By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(20-Feb) — With five Olympic appearances behind him, including two medals and two additional top-5 finishes, Bernard Lagat seemingly has nothing to left prove. The 45 year-old athlete –who represented Kenya in the 2000 and 2004 Games before representing the USA in 2008, 2012 and 2016– is already one of athletics’s biggest living legends, a man who has racked up five world titles and is still the second-fastest man ever at 1500m (3:26.34).
Yet, the competitive flame still burns in Lagat’s belly, bright enough that he left his home in Tucson just after New Year’s Day to live sparsely in Kaptagat, Kenya, and put in a six-week training block in advance of the USA Olympic Trials Marathon scheduled for Saturday, February 29, in Atlanta. A top-3 finish there would give him is sixth Olympic team berth, something that no American has ever done in the sport of track and field.
“Normally, I just stay here in the U.S. (for training),” Lagat told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview today from his home in Tucson. He had just returned from Kenya on Sunday. “But, it was different this time.”
Lagat was spurred to train abroad after a conversation he had with legendary coach Patrick Sang, the 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medalist. Both men were in Vienna last October to support Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon exhibition (Lagat was a pacemaker), and Sang encouraged Lagat to train in Kenya for the Trials where he could count on good winter weather, ample training partners, and good hilly routes which would toughen him for Atlanta’s challenging course.
“I was talking to Patrick Sang, and I was talking to Eliud, and Augustine Choge because the thing is with Atlanta, everyone was talking about it’s hilly, hilly, hilly,” Lagat explained. “When I think of Tucson (which is flat), if I really wanted to have a go at it in Atlanta I wanted to get to a place where I could just get some good hills and have groups of people who can kind of take me along those long runs. That was the decision to go to Kenya.”
Ironically, Lagat ended up doing much of his running alone, he said. At 45, he needed to be careful not to push too hard and wanted to stay with the program he had worked out with his longtime coach, James Li.
“Here’s the thing, most of the training I did by myself,” Lagat said. “I wanted to be smart. Six weeks is not enough to train with people full-time, people who live there. Either I could hurt myself, trying to catch up with them. So, I thought I would keep what I’ve been doing all the time.”
However, for the key workouts –his fartlek runs, 30-K and 40-K tempo runs– Lagat got the benefit of running with a group. He was careful to balance the amount of time he trained on Kenya’s reddish dirt roads, which were more forgiving for his legs, with running enough on pavement, which is necessary for establishing the feel for marathon pace and related toughness.
Lagat is still a marathon newbie. He made his debut at the TCS New York City Marathon in 2018, running 2:17:20 five weeks before turning 44. About eight months later, he flew to Australia and ran the Gold Coast Marathon where he clocked 2:12:10, 40 seconds short of the World Athletics qualifying standard of 2:11:30 for the Tokyo Olympics. In retrospect, that time –a USA masters record by 10 seconds– didn’t much matter in terms of Olympic qualifying because a top-5 finish at the Trials will be an automatic Olympic qualifier (the race is a World Athletics Gold Label Road Race meaning that a top-5 finish yields an Olympic standard regardless of the time).
In preparing his Trials training plan, Lagat and his coach were most concerned about the hills in Atlanta. The course has 1389 feet of climbing and 1382 feet of descending. Eight different miles have climbs of over 80 feet. In Kenya, Lagat was able to address what he saw was his weakness on hills.
“I realized that that was my weakness,” Lagat observed. “When I’m running in these marathons, when I get to a hill everybody kind of goes away and I’m left kind of maintaining the same pace and not picking up. So, I trained for that a little bit and I think I’m fully prepared, better prepared, for a course that is hilly.”
Lagat’s longevity surprises even him. When he was tearing up the track in his 20’s, he never thought he’d still be running competitively in his 40’s, and he actively avoided road racing (the only road races he did prior to 2013 were road miles). Looking at the chance of making yet another Olympic team, Lagat can hardly believe it.
“I remember I used to say, that I would run the marathon it would be only for fun,” Lagat said. He continued: “I trained for New York and then Gold Coast. I would not have actually thought of it, like, at the age of 45, 2020, trying to get another one. Remember, after 2012 that was my last Olympics. I’ve always said, that’s where I wanted to end. Twenty-thirteen was to run in the circuits in Europe, and a few road races and say bye-bye.”
But Lagat won the 2016 Olympic Trials 5000m, locking-in his fifth Olympic team berth, then finished a remarkable fifth in Rio in a sizzling 13:06.78 at age 41. He realized that his career was far from over.
“Then Rio came, and I made the team and I thought I’m done after Rio,” Lagat marveled. “Then road racing started, becoming so much fun. And I’m like, why not? I’m in good shape. I can still basically do the mileage I used to do back then. So I’m like, why not?”
For the Trials, Lagat is sticking to a low-key approach. He only plans to arrive in Atlanta two days before the race and doesn’t want to get caught up in any of the pre-race hype. With his wife, Gladys, son Mika, and daughter Gianna with him, he plans to stay focused, keep his head down, and just do his job. Maybe, just maybe, all of his accumulated experience will give him just enough of an edge to break into the top-3 and make another Olympic Games.
“It’s exciting every single time I go out there,” Lagat said of his racing appearances. He continued: “We did a good test today and everything went according to plan. I’m happy with the way things are.”