By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
May 31, 2015
EUGENE, Ore. — The 41st Prefontaine Classic surely did not disappoint, with plenty of world leading marks, personal bests, and memorable performances. Yet lost in the shuffle was a very strong track season opener for two-time Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat, the now 40-year-old who has long been one of the faces of American distance running.
In the 5000m on Friday evening, Lagat used his experience and a bit of added motivation to push himself into the mix, winding up fourth in 13:14.97. Though he was four seconds adrift of winner Yomif Kejelcha –a runner less than half his age– Lagat’s time smashed the master’s (40+) world record of 13:43.15, formerly held by France’s Mohamed Ezzher.
While most fans and media members had their eyes focused on compatriot Galen Rupp who challenged for the win and wound up third in 13:12.36, Lagat ran tough in the final kilometer. He’d finish ahead of accomplished athletes like Ryan Hill, Lawi Lalang, Collis Birmingham, and Ibrahim Jeilan, sprinting around the Bowerman Curve and down the homestretch like the wilyveteran has done so many times before.
It was a performance here last year that was on replay in Lagat’s mind heading into this race, serving as motivation to start the season on the right foot. In 2014, Lagat finished 14th of 17 competitors in the Prefontaine Classic 5000m, timing a sub-par 13:31.23. Finishing just shy of 30 seconds behind winner Caleb Ndiku (13:01.71), the race left a mark on Lagat.
“My first race [last year] was 13:31 I think and it was right here and I was disappointed. I didn’t want to repeat that here at the Prefontaine Classic. This is a special place for me, and I was embarrassed. I was telling everybody ‘sorry’ because I ran bad, but then I vowed not to do the same thing,” Lagat told Race Results Weekly.
Determined not to make the same mistakes twice, Lagat spent time at altitude in Arizona, building endurance for his long outdoor season. “I went training in Flagstaff, had really good training, came down here and I was like ‘I’m going to give all I can.’ That’s all I could afford today, 13:14. That’s not too bad.”
Entering the race, Lagat had anticipated the leaders would try and go out at 12:50-pace. Midway through, however, the tempo lagged slightly, and it never quite got going again. Hopes of a meet record or sub-13 clocking went out the window.
“I think they were going to go 62 and I thought to myself I am going to judge it and see if I can hang with that kind of pace. It ended up not being too, too fast and suited me, because being my first race I didn’t know how it was going to feel,” Lagat said.
Right now, Lagat knows what he has to do: sharpen up. Having won seven national titles outdoors at 5000m, he’s got the process down pat. His main goal between now and the U.S. Outdoor Champions here at Hayward Field will be to tinker with his speed training. The base is there, but the wheels need a bit more work. He has until June 28 –the day of the 5000m final– his first of two fitness peaks for the summer (his other would come at the IAAF World Championships).
“I realized I’m in good shape, the only thing that I need to do is fine tune it so that when I go to my next competition before U.S. Nationals, I’ll be back here feeling strong and fresh,” he said. Reflecting on his final lap here, Lagat felt good though just didn’t have the lift in his legs to match winner Kejelcha, Kenyan Edwin Soi, or Rupp. “When you are not sharp race-wise, that’s how I feel. You always feel like you are not going fast enough. The body feels like it is fresh but the turnover is not there.”
In the mixed zone, an American reporter asked if Lagat’s focus has shifted at all from contending for a World Championships medal in Beijing to setting masters records. In so many words, he asked if Lagat was questioning if he could still keep up with the younger competitors. Lagat smiled his usual smile and gave a poignant and meaningful response.
“I have [the masters records] as a focus, yes,” he began. “If I aim for a good time and end up not doing so well, I hope I can break [those] records. The [media] attention has been, yes, ‘Bernard Lagat is 40, what is he going to do?’ I still feel like I can perform at the highest level. 13:14 most of the time wins World Championships. That’s all I can say. I just need to prepare really well with Coach James Li, train hard and come back here sharper in June to make the team.”
Bernard Lagat has already achieved the 2015 World Championships and 2016 Olympic Games qualifying standards of 13:23 and 13:25, respectively. Now he just has to worry about finishing in the top three at the USA Championships this year and Olympic Trials the next.
The odds are in his favor: in eight of the past nine years, Lagat has placed in the top three in the 5000m at the national meet.
The only missing year? That was 2009, when he had an automatic qualifying birth into the World Championships and wound up taking home a silver medal.