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Ageless Bernard Lagat Makes His 5th Olympic Team

A familiar theme at this and previous Olympic Trials has been the changing of the guard. Emerging new talent supplanting fading veterans is a recurring process that is often painful to witness. But an increasing number of long-serving sentinels are resistant to surrender their posts as advances in training, therapy, equipment, and nutrition aid maturing athletes seeking to prolong their careers. Shalane Flanagan, Allyson Felix, Jenny Simpson, Shannon Rowbury, Jenn Suhr, Justin Gatlin, LaShawn Merritt, Galen Rupp, Bershawn Jackson, and others doggedly stand guard, repelling the advances of the youngsters.

Bernard Lagat - an aging soldier - is yet another still defending his post. Earlier in these Trials, Lagat pulled up with 2600 meters remaining in the 10,000m final. Overcome by heat - and perhaps by daunting competition - Lagat lay prone on the backstretch pouring water on his torso. Would this 41 year old really come back to compete in the 5000 meters?

Sure enough. On a cool, damp Day Nine plagued by occasional showers, Lagat was on the line as one of 16 athletes competing for three coveted spots on Team USA. As the race began, the all-too-familiar funereal trudge - so prevalent in these championship finals - unfurled. The knowledgeable Hayward Field fans - over 22,000 strong - are not unaccustomed to this warmup. But even they have limited tolerance. After the clustered pack rang up a couple of circuits in 74 seconds, a smattering of boos could be detected. After the competing throng passed one kilometer in 3:05, the crowd cheered as Brian Schrader - who had had enough - charged to the front. The Saucony athlete proceeded to throw down successive laps of 59.8 and 63.9 as he and lone follower William Kincaid soon forged a 30 meter lead on the field with 8 laps remaining.

After another lap, Army teammates Paul Chelimo and Shadrack Kipchirchir broke away from the chase pack as they set sail after Schrader and Kincaid. Chelimo ultimately joined the leading duo with 6 laps remaining while the chase pack - finally awakened from their early race slumber - began in earnest their mission to catch up. When the trio of leaders split 3K in 8:25, the pursuing group - led by Galen Rupp - had closed to within 15 meters and finally achieved reunification with 4 laps remaining. In the next lap, Rupp - already on Team USA to compete in the 10,000 meters and the marathon - kept rolling as he cranked out a 61.6 next lap to build a 12 meter lead with 1200 meters left. When the Nike Oregon Project athlete passed 4K in 11:04, his lead was 20 meters.

But Rupp's move proved to be too little, too early. Patiently chipping away at the former Duck's advantage was the group of Chelimo, Ben True, Hassan Mead, Eric Jenkins, Lagat, and defending champion Ryan Hill. In full flight, that fivesome roared passed an unresponsive Rupp on the final backstretch. His day was over.

But the battle for the Olympic berths remained. Exhorted onward by the cheering fans in the East Grandstand, Lagat - 6th at the bell and still trailing - was gaining confidence with each stride. Rounding the Bowerman Curve, the 41 year old asked his aging body for one more gear. He had it. Storming down the final straightway, Lagat powered by his remaining competition, completing the final 400 meters in 52.82, crossing the line in 13:35.50 and securing a spot on his 5th Olympic team. Mead [13:35.70] crossed second while the struggle for the final spot was brutal. Chelimo [13:35.92] had just enough to fend of fast-finishing Jenkins [13:35.98] who missed an Olympic berth by .06 seconds.

Accompanied by his two children, Lagat was mobbed by the media in the press tent. The new champion lit up when informed that he covered the final 400 meters in 52.82. "It was not really about the last lap," explained Lagat. "It was just about reacting whenever anybody else makes a move and not to do something that is not smart." The now 5-time OIympian provided insight into the pre-race skull session he had with his coach. "One of the things my coach [James Li] told me was 'You have to do it last. Because, remember, in the 10K, you were very active. You over-committed. And so you are really feeling sore. That pace was so hard. But you went way too early. So today - it doesn't matter who is going to break away and go - I want you to be relaxed and feel like you are just taking it easy. And relax - that's the most important part. Your race is not going to start until the last 200 meters to go. Regardless of where you are, the last 200 is going to be important. And you are going to make the team that way.' And he told me, 'The goal is not only winning, but coming top three. Number 3 will get you to Rio.'"

Lagat professed to be chilled when Schrader and Kincaid took off not 3 laps into the race. "I was relaxing. I wasn't worried about that, because I was relaxed and I was already with the kickers - just right there with Ryan Hill, with Paul Chelimo. I knew I was in a good group which was going to start taking over sooner or later. So I was with that group because I thought I would be good to go harder. And it worked out for me." The winner had a quick answer when asked if race patience comes with experience. "It does," he replied. "Because this was just not like one other race. It was the race that I have done before under conditions that have really helped me in the past."

Lagat revealed that his poor showing 6 weeks ago at the Prefontaine Classic helped inspire his pre-race training and his performance on that same track again today. "At this year's Pre Classic, I did not finish the race [he DNF'd in the 5000] and I was really ashamed of it. The other day in the 10K, I did not finish the race. I felt the same thing I felt at the Prefontaine Classic. But I am not going to end running in Eugene that way," he declared. "This is the best crowd. This is the message I wanted to leave. I was super excited when I won the race."

"You know what?, "asked Lagat as he charmed the press. "This is my 6th Olympic Trials. And out of the 6, I've made 5 [teams]. My first one was in 1996 when I came in 7th or 6th - I'd have to go check - and I ran 3:37 back then back in Kenya when I was only a student in college." And with a smile he added, "And now I am going to the Olympics for a 5th time."

Leading up to the Rio Olympics, the veteran racer is planning a no-nonsense fitness assessment in Great Britain. "I am going to run in London. I'm going to run in London the 5K," he announced. "And hopefully I can run a season's best - because my season's best is not that good in the 5. And so I'll go into the Diamond League where I'll be able to assess my fitness before going into Rio."

Inevitably, the media tossed Lagat the question he has fielded many times: How can he continue to perform at the world class level as his age? He pretends to find such inquiries tiresome, but most believe he relishes the opportunity to expound. "Like I said the other day, and I'm going to repeat the same thing. I train with young guys. And I don't believe I'm old. Because if I believe I'm old, then I'm going to run like an old man," declared Lagat with a flash of a smile. The thing is I'm with Stanley Kebenei, Lawi Lalang and all these young guys. They push me every single day. And you know when I train with them at the end of the day they tell me , 'Man, you make us really feel bad,' said the 8-time national outdoor 5000 meter champion, evoking laughter in the mixed zone. "Because - you know what? - I don't give up. I train hard with them. What you guys saw today is exactly what we train to do. We train hard. And we have the smartest coach who gave me the strategy to make sure I got to Rio."

Predictions - as of yet premature - of the anticipated erosion of the racing skills and performance level of Bernard Lagat have continued for several years now. They have not yet proven to be accurate. It is true that Father Time - ultimately - is undefeated. But given what He witnessed today from Bernard Lagat, He may have some reason for concern.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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