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Running through quicksand

US record holder Evan Jager is one of the world’s finest steeplechasers. He tells SPIKES why his event is one of the sport's most demanding.

Why did you opt to compete in the steeplechase?

I took to it really quickly. Endurance athletes who run up to 100 miles a week in a straight line lose a lot of agility and responsiveness, but I believe I’m one of the more athletic distance runners. I feel my naturally bouncy stride helps me get over the barriers.

Why do you believe you are one of the more athletic distance runners?

If you were to line up ten distance runners, I would guess that most couldn’t slam dunk (a basketball) but I can jump to the rim pretty easily, so I think I have a little more explosiveness. I also played a lot of soccer as a youngster and I think that helped my agility.

To what extent does plain old endurance play in creating a top steeplechaser?

While I think good 5k running ability is important I don’t believe putting a great 5k runner into the steeplechase will translate to immediate success. There’s definitely an X-factor involved and it is hard to tell whether an athlete has it or not.

steeple people ()

Water jumps: The good, the bad and the "very ugly"

Some say the levels of fatigue endured in the steeplechase are unique. Is this true?

Often the first lap of a steeplechase is run at 10km pace and appears really easy. But jumping over the barrier and water jump is jarring, it can really fatigue the muscles and it can come on very quickly. In the 1500m you experience lactate and you just try to fight through it.

For the 10km the fatigue wears on you very slowly and the 5km is somewhere between the two. The steeplechase is similar (to the 5000m) except you’ve also got the looming threat of having to jump over the 36inch barriers. It brings a total different level of pain and exhaustion. You can’t comprehend it until you have run a steeple

During a race do you start to become very conscious of the barriers?

Usually only on the last lap. In Monaco (when he ran the US record of 8:06.81 in 2012) I felt really good coming off the second to last lap. Then on the last lap as soon as I tried to put in a surge the pain just hit me. I had to take the rest of the race one barrier at a time.

At each one I would be exponentially more tired and I had to put more energy just to get over the barrier. That last water barrier is by far the scariest part, especially when you are trying to kick down to low eight minutes.

Can you describe the pain?

It’s like running through quicksand.

Can you describe your race strategy?

Tactically it is similar to a 5k, but the barriers add a different dynamic. Championship steeplechase races are rarely run in a way where you are slowly accelerating. I’ve realised by looking at (Ezekiel) Kemboi (world and Olympic champion) and Conseslus (Kipruto, world silver medallist) they often put in a hard surge with 250 or 300m to go.

They then make sure that they clear the barrier and then hit it really hard – like three of four sprints over the final lap. To be able to sprint, recover and then go again is key to being able to close well at major championships.

Evan Jager Trials ()

"I feel my naturally bouncy stride helps me get over the barriers"

Have you had any bad tumbles?

I once fell into the water pit on the last lap and I’ve had a few very ugly last water jumps. In my second ever steeple, I was exceptionally tired and I couldn’t even get my foot down on top of the barrier. I went straight into the water - very embarrassing.

How significant is it to get the water barrier right?

My first year of racing the steeplechase I couldn’t quite get the technique right until it finally clicked at the Olympic Trials (2012). (Up until that point) my coach, Jerry Schumacher thought I was losing eight to ten seconds a race because my water barriers were so bad.

What is your motivation for competing in the steeplechase?

It is completely different to any of the other distance events. It is a lot of fun. The barriers give me something to focus and concentrate on. For me, it is fun to hurdle with really good form.

Read Evan Jager's guide to the steeplechase in the special Oregon 2014 edition of SPIKES, available online here.