When James Li began recruiting Bernard Lagat in the spring of 1996 to come run for him at Washington State, he figured the young, talented Kenyan could win several national titles for the Cougars. One of his runners, Eric Kamau, who was Lagat’s running coach in Kenya, spoke highly of the then 21-year-old, but Li didn’t want to set his expectations too high – he felt Kamau was slightly exaggerating with his praise.
Li, currently the cross-country coach at the University of Arizona, now knows just how wrong he was to set such limits on Lagat’s abilities.
“We definitely knew he was really good,” Li said in a phone interview with the Washington Post earlier this week. “But no, you don’t expect someone to be that good.”
Nearly 20 years, two Olympic medals and countless titles later, Li is still working with Lagat, marveling at what his star runner has been able to accomplish throughout his illustrious running career even as it enters the twilight. Lagat, who turns 41 in December, plans on making next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro his last championship track event before focusing on American road races. Reaching Rio would allow one of the best middle distance runners in his generation one final competition on the sport’s biggest stage.
“It certainly is not as easy as it used to be,” Li said of Lagat’s chances to qualify for his fifth Olympic team. “[But] I think he’s still capable of making it. I think anyone who discounts him would be making a mistake.”
There are many moments in Lagat’s decorated career that can stand out on its own. There was his first Olympics in 2000, where he won the bronze medal in the 1,500-meters. There was the 2004 Olympics in Athens where Lagat nearly chased down world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj in the 1,500-meters to earn silver by the slimmest of margins. And there was the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, where Lagat became the first athlete to win both the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters at the world championships.
But to Lagat, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2004 and started representing the U.S. in 2005, it wasn’t always the most glamorous events that he remembers the most.
“Even though the time was no good, the tactics, the way I felt, the way I controlled the race, it was one of the races that I feel sticks out right now,” Lagat said of winning the two-mile race at the 2011 Prefontaine Classic. “It was one of those that people might not even think about it, but the feeling, and how I performed, that’s something that I always go to a race [and think], ‘I wish I can feel like the way I ran that two-miler.’ ”
He cited his best memory as beating El Guerrouj in the 1,500 meters at the 2004 Diamond League in Zurich just a month before the Olympics. Running stride by stride with the best 1,500-meter runner in history, Lagat took the victory in 3 minutes 27.40 seconds, just .14 seconds ahead of El Guerrouj.
“That one was to me one of the best, because I beat this guy [El Guerrouj], who was a giant,” said Lagat, who still owns the third-fastest 1,500-meter time. “I came close to beating him in 2001 … but 2004 was the time I stepped up and I stepped up big.”
Lagat realizes those kind of performances are behind him. He failed to qualify for the world championships this year for the first time since he began representing the U.S., and has begun focusing on longer distance races like the 5,000 meters, an event he believes gives him the best chance to make the Olympic team. Another goal next year is to qualify for the world indoor championships for the 3,000 meters in March.
During the season, Lagat trains with a group under Li in Tuscon, Ariz., that includes Lawi Lalang, Sam Chelanga, Leonard Korir and Stephen Sambu, four former collegiate all-Americans from Kenya. The group goes on long runs three times a week and track workouts up to twice a week. It’s a formula that still yields results for Lagat.
In May, he tied the American 10K road record with a 27:48 time at the Great Manchester Run in England, while also taking 12 seconds off Haile Gebrselassie’s previous masters (age 40 and above) record. Lagat said he might consider running the 10,000 meters in the Olympics if the 5,000 meters does not work out, but added with a laugh, “It will never be the steeplechase.”
After the Olympics, he may run a few small track meets as he bids farewell before running exclusively road races. Gebrselassie, a former world record holder in the marathon, proved that a former track champion could be successful on the roads and there is little reason to think Lagat could not do the same.
“For the future, I don’t know really,” he said. “I do enjoy the 5,000 meters, 3,000 meters. So for me, if I was to step up and do something else, I think I might feel it might be out of my reach, but I would not say anything is out of my reach. … I think sometimes, mentally I feel like, ‘Man, I cannot do this.’ But when I step into a race itself, I surprise myself. So moving up, moving up and maybe going into half marathons and run a marathon in the future. It might not be competitively, but I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve done a marathon.’ ”