by Evan Jager
I thought I could get through one more race – and I did. But I had no idea at that time, in August of 2018, that it would be my last one for 18 months.
Right now we all have something that’s stopping us from racing, but for me, 2019 was a write-off for a very different reason: injuries.
As athletes, sometimes the biggest barrier we face can be our own bodies. It was May 2018 when I first noticed some issues: I had weird abdominal pain that got worse and worse throughout the season, and it slowly started moving into my groin and adductor area.
I couldn’t do any core work, couldn’t even get off the couch without pain, but I could still run – so that’s what I did. I won the US title in June, ran 8:01 in Monaco in July and, about 10 days before the Zurich Diamond League in August, I did one of the hardest steeplechase workouts of my life.
But after that, my hip started hurting more and more. The day before that meet in Zurich, I had an MRI scan because we thought it might be a stress fracture in my femur. It wasn't, but I had a tear in my iliacus, one of the hip flexor muscles.
'One more race,' I thought, then I could give it plenty of time to heal.
I ran okay on the night, finished third, but I can remember landing heavily at one of the water jumps which, as I learned many months later, caused an impact fracture in the talus bone in my ankle.
It was misdiagnosed at first, and after seven weeks off it didn’t feel any better. I got back running, but every step hurt. I could train, but as runners we know our bodies and I knew something was wrong.
The hardest bit was trying to run and not think about my foot on every step. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting, having to grit through that every day. It sucked all the enjoyment out of running.
In April last year I took another six weeks off and to make sure I kept all weight off my ankle, I’d get around on crutches. At the time, I thought the US Championships in July were still within reach, so I cross-trained hard: two or three hours every day between the pool and bike.
But when I got back running? It was the same thing: pain on every step. I shut down any plans to race – again.
No matter what I did, it didn't seem to help, and the question popped into my mind: would I ever get back?
I knew I needed a break. Last July I went to Sweden with my wife to hang out with her family for a couple of weeks, completely distancing myself from any routine I had in Portland and getting away from the track world.
I kept tabs on how my Nike Bowerman Track Club teammates were faring at the US Championships but other than that, I barely thought about running, giving myself the freedom to train if or when I felt like it. It was the first time in years I had just run for fun.
By the end of that trip, I turned a corner. There was one day in particular when I was running on this nice dirt road through a forest and I remember thinking, 'I’m actually enjoying this again. Maybe running is not going to be terrible for the rest of my life.'
What helped a lot was working with a physio from Vancouver, Marilou Lamy, who my teammate Moh Ahmed had recommended. She looked at things comprehensively and every time I saw her, I’d make a jump in health and fitness. That helped me figure out the underlying issues that led to the injuries.
As I slowly recovered my fitness, I knew I'd have to look in from afar as the World Championships took place in Doha, the first major event I’d missed in eight years. It was hard, but I’m a fan of the sport so anytime track is on TV, I’m going to watch it.
The steeplechase final was super-fast from the get-go, just the style of race that would have played to my strengths. When it finished I was like: 'Of course they run fast the year I’m not there.'
I was pretty bummed, but by then my body had started to feel good again running so I was in a better place mentally: I could start looking forward to 2020.
My first race back felt incredible.
It was nothing major, an indoor mile in January at a small meet in Seattle, but I remember how excited I was to go through that whole routine again: traveling up with my teammates, going to the track the day before for a shake-out.
I had done some hurdling while on an altitude camp earlier that month, my first time in 16 months, and it was such a relief not to feel any pain. The next step was to get back racing.
In any other year, a race like that would do little for my emotional meter but this time, it was huge. Getting the win in 3:56 and coming out with a clean bill of health reassured me that I could compete again at the top level again.
'This,' I told myself, 'is going to be a good year.'
How fast things can change. When I heard the news that the Olympics were postponed, it didn’t come as a surprise but there were still mixed emotions.
I knew I was really fit and that this would have been a good season for me, but I also knew it was the right call. I would have felt really weird about competing at the Olympics if it had to be held with no fans or if the coronavirus was still active and widespread in certain countries, if people were still being affected.
I agreed with the decision to suspend the world rankings until December, given how the coronavirus will skew the situation around the world, but one thing I was a little disappointed about was World Athletics not allowing any times run before then to count for Olympic qualification.
I don’t envy World Athletics, having to make a decision that’s fair to everyone, but for athletes like me, who were injured last year, I feel that leaving that automatic Olympic standard on the table, or at least not closing it off for the entire year in April, would give us more motivation to train.
If there are competitions this year then that standard was the only major motivation left for 2020: it would allow more athletes to stay competitive and keep up some sort of normalcy.
But I know many athletes around the world are unable to train so I can see the reasoning. For me, thankfully, life hasn’t changed all that much except I’m unable to meet up with teammates. I still do 85-95 miles a week of running and although all the gyms are closed in Portland, I’ve got a little bit of equipment at home so I can do strength work in the house.
Since the injury, I’ve improved every couple of weeks and when I reflect on these past few years, I notice that the time away has changed my mentality. In 2017 and 2018 I was starting to treat track more like work – getting really, really intense – and that came from trying to be so professional that I wanted to do every little thing right.
It took the enjoyment out of it a little, but I’ve realised that I can be light-hearted and have fun at the same time as being dialled in. I run my best when I’m enjoying myself and things are going well as opposed to stressing about running fast and hitting workouts perfectly.
Right now, none of us know exactly when we’ll get back competing so the best approach is to enjoy the everyday.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do this past month or two: push myself as hard as I can but do it from a place where I think: This isn’t what I have to do, this is what I enjoy.