For a man who has competed fearlessly throughout his career, Bernard Lagat finds himself staring down two frightful prospects.
As the 37-year-old peers down the road in defense of his title at Saturday’s Fifth Avenue Mile Presented by Nissan, he will not only see the finish line of the race but will also be looking beyond it toward the end of his illustrious career.
And the thought is terrifying.
“It definitely scares me,” Lagat said. “It will be hard to imagine that one day, and it is coming very soon, that I won’t ever run competitively.”
Lagat has competed with seeming agelessness for years now, thriving in a young man’s game at both the 1500-meter/mile and 5000-meter distances. Just in this past year, he won gold in the 3000 meters at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul and set the American indoor record in the 5000 meters, defying conventional wisdom that with age comes loss of speed. He also holds national marks in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters indoors and 1500 meters, 3000 meters, and 5000 meters outdoors.
Lagat is still fast, but he is also a realist, and he knows that Father Time will eventually catch up with him. Before that happens, he wants to achieve one last medal haul, one that he was hoping for but fell short of at this summer’s Olympic Games.
In London, Lagat was perfectly positioned with just over 200 meters to go in a slow, tactical men’s 5000-meter final. When the pace ramped up coming off the final turn, he tried to move outside and was bumped by Abdalaati Iguider of Morocco, almost falling down. He regained his balance and sprinted to the finish, but wound up crossing the line in fourth place and out of the medals.
The result still sticks in his craw.
“At the Olympics, do I believe that I could have medaled? Absolutely,” he said. “If I didn’t get tripped, I would have medaled. I could see where I was and I know I can do it.
”In 2008, I had the issue with my Achilles and felt like I had unfinished business in the Olympics. Everything I did after Beijing was a step toward finishing my business in 2012. Berlin went great. I medaled in two events. Then in Daegu, I medaled in one event. Everything was pointing well toward London 2012. I thought, ‘I need to finish this business now.’ But then I didn’t.”
Lagat says unequivocally that he does not see himself racing in Rio in 2016, but that he is determined to make amends at the IAAF World Championships next summer in Moscow.
“A lot of people are asking me, ‘Why do you still have to go?’” Lagat said. “Well, I can still run with the very best, I think. When you look at me running 12:59 this year, it uplifts my spirits every day. When people ask, ‘Can I still challenge myself to be there with Mo Farah, with the Kenyans, with the Ethiopians?’ Yes, I believe I can still do it. With the World Championships, I just feel like I want to redeem myself one more time.”
Looking Toward the Roads
Lagat does see 2014 being a transition year for him, one in which he will be seen less on the track and more on the roads, where he has not ventured much in his career out of concern over risk of injury. His lone road-racing credits are at the Fifth Avenue Mile and the road mile at the Great North CityGames, a popular street meet in Newcastle, England.
“I would like to do a mix of races,” he said. “Maybe I will do one marathon for fun. I’m sure that I am still going to have that competitiveness in me that says, ‘You have to go in there and win.’ But I don’t think that will be realistic. At that time, I will be 39 years old going on to 40. It is unrealistic to think that I will be doing something special in the marathon. But I think I can do well in the half-marathon, 10Ks on the roads, 5Ks on the roads, and the miles.”
Lagat has also given himself a short hook when it comes to finding success as a road racer. While afraid of life after running, he is also afraid of overstaying his welcome.
"I Don't Want to Be That Guy"
“If it’s not going to work the first year, I am not going to stay long,” he said. “I have kids that are 6 and 3. I want to be there at every step of their lives. I don’t want to miss anything while I am off pursuing something that might not even bring in any income or anything like that.
“I remember a Kenyan runner who was well respected running late into his 40s and he stopped being successful. People would talk about why was he still doing this and why didn’t he get out sooner, and I didn’t like that. I don’t want to be that guy. I am afraid of how people will remember me.”
After running ends, Lagat vowed to remain involved in track and field, either as a motivational speaker, as a mentor to children, or even as a coach. Should it be the latter, Lagat said he would prefer to coach high school or professional athletes. His message for pros would be straightforward.
“If you are not training hard, if you are not listening to the coach, if you don’t have your priorities straight, then you better do something else because you’re not going to make it,” he said. “I trained hard. I was disciplined. Exceed your expectations in training and competition and that will lead you to being a good professional. I’m not going to beat around the bush. As a coach coaching professionals, you want them to know the reality. I know what the reality is.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg