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DES MOINES (22-Jun) -- Running in the first round of the men's 3000m steeplechase here today at the USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium, Evan Jager was thinking about more than just qualifying for Sunday's final. The 29 year-old Nike Bowerman Track Club athlete, who won his heat in workman-like fashion in 8:31.79, was also thinking about his legacy.
The 2016 Olympic silver medalist has won six consecutive national steeplechase titles, one short of Henry Marsh's record seven consecutive titles from 1981 to 1987. (Marsh earned nine total titles from 1978 to 1987).
"I definitely have some pride in the consecutive titles I've won," Jager told the media earnestly. "I would like to keep that going."
Marsh's accomplishments have been an inspiration for Jager, who was a 3:38 1500m runner when he took up the steeplechase in 2012 at the Mt. SAC Relays. Under coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert (Dobert was a three-time USA steeplechase champion himself), Jager quickly went from a solid 8:26.14 in his debut, to an American record 8:06.81 just three months later.
Since then, he has dominated the men's steeplechase in the United States, lowered his own American record to 8:00.45, and scored top-6 finishes in each of the last five global championships, including a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships last summer in London.
"For sure, I'm aware," Jager said of Marsh's record. "It's been a goal of mine since I've started steepling, to see how many we can make it in a row."
In his heat today, Jager calmly ran with the pack for the first four laps, before he broke away with Hilary Bor with three laps to go. He stayed out of trouble, ran conservatively and give himself a good grade for his performance.
"It's either an 'A' or an 'F' in this situation, I think," Jager said of qualifying for a final. "I was able to relax with two laps to go, then I just strung it out a little bit."
Bor finished a comfortable second in 8:32.37, and he could challenge Jager's hegemony in the final. Bor, who represents the U.S. Army, finished seventh at the 2016 Olympic Games and has a 8:11.82 personal best.
"The heats are always the hardest one," Bor told Race Results Weekly. "It's a little bit pressure, so I decided to take it out after three laps."
Other key qualifiers for the final included Andy Bayer, Stanley Kebenei, Donn Cabral (a two-time Olympian who is now a law student), and Haron Lagat.
The 800m semi-finals were also held today, and they went mostly to form. On the women's side, two-time national outdoor champion and world championships bronze medalist Ajee' Wilson won the first section in 1:59.34 via a second-lap break away where she was joined by rising star Ce'Aira Brown who finished second in 1:59.49. Wilson sees Brown as a potential threat in the final.
"She's having an awesome year, a really great year," Wilson said of Brown. "I'm happy for her. Not just the eight, but the 1500 too." She continued: "She's definitely someone to watch in the eight."
Wilson's training partner Charlene Lipsey was the runner-up in the second heat, clocking 2:00.25 behind former Oregon Duck Raevyn Rogers (2:00.17).
"It's the second round; the main thing is making finals," Lipsey said. "Today, top-4 make it. Just running as smooth as possible and get ready for the finals."
At this year's championships, the top-4 from each semi-final advanced, instead of the top-3 plus the next two fastest times. That qualifying algorithm went against Laura Roesler who ran 2:00.84 in the second heat --faster than all but the first two in the first heat-- but since she finished fifth she was eliminated. The other finalists for Sunday are Sabrina Southerland, Kaela Edwards, Olivia Baker and Hanna Green.
In the men's 800m semi-finals Erik Sowinski took charge of the first semi and won from the front in 1:46.39. A surprising last 50 meters for Brandon Lasater saw the Atlanta Track Club athlete go from sixth to second in 1:46.66 to qualify for his first national final.
"I knew what I needed to do," Lasater told Race Results Weekly, remembering where he was with 200 meters to go. "It felt good. Coaches are going to be a little mad because they didn't want me that far back. After the first break, I wasn't up there."
Penn State's Isaiah Harris won the second heat, rounding the final bend in the lead and pulling away from Clayton Murphy and Abraham Alvarado. Harris, the recently-crowned NCAA champion, clocked 1:47.07 to Murphy's 1:47.51 and Alvarado's 1:47.56. Drew Piazza edged Quamel Prince to take the final qualifying spot, 1:47.69 to 1:47.73.
"I feel good," Harris proclaimed. "Legs are feeling really, really good." He added: "Ready to go, ready to try to win it on Sunday."
Murphy took a measured approach to today's race, and tried not to waste any energy chasing Harris in the final sprint.
"It's all about being top four," Murphy explained. "I got position, ran smart, and got through to Sunday."
The final two qualifiers from the first heat were Robert Ford (1:46.83) and Jesse Garn (1:46.82).
Middle and long distance action continues here tomorrow with the women's steeplechase final (Emma Coburn vs. Courtney Frerichs), the women's 1500m final (Jenny Simpson vs. Shelby Houlihan), and the men's 1500m final (Matthew Centrowitz vs. everybody else).