After completing a 30.5-kilometer run on the dirt roads of Kaptagat in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Bernard Lagat called his sister, Mary, beaming with excitement.
“Eliud Kipchoge ran with us today, and I could see him from a distance,” Lagat told his sister. “And he finished only 16 seconds ahead of me! Eliud Kipchoge, of all people!”
Though Lagat was born there, he has traveled back to Kenya only a handful of times over last 20 years. But in early January, Lagat left his wife and two kids at home in Tucson, Ariz., for a six-week training block in Kaptagat, immersing himself with some of the world’s best marathoners, including marathon world record holder Kipchoge, and renowned coach Patrick Sang.
It was all in preparation for this weekend, as Lagat will attempt to make his sixth Olympic team at U.S. Olympic marathon trials, where just the top three finishers will go on to represent the country in Tokyo. Lagat ran middle distances on the track for Kenya at the 2000 and ’04 Olympics before switching allegiances to the U.S. at the prime of his career. As an American, he has made three Olympic teams and took fifth in the 5,000 meters at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Lagat announced his retirement from the track at the end of the 2016 season to seek new challenges on the roads. Over the past three years, he has inserted his name into the record books, including for the U.S. masters record at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia last year, where he beat his collegiate rival and longtime friend Meb Keflezighi’s previous record. Now, at age 45, Lagat will try to become the first track and field athlete to go to six Olympics.
“I’m finding things that challenge me, and that’s what keeps me going,” Lagat says.
Born on a family farm in Kapsabet, Kenya, Lagat first became interested in running after seeing the opportunities the sport provided for his sister, Mary. After a competition in Japan, Mary returned home with a pair of shoes for Bernard—it was his first pair of footwear of any kind and he used them for everything, including running the approximate 1,500 meters to get to and from school each day.
In 1992, Bernard was a sophomore at Kaptel Secondary School when Mary got to see him run for the first time. She was impressed and believed that if he committed to training, he could receive U.S. college scholarship offers as she had, even though she had passed on the opportunities to work and help pay for her siblings’ tuition.
“I understood from the beginning that somebody sacrificed for me to even be in high school,” Lagat says. “I had to be a good student first and then a good runner. Hopefully, I could give back to my sister to say thank you for paying my school fees, encouraging me and taking care of me. It almost worked out as scripted the way she had seen it.”
Lagat arrived in the U.S. to run and study at Washington State University, where he ended up winning four NCAA championship titles under the guidance of coach James Li, who he continues to work with to this day. In 2000, he briefly left school to focus on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where he represented Kenya and took bronze in the 1,500 meters. Four years later, Lagat took silver in the 1,500 meters at the Olympics in Athens, but it was later reported that he already became a U.S. citizen on May 7, 2004, before he competed for Kenya on the Olympic stage. After news of the controversy, some called for Lagat to surrender his silver medal, but nothing came of it.
“That was a big loss for [Kenya],” Lagat says. “Even though they love you so much, they’re gutted by that decision and asking, ‘Why did you even do this?’ In their eyes, we finally have the No. 1 guy in the whole world, and then he’s not [one of ours] anymore, technically.”
In 2007, after winning gold in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters at the world championships, Lagat made his first trip back to Kenya—perhaps too soon, he says now, since some feelings of animosity from his compatriots had not yet subsided. Lagat’s medal haul could’ve been under the Kenyan flag, but instead, it belonged to the U.S.
“The fans were the ones who felt like, We miss that opportunity of you representing, running and carrying the flag.” Lagat says. “The runners accepted me right away, but the fans took a while.”
Back in the states, Lagat says he was welcomed by his U.S. middle-distance-running peers. To compete at world championships and Olympics, they would have to beat the top-ranked athlete in the world, which elevated the state of U.S. distance running. Beneficiaries of these raised stakes included Alan Webb—once a U.S. high school prodigy who went on to set the national record in the mile in 3:46.91—as well as longer distance specialists Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp, who both broke the elusive 13-minute barrier in the 5,000 meters. Lagat remembers them as cordial teammates on the 2007 world championship team and ‘08 Olympic team.
“I never heard any negativity,” Lagat says. “That made it feel like this was home every single time I was with those guys.”
The role of foreign-born runners in the resurgence of U.S. middle distance running should not be overlooked. Keflezighi showed Americans could contend with East Africans again in the marathon with his silver in Athens and then again by winning the 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon. Leo Manzano draped the Mexican and American flag around his shoulders in 2012, when he became the first American medalist in the 1,500 meters since 1968. For nearly two decades, Lagat has helped elevate the sport in the U.S., both on the track and off. He actively participates in meetings with USA Track and Field and was one of six athletes elected to the IAAF Athletes commission to help provide insight into governance and integrity reforms by the global governing body.
On Saturday, Lagat hopes to continue cementing his presence within the sport, but he'll face a challenge, competing in just his third career marathon, against 18 men with faster qualifying times. The sport’s elite level revolves around making the Olympics, and the only remaining opportunity for a sixth appearance would be if he competes at the 2020 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., in June.
For his final training run in Kenya, Sang surprised Lagat by switching the 30-kilometer route without advanced notice. It was a hilly course meant to simulate what he might feel at the trials in Atlanta. Kipchoge took out the run in sub-5:10 pace to start (at altitude) while Lagat backed off the pace and carried on blindly after losing sight of Kipchoge, the session's de facto pacesetter. “I encountered Mount Everest today,” Lagat later wrote in his training log, referring to a hill at the 10th mile that felt like it went on forever. He endured and finished shortly after Kipchoge. Can Lagat replicate Kipchoge’s ascension from the 1,500 meters to the marathon and solidify a new paradigm for distance running with a strong performance at the trials? Or has he made his move to longer races too late in his career?
“I won’t stop [if I am not] successful in Atlanta,” Lagat says. “It opens up a lot of opportunities for this summer. Maybe another marathon? Maybe a half-marathon? Maybe the 10K in Eugene? I’m leaving that open for after Atlanta.”