Five-time U.S. Olympian Bernard Lagat discusses his long-awaited marathon debut at this year’s New York City Marathon, his training, competition and more.
Five-time U.S. Olympian Bernard Lagat will make his long-awaited marathon debut at this year’s New York City Marathon. At 43 years old, Lagat is remarkably still one of the top U.S. distance runners. He most recently represented the United States at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in March and claimed the U.S. 10K title in July. If he continues racing at the elite level, there may be a chance for Lagat to try and make a sixth U.S. Olympic team in 2020. For now, he’s solely focused on his 26.2-mile debut and possibly making a run at Meb Keflezighi’s U.S. Masters record of 2:12:20.
The women’s field for the New York City Marathon is absolutely loaded with the defending champion Shalane Flanagan, Boston Marathon champion Des Linden, London Marathon champion Vivian Cheruiyot and three-time New York champion Mary Keitany. The men’s field already includes last year’s champion 25-year-old Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya.
Lagat spoke with Sports Illustrated about the decision to run the marathon on Nov. 4th.
Sports Illustrated: Why the marathon and why now?
Bernard Lagat: I’ve been in the sport for a long time. I was a track guy for a long, long time. I’d occasionally run on the roads with the 5th Avenue Mile here in New York and a 5K in Carlsbad but that wasn’t really my thing because I was such a track athlete. I finished my track career in 2016 and told myself to learn a few things about longer distance running and road racing in particular. How can I maximize what I’ve been able to do on the track and put it toward road racing? I’ve spent the past two years talking to the best road racers and reading a few things about it. I wanted a new challenge. I think I’ve been successful in my own way from a very good 1,500 meter runner to now a 62-minute half marathoner. I’ve waited this long and I’ve been able to make good preparation. Having now run a few half marathons and 10Ks, my interest was sparked. Now it’s ‘What can I do in a full marathon?’ I figured that now is the right time to try it.
SI: You keep saying that you’re ‘trying’ it. Incredibly, you’re still competing among the top elite runners.
BL: For me, I’m taking it one at a time. When I started road racing, I told myself that I’d give it about one or two years before I jumped into a marathon. I used to downplay the marathon so much. I wanted to just do it to say that I’ve done it and then check a box for my career. Things change as you go. I’m still running at the highest level. It’s not just trying it now. I am going to put myself 100% into it. When I told my agent that I wanted to do a marathon, I couldn’t think of a better place to do it than New York. This is something new and a great challenge. With the training that I’ve been doing, maybe this is the right time to go all-out. With all seriousness, I want to show up and run a really good marathon in New York.
SI: You’re just thinking for November or has your mind already started wandering toward the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials?
BL: No. My mind isn’t going that far yet. I’m just going to take this one at a time. My training partners have asked me, ‘If you are successful in New York, will you run the marathon for 2020?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I want to do things one at a time and not jump the boat on the distance. This is something new. I’ve never had this type of challenge. I’m only focused on one for now. This will set me up and if I feel that I had a good day, then that would be the next chapter. 2020 in Atlanta? Why not go and try to run with the best marathoners in the country, if it all goes well. Those are things that I will think about and discuss with coach James Li and my agent James Templeton later on. I want to get ready for New York City first and whatever happens there will determine 2020.
SI: Before now, what’s the closest you ever came to deciding to run a marathon? You’ve specialized in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters for so long. In 2016, you moved up to the 10,000 meters but ended up making the 5,000 meter team for Rio. You could’ve moved up so much earlier if you hadn’t seen so much success on the track.
BL: Yes and that’s exactly the thing that held me back from even trying the longer distances. I remember I approached David Monti [the NYRR professional athletes consultant] at the end of 2011 to talk about the possibility of maybe trying the marathon. It’s funny how that excitement happened without even running a half marathon at the time. I was possibly looking at the New York City Marathon for December 2012. But then I decided that I just wanted to go and medal at the London Olympics. I wasn’t ready to jump into it just yet. I thought the preparation for the marathon would hurt my chances in the 5,000 meters. I would’ve been tired. The topic was closed for a bit until really the beginning of 2018.
SI: That was 2011 and 2012. Seven years ago and you’re still competing. What would be a successful day for you in New York? It’s a race that is not typically fast or conducive to a quick personal best. Anything close to a 2:08 would be insane and at 43 years old it would make everyone go crazy. This is a race where placing is sometimes values more and you’ve thrived on the championship scene.
BL: I chose New York and I’ve loved this city for the longest time. It goes all the way back to when I was racing at Madison Square Garden for the Millrose Games. Every time that I go there, I feel appreciated. The effort you put into races is rewarded. My half marathon debut was in New York. I’ve received some real advice from successful past New York City marathoners like Abdi Abdirahman and Juan Luis Barrios. They know the course and have said that sometimes a 2:10 can win the race. You may not run a personal best but placing is super important. If a fast time comes as a result, that’s fine. This course has its own challenges that make it different from races like Berlin or Frankfurt. They’ve told me to stick with the leaders. They’re not blazing at a 2:02 pace. We will be hammering hard but it’s something that I can sustain as long as I work on hydration and staying relaxed. Whenever I train with these guys for like 17 or 18 miles, they always wonder what I can run for the full. They’ve been challenging me enough so now it’s time to learn from them on what I need to know for New York. I feel confident that when I get there, it will be a good day.
