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Lagat: 'I feel like I need to have fun'

'I need to enjoy the process ... but the seriousness is there'

Five-time world track and field champion Bernard Lagat, who won a bronze medal in the Olympics Games in 2000, and silver in 2004, begins his campaign to win gold in the 5,000 meters in London on Wednesday.

Lagat, who was born in Kenya, became an American citizen in 2004 and has lived and trained in Tucson since 2002, holds the American records in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters both indoors and outdoors. I spoke with Lagat by phone last month at his European training base in Germany, shortly after he had finished a close second in the 5,000 meter U.S. Olympic trials to Galen Rupp, who won silver in the 10,000-meter race in London.

TucsonSentinel.com: People have written a great deal about your career so I'll try not to cover that stuff that everyone knows. The first things I want to talk about is that … you're an old man. I mean, not as old as Haile Gebrselassie, but at age 37 do you feel that you have lost anything from your racing arsenal, or from your abilities, or to put it another way, have you lost a step?

Bernard Lagat: You know what? I think it is fair to say yes in the mile, or the 1,500. I don't feel like I'm still the same guy anymore when I run the 1,500. I feel like, you know, years back, I used to just follow the pacemakers no matter what pace they're going at, even if they wanted to go through the first 800 in 1:51, 1:50. I would follow and I would not feel a thing. Sometimes I had to restrain myself from pushing them too hard, because … that was my day, I was so strong. But then, recently when I go into that kind of race, I mean even running at 1:51, 1:53 now, I feel like I'm going all out. So I know for sure I've lost something. Not even "something", but I've lost a lot.

A good example is the Prefontaine Classic. ([Lagat finished 14th in the one mile run in 3:54.28. Two places ahead, in 12th, was Leonel Manzano, who yesterday earned the silver medal in the 1,500 meters.) That was the race where I was following the pacemakers, really wanting to run hard, and in training, you know how to get ready, and in the warmup, when the race starts, you know you're going to be ready, but then, the reality starts at 200 meters into the race, when you just feel like, "I am going all out!"

But then on the flip side, I've gained more in terms of the 5,000. I feel like I can train stronger now. I feel like I can do longer workouts, I can run faster in my tempo runs. Those are the things that I'm doing better than I used to do before. The result is that I feel comfortable in the 5K. I don't feel like I'm struggling the way I feel I struggle in, let's say, a 3:31 1,500-meter race, that kind of race.

TS: I saw the Prefontaine race on Youtube, but not so long after that, you ran well in New York. (Lagat won the 1,500 at the adidas Grand Prix, part of the IAAF Diamond League)

BL: I came back from Prefontaine Classic and I was like, man, I really need to work. But then I looked at the time, and it was 3:54, and I'm a 5,000 meters runner, and it was my first race (of the year), and I felt like I didn't have to go crazy in that one week going into New York. In fact, I took it easy, and I was feeling rested, and I guess I needed that Prefontaine Mile to kind of open me up. And I ran a 3:34, which wasn't bad!

TS: In my watching of the sport, maybe it's because you feel you don't have enough weapons in the 1,500, but it seems to me that right now, in the sport, the 1,500 is a lot softer than the 5,000. In terms of your ability, not you but anyone's ability to take a medal or take a gold medal, I can't remember a time in 25 or 30 years when the 1,500 has been softer. Any regrets about missing an opportunity?

BL: In reality, it is usually (slower) when it is the world championship or Olympics, because there is nobody who is taking the pace out as hard as we do on the grand prix circuit. I feel like it's different this year. When El Guerrouj stopped running, there was no other person besides me who ran under 3:30. It took a long time for somebody to go under 3:30, but I went under 3:30 twice before somebody else did. There was no one doing it for another four years. But then it started last year, and this year we have three people under 3:30. This year I think there is depth, and people are running faster. But in a championship race you usually don't find people running as fast, like El Guerrouj and myself running 3:32 in the Olympics in 2000. Or in 2004 when we ran the last 800 in 1:46. You don't see that. And yes, the 5,000 might not be soft, because we have people who are strong. But remember, I've lost a step! So, no regrets about lost opportunities.

