By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(27-Mar) — At Sunday’s Carlsbad 5000, American Bernard Lagat will lace up his Nike racing flats and step into uncharted territory. Racing his first ever 5-kilometer road race, the four-time Olympian is confident, eager, and focused on a nearly 18-year-old national record.
“You know, I’m excited. This is something new, I’ve never run something like this,” he told Race Results Weekly in an exclusive telephone interview from California. “This is my specialty on the track and I’m doing it now on the roads, so it’s something new and I think it’s going to be really exciting.”
On Sunday, Lagat will toe the line against some familiar foes. Among those entered are three-time champion and Olympic silver medalist Dejen Gebremeskel of Ethiopia, Olympic bronze medalist Tariku Bekele (also of Ethiopia), and Kenyan standout Augustine Choge. Facing such an accomplished trio makes Lagat –an eleven-time medalist at global championships in his own right– hungry to race.
“It’s a strong field,” he said, rattling off the three East African names. “That’s what makes me so excited for the race on Sunday, because everyone is strong and hopefully we can push together to get good times. For me, I’m looking forward to running a good time.”
Lagat’s aim is the American record of 13:24, set in 1996 by Marc Davis at Carlsbad. Having run 12:53.60 for 5000m on the track and 7:38.51 for 3000m indoors this year, Lagat believes he has what it takes to earn his first national road racing record.
“That’s what I hope,” he said, an optimistic tone of confidence in his voice. “I hope I will be in the group of runners that are going to be crossing that line under 13:24. It’s possible and I am going to go for it. I’m not going to shy away from the challenge, I’m going to put myself in there and see how it unfolds.”
With hopes of encouraging records, event organizers have slightly adjusted the raceday time schedule. The women’s and men’s elite races will go off at 10:45am and 11:15am respectively, aiming to avoid Carlsbad’s ocean breeze.
One advantage Lagat may have on the field is his current fitness. Less than three weeks ago, Lagat earned a silver medal for 3000m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, defeating Gebremeskel by one spot. Choge was ninth in that race, while Bekele has not yet competed this year.
Since returning to America, Lagat hasn’t missed a beat in training.
“I still have the speed in me,” he assured. “I’ve had really good hard tempo runs, good long runs, track workouts have been great.”
That may be bad news for Gebremeskel, who is seeking his fourth consecutive crown. According to Competitor Group’s Dan Cruz, Lagat has a career record of 8-2 against Gebremeskel in event finals.
One thing that Lagat said he’ll specifically take into Sunday’s race is a workout mindset. Knowing he’ll be racing on the roads –a new environment much different than the friendly confines of a track’s oval– Lagat plans on viewing the race as a very hard tempo run.
“The types of workouts that I did between Sopot and now, when I get into the race itself I’ll be comfortable,” he said. “The guys [in the field] are used to running these kind of races, the 5-km and 10-km on the roads, so they know how to run it. I don’t really know how to run it but I’m going to treat it like a hard tempo run.”
Although Lagat may not have as much road racing experience as his counterparts, he does have an extra edge of competitiveness, a trait that has propelled him to the front of races year in and year out.
So often when Lagat’s name comes up in conversation, many people tend to focus on his age. He is 39, sometimes more than a decade older than his fiercest foes. Still, Lagat routinely is able to keep pace and claim podium spots. In 2014 he’s set an American record for 2000m indoors at the NYRR Millrose Games and taken silver in Sopot.
Both Lagat and his close friend and manager, James Templeton, believe the key to Lagat’s prolonged –and future– success is his competitiveness.
“It all comes down to enjoying his running, handling the training and preparations. I’ve always said about Kip that never does anyone stand on the start-line wanting to win more than he does,” wrote Templeton in an e-mail to Race Results Weekly. “He’s the consummate competitor; loves the competition and he’s still so focused on winning and running great. I still love watching him compete and while he continues at this level there’s no reason to stop. But he knows it will come to an end sometime. He’ll know when he feels he can’t compete any more.”
That end isn’t going to come anytime soon. As soon as the starter’s gun sounds, no matter on the track or roads, age goes away and it’s mano-a-mano. That’s when Lagat thrives.
“The way I see it is,” Lagat says, pausing ever so slightly, “every time there is new challenges. Like the 5-k here on Sunday, it’s something that I look forward to. Every time there is new challenges…”
“People make a big deal of my age. Everything that I read about myself is like that,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not a big deal to me. I just train, I just compete, and I look at it like I’m still this young guy. I still run as much as I can, I’m disciplined, I work hard for it.”
Templeton doesn’t want to set limits on when Lagat’s career may come to a close.
“It’s great to see Kip in such good shape leading into the 2014 season. He’s still ambitious for great running and is set for a good track season,” wrote Templeton.
“He’s turning 40 of course in December. I know he’s interested in hunting down those over-40 records,” Templeton continued. “I know he’d like to break the indoor mile record of Eamonn Coghlan next February and then perhaps put down some useful outdoor times at 1500, 3000, 5000. That would be fun.”
On Sunday, Lagat will take a stab at the national record for 5000m on the roads, trying to become the first American to win the Carlsbad 5000 since Doug Padilla in 1990.
“I’ve trained really well and I’m ready to race,” he confirmed.
More: Want to know who else is competing? Full 2014 Carlsbad 5000 fields released – Will Leer is a scratch.