In Praise of Bernard Lagat


Sports journalist Kenny Moore as soon as wrote a very good profile on Bernard Lagat, the middle-distance celebrity who competed for Kenya earlier than changing into a U.S. citizen in 2004. The theme of Moore’s piece was the unbelievable longevity of Lagat’s operating profession, which the creator described as “exceeding two full athletic lifetimes.” That story appeared greater than eight years in the past, within the February 2010 challenge of Runner’s World. In March of this 12 months, Lagat, now 43, was the 2d American finisher on the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. If you suppose there’s one thing perverse about that, I can guarantee you that you simply’re not alone.

While each sport has examples of athletes who appear infuriatingly proof against senescence, Bernard Lagat is in one other league solely. The man has been competing for therefore lengthy that even the articles marveling at how lengthy he has been competing have change into out of date. “Will Bernard Lagat Live Forever?” requested 1 New Yorker piece in early 2013. The verdict continues to be out on that 1.

Consider that Lagat has competed in 5 Olympics, a distinction that places him in very select company amongst observe and discipline athletes. The reality is all of the extra spectacular whenever you consider that his first video games didn’t occur till 2000, when he was 25, an age when many middle-distance runners are at their peak. As it seems, the impetus for Moore’s profile got here again in 2009, when phrase obtained out that Lagat was seeking to be a contender in 2012 in London. Moore: “This, finally, was outlier crazy. This was inhuman. This made you wonder if there is anyone among us who couldn’t use an object lesson in holding mortality at bay.”

Just to reiterate: Moore was writing in regards to the 2012 Olympics, the place Lagat wound up narrowly lacking the 3rd Olympic medal of his profession by ending fourth within the 5,000 meters. Inhuman? Perhaps. But with good thing about hindsight, we now know that the true “outlier crazy” shit was nonetheless to return.

Four years later, within the males’s 5,000 meters on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, the 41-year-old Lagat was in 6th place going into the final lap of the race. He proceeded to unleash a 52.82-second final 400 meters to win essentially the most aggressive 5K ever held at a U.S. Trials. One of the unlucky issues in regards to the esoteric nature of observe fandom is that it’s practically inconceivable to adequately talk to somebody who doesn’t comply with the game how insane it’s 41-year-old dude can vanquish a world-class 5,000-meter discipline by going sub-53 seconds on the bell lap. It’s virtually an affront to the legal guidelines of nature. (I encourage you to ask the quickest 41-year-old to run 1 lap on recent legs in your native highschool observe.)

Although Lagat had the decency to retire from observe racing on the finish of the 2016 season, he’s as soon as once more redefining what must be possible, solely this time on the roads. In January, he ran the Houston Half Marathon in 62 minutes flat, breaking Meb Keflezighi’s U.S. masters file for the gap by over a minute. Lagat posted the absurd splits from that race on his Instagram account. “See you back right here when I’m 44,” Lagat wrote within the submit, signing off with an “old man” emoji.

For somebody who holds the third-fastest 1,500-meter time ever, Lagat appears to be having means an excessive amount of enjoyable competing within the half of marathon. Most middle-distance specialists by no means make the leap to what’s a categorically completely different sort of occasion. Lagat’s essential rival from again within the day was the Moroccan 1,500-meter world file holder Hicham El Guerrouj, who retired in 2006 and by no means bothered racing something longer than the 5,000.

I requested James Li, Lagat’s coach of 22 years, to account for the runner’s persistence. Now a distance coach on the University of Arizona, Li first started teaching Lagat when he got here to Washington State University as a 21-year-old.

“That’s definitely not the first time the question has been posed,” Li says earlier than providing the next rationalization: Lagat’s NCAA profession didn’t start till his early twenties, so he was a late-bloomer of kinds and had the advantage of avoiding overtraining and early burnout. He additionally has wonderful operating mechanics, which doesn’t damage if you would like your skilled profession to final 20 years. Also, in most years of that skilled profession, Lagat would take a coaching hiatus from mid-September till early November—an unusually lengthy break for a world-class athlete.

But in line with Li, the perfect rationalization for the Lagat phenomenon was his exceptional equanimity. “There were just so many situations that would get to people that somehow didn’t get to him,” Li says. Since Lagat’s professional profession has been marked by an virtually uncanny degree of fine well being, most individuals don’t know that he was injured for a lot of his first 12 months as a collegiate runner. By the stratospheric commonplace of his subsequent successes, Lagat’s faculty racing days had been comparably modest. The eventual world champion within the 1,500 meters by no means completed higher than fourth in his greatest occasion on the NCAA outside championships. In a way, Lagat underperformed at Washington State, however, as Li notes, these early disappointments by no means weighed him down.

“If a race didn’t go very well, he just brushed it off and didn’t think too much about it. He didn’t overanalyze things and just said that next time he’d do better. I think that ability is so important for athletes’ longevity,” Li says.

It would clearly be naive to imagine that Lagat’s unbelievable run isn’t at the least partially on account of sheer genetic luck. Also, being a middle-distance man for many of his profession, he by no means ran the sort of heavy-duty mileage that contributed to the untimely decline of marathon specialists like Ryan Hall.

But the entire perspective factor shouldn’t be underestimated. For somebody so motivated and aggressive, Lagat is uniquely relaxed on the identical time. When you watch a Lagat interview (even after races the place he’s dropped out), there’s a way of levity, one which feels virtually misplaced in a sport the place high performers usually seem as if they’re battling interior demons or extreme indigestion. Much just like the Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, who has the habit of grinning through the torturous finish stage of a 26-mile race, with Lagat, you at all times have the sense that he’s having fun with the experience.

(Editor references)

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