TS: Something I wanted to ask you, and it's a difficult thing to say, but you have (Ethiopian world record holder Kenenisa) Bekele, you have (Britain')] Mo Farah, you have Galen Rupp, and then you have the usual suspects from Kenya, a couple of more usual suspects with Bekele in the Ethiopian team, and then maybe a few more random East Africans from Uganda or wherever, we'll find out when the Games start. Is there anyone in that race who keeps you awake at night, when you're trying to think about how the race might go and who's my biggest threat?

BL: You know when someone beats you once, it's in your mind, and you always have to think, in a championship, is it going to happen again, will he do the same thing? So when I'm training and when I'm thinking about the race I just think about the way I lost to Mo Farah (in the world championship last year in Daegu, South Korea, where Farah ran 13:23.36 to Lagat's 13:23.64), and I always think he's going to be my biggest competitor.

And then there are some guys who didn't beat me last year, but some of them, they are much stronger, and they are learning, especially a Kenyan guy who is called Isiah Koech. Isiah is a young guy. I think he is right now maybe 20? (Koech will be 20 on December 19.) And I've run with him the last two years, and he is improving every year. The first year, he was up there, close to me, and the second year he was even closer.

Those are the guys I think about. It's expected for the young guys to improve every year, and in order for me to stay ahead I have to continue to improve from where I was.

So it's those guys, Mo Farah, Isiah, Kenenisa Bekele, of course, if he runs. But I have a feeling he's going to run only 10K. (Lagat was correct in predicting that Bekele would not compete at 5,000 meters in London; earlier this week, he finished fourth in the 10,000 meters.) If he's going to be in the (5K) team, he's going to be a factor as well. And then Galen Rupp beat me the other day (in the U.S. Olympic Trials), but I just feel like there were mistakes that I made in that race, mistakes that I can correct. I'm not saying that to take anything away from the great run he did. I just feel that if I can rectify those mistakes, I feel that I can come away with the win. But with a lot of respect, he did a very good job in the Trials

TS: I was going to ask you something very similar about your race against Mo Farah in the World Championships last year. I'm coming at it as a guy who used to run that event, and talking about your race against El Guerrouj, I think maybe you moved a little bit early. On the curve, and then maybe the bullets were gone from the gun in the last 40 meters. Against Mo Farah, do you feel like you made any mistakes, do you feel that there's anything that you can say, "Hey I can fix that and it can be different?"

BL: You know, last year, I got pushed so bad in the last lap, and so at that point, I tried to be upset, but I'm like, well, I lost to Mo Farah. And it's a championship, and these kind of things happen. And of course I was upset, but when I came back, I felt like I could not blame even the guys who pushed me, because there were so many things I could have done right. I could have positioned myself the best way possible … like the way Mo Farah positioned himself. I mean, he positioned himself in the perfect spot. But I put myself in a bad spot. And then by the time I went into those problems, getting pushed, getting blocked by the Ethiopian athletes, I felt like I put myself in that position. So those are the things I should have controlled.

So now, your question was things that I've worked on to rectify that, well, it's hard to rectify those kinds of things in training, but it's something that I want to put into my head when I get into the race. Telling myself, it happened last time, it's not going to happen today. The reason I lost was because I positioned myself in a bad spot and because I got pushed and all these things, and by the time I started to react it was too late. Mo Farah was running a smart race, and I should actually be smarter than my competitors, because the smartest guy, if you are strongest, always wins. And I feel like the best tactics in Daegu gave Mo Farah the win. And so the way that I ran in the World Indoor, those were the things that I was rehearsing. (In March, Lagat won his fifth world championship, at 3,000 meters over Kenyan Augustine Choge and Farah) I said, I'm going to win World Indoor because I'm going to run differently. I'm going to put myself in a position that is favourable, you know, to win the gold medal, and I did, I won it. So that's the stuff I'm going to be working on.

