The last lap of Bernard Lagat's performance at last month's Millrose Games in New York City took the longest by far. After running 4:54.74 to set a national indoor mark in the rarely run 2,000 meters, Lagat half-crouched as he rounded the elevated track to soak in postvictory adoration, bending to slap hands with the spectators lined three-deep. At one point he stopped altogether, flinging his hands toward the Armory's ceiling to shout, "I love you guys!"
Ten years ago, when the Kenyan-born Lagat was a freshly minted U.S. citizen, he would have had trouble imagining this scene. He expected to have hung up his running shoes by the time he turned 39 in December. What the two-time Olympic medalist didn't foresee was the motivation born from disappointments in Beijing in 2008, when a sore Achilles' tendon helped keep him from the podium, and in London two years ago, when he stumbled in the homestretch of the 5,000-meter final.
What no one foresaw was a middle-distance champion who would get better with age. Saturday's indoor mark was Lagat's third at Millrose in as many years; last year he set a since-broken mark in the two mile, and in 2012 he set one in the 5,000 meters. "I don't think you can find another runner in the world who has the longevity at the level he's at," says James Li, Lagat's coach since he ran at Washington State in the late 1990s.
The key to Lagat's durability may be his emphasis on not running. He rests every Sunday and, since he was in college, has placed a five-week moratorium on training after each season. He cherishes his downtime even more now that he spends his break in Tucson with his wife, Gladys, and their two children, eight-year-old Miika and five-year-old Gianna. By the time he flips the switch back on every Nov. 1, body and mind alike are refreshed and ready to go.
Though Lagat salivates over the approaching end of every season, he is unsure when he will reach his run's true end. Two weeks ago he won silver in the 3,000 meters at the world indoor championships in Sopot, Poland, becoming the oldest-ever medalist in the championship. He is eyeing September's Continental Cup in Marrakech, and he has yet to rule out a push toward the Rio Olympics in 2016. But what he knows for certain is that after the season ends this fall, he will shut down and recharge. "It is a circle that continues year after year," Lagat says. "That circle is part of my program, part of my everyday life." Around he goes.
AS ONE might expect of a person who schedules his own downtime, Lagat is strict about not being too strict with himself. Though he is adamant about the benefits of stretching and core workouts, the 2000 bronze medalist and '04 silver medalist warns against getting caught up in mandatory drills "because at the end you just feel like you didn't do enough or you don't have time." Instead, he recommends building the habit of stretching and exercising while watching TV—he often chooses CNN or MSNBC—even if only for a few minutes. "Just get something in," Lagat says. "And you'll be surprised: You do it every single time, and it becomes a routine."
Li lauds his star charge's ability to listen to his body, knowing when to push ahead and when to ease up. And while he stops short of recommending Lagat's five weeks of rest for everyone, he believes its principles could benefit everybody. "You've gotta keep it fun and keep yourself motivated," says Li. "You can't constantly work yourself into the ground."