SI: You’ve been working with coach James Li since your days at Washington State—that’s two decades of experience. What does he still do for you? Don’t you think you’d be able to be self-coached by now?
BL: Coach Li is the guy that is there for you whenever there’s the slightest hint of doubt. He knocks you back into your senses and you forget those doubts. At the same time, he knows how to design a training program specific to me. I’m older now. For the last years, we’ve been working on going longer without hurting or killing ourselves. Rest is crucial. He doesn’t make me do any doubles because I need the time to recover. This is a man who has learned so much about me and adjusting to my body now. The intensity is high in training but we have more rest. Right now, I think I’ll be a lower mileage guy when I step into the marathon. He already knows that it can work because he’s coached me to a 62-minute half marathon. Even stepping down to the 10K on the road, I was able to win the U.S. Championships. Those are the things that show that as I’m getting older I’m adapting well to his training. More than ever, it’s about trust. I don’t second guess him. Maybe when I was running track, I’d think about guys like Hicham El Guerrouj or Asbel Kiprop doing killer workouts and they’d beat me in 1,500 meters or dust me off. That was not the case. He trained me to believe I could do well. Going into New York, he’s the guy I want to be with for advice and to design my training so that I can go in with the belief that I can win the race.
SI: Why are you still going? Why didn’t you just retire after Rio? If you think about I, El Guerrouj never raced the roads and retired after the 2004 Olympics. You have to find yourself thinking, ‘How am I the only one still running from that 2004 Olympic final?’
BL: [Laughs] It is really quite simple. When you have passion and you still love challenges, nothing can stop you. Nothing has stopped my interest in seeing what I can do. When I finished running on the track, I said that my last race would be in Berlin in 2016 [Editor’s Note: His final track race was in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for the ISTAF Berlin]. I was in low-13 minute shape for the 5,000 meters. So why would I put everything in my bags and then decide, that’s it? For me, I felt like I still had passion. I want to be a successful road runner. Success can be determined in different ways. I see it as a chance to run in my 40s and still beat the young guys. I may not be running 13:30 but I can run 13:41 and set a Masters record. That’s success to me because no one else is doing it. Those are the things that make me get out the door every morning and grind like I used to. I want other people to benefit from the experience of seeing what I’m doing now. I want people to have the longevity that I’ve had.
I look at a guy like [two-time Olympic medalist from New Zealand] Nick Willis as one of those guys who has been there for a long time. I still want him to continue. When I see him stepping into road races and running the mile and 5K, I think he can be someone that does what I’ve done eventually. This is a guy who has walked the same footsteps that I’ve gone through. He was a 1,500 meter runner and he’s a good 5K runner on the road. Who know what he can do if he steps into the marathon? I want to be an example of what you can do in your discipline if you work hard?
SI: You mentioned Masters records. You’re re-writing the U.S. Masters record books and making it look easy. How much do those feed into your motivation?
BL: Whenever you think of a Masters world record, you think about Haile Gebrselassie running 60 or 61 minutes for the half marathon at 40. That’s sensational. At the World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia earlier this year, I was trying to go for it but I ran out of gas. That’s the stuff that gets me excited. You look at the records, try to chase them and break them. That can also be a mark of success and an accomplishment that no one else has ever done. Coming to New York, I know that Meb has run 2:12. In the back of my head, I’m thinking I want to go to New York and run as hard as I can and get in a good spot. If I was able to get in there and finish top 5, that will be sensational and on top of that, if I can cross the finish line getting that American Masters record by Meb that would be a success on top of another success. That’s what makes me love what I’m doing. That will fuel me for another challenge. That might even propel me and give me the boost to get me to 2020.
SI: Have you talked to Meb about the decision to run New York?
BL: No, not yet.
SI: He’s raced the course more than 10 times. What would you pick his brain about?
BL: I want to pick his brain about the first half. That’s really important. I don’t want to over-commit in the first half and then just die at the end. For him, how was he able to handle the first half or the first 30K? In the last 12K, how did he do that? What was his approach at 40 with day-by-day training? That is stuff that I want to ask him. With regards to the course, I want to know that this is it and to keep pushing and grinding? Another person I need to talk to is Eliud Kipchoge.
[Editor’s Note: Kipchoge clocked the fastest marathon in history while running 2:00:25 in an attempt by Nike to break the two-hour barrier. The time does not count as a world record due to a rotating cast of pacers used throughout the race and fueling strategy.]
Eliud is a guy that you can put in any type of atmosphere or course and he would power through. I haven’t talked to him about New York specifically but I want to know how he prepares himself mentally. I want to pick up his mental strength. This is a guy who goes into a race and he’s in a different zone from the beginning to the end. He’s not losing focus and being happy running. That’s what I want to hear from him.
SI: Eliud trains with the reigning New York City Marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor. The kid is 25 and has already won a major marathon and three world half marathon titles. What impresses you the most about him?
BL: You can tell this is the guy who is getting ready to take the torch. Geoffrey has been a student of the sport and what better way to learn than to be with a guy like Eliud. Eliud was a successful track athlete and now he’s the most successful man on the roads. If you have that guy every day in the morning in Kaptagat, Kenya, to train, there’s nothing better than that. The simplest thing that Eliud has is that he has no ego. I was on a trip with him in China and he’s down-to-earth and not hiding anything. That’s where guys like Kamworor are benefitting because Kipchoge wants them to be successful. I’ve raced Kamworor once and at 25, I think he’s the guy who is going to take after Eliud.