TS: This is your fourth Olympic Games. What were your expectations, going into each one? I mean, you came to the Olympic Games kind of late in your career for a runner. I remember watching Richard Chelimo running in Tokyo in 1991 and I think he was 19, or 18 or something like that, and he seemed to have no fear. And I mean, what were you, 26 when you ran your first Olympic Games, something like that?

BL: Yeah, I was quite old! The objective of the first Olympics (in Sydney in 2000) was simple. Before the Olympics all the time I was coming third. It was (Moroccan world 1,500 meters record holder) Hicham El Guerrouj, (Kenyan) Noah Ngeny, myself. So I went in there with only one thing: if I can maintain my spot and get on the medal podium, I don't need to be second, I don't need to be the first one. All I need is the third spot. And I feel I ran like a real professional that day, because I had in my mind that I was guarding my spot. My spot was the third place. I didn't care about the other guys! And so I ran the best race possible to put me in that third spot, and I was able to put myself in a good spot, and I was third.

Then, when I went to the second Olympics (in Athens in 2004), there was no coming second. It was to win, because that's what I wanted, and I put myself under pressure to get that gold medal. And well, I ended up not getting it, but I gave it the best shot I could have asked of myself. (Lagat finished second in Athens to El Guerrouj, in one of the greatest Olympic middle distance races.)

And then, in 2008, I had the bronze, I had the silver, I'm going to go for the gold. So, my focus was like ten times the focus I had in 2004 when I got silver, and I was in good shape, in a good routine leading up to the Games, and then while I was training in Germany, right here, I got an Achilles problem. It sidelined me for three weeks, just before the Games, and that was all. I could not train, I could not do anything.

And so, the expectation now with this one is, rather than putting myself under too much pressure, to focus on other things. I think the focus, focus, focus on getting the gold even takes away from whether or not I can get that gold. I feel like I need to have fun, I need to enjoy the process. I need to be at the opening ceremony as if this is my first Olympics, and kind of … relax. And then, with the confidence that I've been there before – I've been there three times – my fourth time is going to be as fun as the first one, but the seriousness is there. When that gun goes, it's a totally different me. And so that's what I'm going to go there with.

TS: I wanted to talk a little bit about Arizona athletes, and I read that your brother (Robert Cheseret) and you raced against each other for the first time in the final of the Olympic Trials 5K. Before that race started, I guess it was fun for both of you. When the race started, were you thinking about him at all? Or was it just all business?

BL: You know what, I was just thinking before we started, hey, man, let's do it. He's a man of his own, I'm a man of my own, we're all Kalenjins, and we have this thing – we wish one of our soldiers, one of our warriors – the best to fight hard. But the thing is I was out there, in the front, and I had the feeling, he's going to be fine. My brother was struggling a little bit at the beginning of the season, to hit the times, and to finish races the way he wanted, and even with that, I thought he was a long shot, but I was believing in him. The most important thing was that whether he made it [onto the Olympic team] or not , it was going to be one of the most memorable races for me, because I'm running with my young brother. I mean, we've trained together in Tucson, but at the Olympic Trials, it was like, wow, I'm racing with him. When he made it to the final … it was one of the good things that has happened.

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TS: How about your training group in Tucson? I've read that Abdi Abdirahman is in your training group, and he's going to the Games as another old guy.

BL: Abdi was in Sydney, he was in Athens, he was in Beijing. And now he's going to London. I believed in him and he worked so hard.

From our Tucson training group, Abdi Abdirahman is going, Juan Luis Barrios, from Mexico, is going, in the 10,000 and 5,000, David McNeill is going. And myself. So, all of us. And we feel bad for one of our guys, who didn't make it. He's an 800 meter runner, Boaz Lalang. He's been having problems with injuries, he was behind David Rudisha when Rudisha was getting those two world records. But he hasn't been fortunate this year because of the injuries, and he is the only one (in our training group) who did not make it.

