Bernard Lagat gave a raucous crowd exactly what it wanted at the 105th annual Millrose Games at the Armory Track in New York City: an American record.
On Feb. 11 the 37-year-old distance runner set his seventh national record on Saturday, winning the 5,000-meter indoor race with a time of 13:07.15 to break the previous mark by more than four seconds. The record-setting run was only the latest in a long list of accomplishments for the Kenyan-turned-American, who received the loudest cheers of any athlete at the meet.
While Lagat rightfully commanded the adulation of the fans and the attention of the media, the performance of his understudy, University of Arizona sophomore Lawi Lalang, cannot be overlooked. The 2011 NCAA Cross Country individual champion, Lalang finished second in the 5,000-meters, scarcely one second behind Lagat. His time of 13:08.28 shattered the American collegiate record by over ten seconds.
The Kenyan Lalang hung with Lagat -- who is a volunteer assistant coach at Arizona and calls Lalang his "student" -- for the entire race, leading for long stretches before the veteran pulled away in the final 100 meters. The second-place finish didn't surprise Lalang, who is undoubtedly one of the most talented college distance runners in years.
"I was expecting something like this," Lalang said. "The way we had been training, I had that courage of maybe I'd run something like 13:15, but [Arizona track coach James Li] had told me that I can run under 13:10 and I believed in him."
Lalang's strong race was no shock to Lagat, either, with the longtime distance runner heaping praise upon his young training mate after the race.
"I knew the capabilities of my training partner here," Lagat said. "He has mastered already the training and right now he's executing the same thing he does in training in the race. If he had won it I'd be sitting here saluting him right now and actually I salute him anyway because he got the college record with a 13:08. He broke it by 10 seconds, so it's a great achievement."
Breaking the collegiate 5,000-meter record is the start of what could be a banner year for Lalang, who is already significantly ahead of where Lagat was at this point in his college career. Up next is Arizona's outdoor track season, where he's hoping to shave three seconds off his 3:55 mile time to break yet another NCAA record.
But the real test for the immensely talented and abundantly confident Lalang will come this summer, when he'll attempt to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics at the Kenyan trials in Nairobi. While Lalang seemed nervous at the thought of the Olympic Trials, only saying that it would "be cool" to compete in the London games, Lagat had a much more bullish attitude about the runner's chances, indicating on Saturday that he thinks Lalang has a good chance to get to London.
"To have Lawi run 13:08, that tells me something about his talent," Lagat said. "When he goes to Kenya for trials he's going to do fantastic."