The NYC Half on Sunday will be Bernard Lagat’s debut at the distance, but it’s not as if his rivals don’t know what to expect.
“If Bernard's there the last 400 meters, it’s bad news for whoever [else] is there,” Dathan Ritzenhein, the 2009 IAAF Half-Marathon bronze medalist, whose personal best of 1:00:00 in that race makes him the second-fastest American in history, said at a press conference this morning. “Whether it's a half-marathon or two miles, it doesn't matter.”
Just last month, the 38-year-old Lagat broke the U.S. indoor record for two miles, running 8:09.49 at the Millrose Games. So Ritzenhein and Abdi Abdirahman, the reigning U.S. Half-Marathon Champion, are well aware that they have to burn out Lagat’s legs early to nullify his speed.
“It’s easier said than done,” acknowledged Ritzenhein.
Abdirahman, who trains with Lagat, said that he’s been surprised that he can’t hammer Lagat in their long workouts. “Even if you do 10 times a mile, he's always there,” said Abdirahman. “So I don't know. He's just one tough cookie.”
But workouts are not races, and Lagat—a brilliant tactician on the track—will face unknown territory on the road from Central Park, through Times Square, and on to the finish line on Water Street at Wall Street, and he knows it. People tell him that he should not overthink the race, but that has made him worry about when he should start to think about the race, and how much.
“I’m going to think hard about running those hills [in Central Park],” he said, “because that is the most important thing. And be in a group. The worst thing that could happen is if people were to leave me, and then I am on my own trying to chase that pack. Those are the things I am thinking, because if I don’t think about those strategies I am not going to do the best race.”
He vows that he will not let himself be sucked in to going out too fast. If Wilson Kipsang decides to reprise his tactics from the 2012 Olympic Marathon tactics—in which the Kenyan with a personal best of 2:03:42 went out hard to lead by 16 seconds at halfway—don’t expect Lagat to follow. “If I go with him, maybe my race will be only five miles,” said Lagat. “I will have to be in the second group. I’m not really a long, long distance runner. This is something I am trying for the first time. So if I do something silly, I’m going to pay.”
Ritzenhein and Abdirahman, on the other hand, are long, long distance runners. Ritzenhein, 30, has represented the United States in the Olympics twice at 10,000 meters and once in the marathon, and his time of 2:07:47 at the Bank of Chicago Marathon last fall makes him the third-fastest American ever. Abdirahman, 36, is a four-time Olympian, with three appearances at 10,000 meters and one at 26.2 miles.
“This has always been a good distance for me,” said Ritzenhein. “It’s something that feels natural for me.”
That's what one mile feels like to Lagat. If the two-time Olympic medalist and U.S. record-holder at 1500 meters is still in the lead pack at 12.1 miles, it could be a good day for him to reach his goal of running under 61 minutes.
“Once I register something is just only a mile, well, it’s just one mile,” said Lagat, with a smile even bigger than usual, “and I’m going to run like it’s a mile.”
Photo: Abdi Abdirahman, left, and Bernard Lagat