And there are three others from the University of Arizona who are going to the Olympics. So, Arizona, and especially Tucson, is well represented in the Olympics.

TS: How about in Germany? Do you have anyone to train with there? I know your coach (University of Arizona head cross country coach James Li) is there, you mentioned just now. Are you just running on your own?

BL: Yes, my coach is here, and I'm running on my own, but I'm going to take my coach to the train station in nine minutes. He's going to Holland, where David McNeill and Juan Luis are running tomorrow, and after they run, they will come here, and train with me until we go to the Olympics. And Boaz Lalang will come here as well after the London Grand Prix and train with us until the Olympics.

In Holland, Juan is going to run 1,500, he's a 5,000 and 10,000 meter guy, and then David, he's going to be running the 5K, that's the event he will be representing Australia at in the Olympics.

TS: I read after the Trials that you felt you were at about 90 percent fitness in Eugene. How do you get to 100 percent in the one month before the Games?

BL: It started yesterday when Coach Li arrived. He arrived, and two hours later, he was punishing me in the forest. And so we did a loop that is 2.5 kilometres, and I was running all out. That's the loop that always gets me into good shape. It starts with a hill, and then flat, and downhill and then flat and then uphill. The last 700 is uphill. On top of that, I will be doing a lot of track workouts and tempo runs with my training partners. That is the stuff that is going to bring me up to 100 percent. Plus, I will be resting my body in between, letting my body absorb those workouts.

TS: Last question: is there a Lagat race plan for major championships, where there's no rabbiting (pacemaking)? I've watched a lot of your videos, and it seems that you're a pretty smart runner in terms of staying out of trouble, and staying close to the front, but do you have a way that you like to run, or that you think is the template for how you race and deviate from as needed?

BL: It's good to be able to deviate from the plan when the circumstances call for you to. Because I've raced for a long time, I've realized that I have to have more than 10 strategies. And in the race you have to be able to switch very quickly between strategies. Those are the things that I have trained my mind to do.

The first things are being calm, running smart, staying out of trouble.

But there is always something else that can happen. Somebody can make a surge. You think, do I make a surge and go with him? You think, who is that person? Is that someone I can let go, because you don't think they're a threat? Or is that someone you've got to go with?

I've been lucky that way, because I set up myself with a smart coach. And when he tells me to do what I do, I am able to do those things.

But a coach cannot teach an athlete how to be smart. It has to come naturally. A coach can tell an athlete how to be ready to run, but when it comes to the race, everything can wiped from the brain. Luckily, that's never been my problem. In fact when things get intense, I feel like my options kind of grow, like I can call up the right one of my tactics. And that has helped me over the years.

TS: Thank you very much. Good luck in London!

BL: Thanks! I'm going to have fun.

Roberto De Vido writes cartoons and comics about politics, sports (and life) from a small fishing and farming village an hour southwest of Tokyo.

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Bernard Lagat after finishing second in the 5,000-meter trials and qualifying for his fourth Olympic Games.

“It’s expected for the young guys to improve every year, and in order for me to stay ahead I have to continue to improve from where I was.”

— Five-time world champion Bernard Lagat

Youtube Video

Update: Lagat qualifies for 5000 meters final

On Wednesday, Lagat qualified for the final of the 5,000 meters, taking the fourth of five automatic qualifying spots in his heat with a fast time of 13:15.45. The final will take place on Saturday.

Also qualifying for the final were Americans Lopez Lomong, London 10,000-meter silver medalist Galen Rupp and Lagat's Tucson-based training partner Juan Luis Barrios, who is representing Mexico. Another member of Lagat's training group, Australian David McNeill, finished 13th in the first of two heats and did not qualify for the final.