Using church steeples (which were the tallest landmarks around) to navigate, mount and rider would dash from town to town leaping hedges, stone walls and rivers.
Horse contests gave way to foot races (Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, anyone?) around the mid-1800s, and the steeplechase became a track-and-field event in the 1900 Olympic Games. The seven-and-a-half-lap race features 28 three-foot-tall barriers that runners must hurdle, and seven combination barrier/water pits. The 12-foot-long water pits, which become shallower farther from the barrier, are over two-feet deep to start, encouraging runners to leap off the barrier to clear as much of the pool as possible.
First dominated by the Finns (and then, briefly, the Swedes who had flash-in-the-pan fame in the event by snagging gold, silver and bronze in the 1948 London Olympics), Kenyans now rule the sport, sweeping the podium in the Athens and Barcelona Olympics and snatching two of the top three places in the steeple in every Olympic Games since Seoul in 1988. Kenyans have also claimed two of the top three places in the event in the IAAF World Championships (held every two years) since 1991, with the exception of 2003 where only one Kenyan made the podium. They swept the medals in 2007.
Kenyan runners hold 162 of the 200 fastest times ever run for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. That’s 81 percent. Of the fastest times ever recorded. In the history of the event. From a country that claims 0.6 percent of the world’s population. But poised to interrupt this East African dominance is a long-limbed, sweat-banded, Midwestern underdog.