Bernard Lagat has nothing left to prove as a runner, only to himself.
He’s won 13 medals in major international track competition including silver and bronze at the Olympics. At his fifth Olympics in 2016, as a 41-year-old, Lagat of Tucson still was in contention for a medal, finishing fifth in the 5,000-meter.
Retiring from track competition in September 2016 only opened a new phase of Lagat’s running career. He’s the American masters record holder at a variety of track and road racing distances including the half marathon, covering 13.1 miles in 62 minutes at Houston in January.
“The thing my coach kept telling me is the training I’ve been doing over the years in track was going to help me a lot,” Lagat said. “The strength I have is the fact I can train consistently and go at a faster pace. Not necessarily at longer distances, but at 10 miles and down I can really handle a good pace.”
By brainstorming with his long-time coach James Li, Lagat found a way to adjust his training for the half marathon and beyond without physically breaking down at the age of 43.
“His overall mileage is relatively the same,” said Li, University of Arizona track associate head coach. “But he’s doing more long runs (20 miles plus) then taking 2-3 days off or doing cross training. That’s how we’re able to keep him healthy.”
Lagat trained for nine weeks in Flagstaff so he could be on the starting line at the New York City Marathon on Sunday with a chance of achieving his latest goal — to lower the U.S. marathon master’s record (2:12.20) set by his friend Meb Keflezighi at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials.
A student of the sport, Lagat knows running 2:12 at New York typically equates to a top-10 finish. To accomplish that as a first-time marathoner, given his start as a collegiate 1,500-meter specialist, is “something way out there,” said Li, who recruited Lagat from his native Kenya to Washington State where he then coached in 1996.
Li moved to Arizona in 2002 and Lagat soon followed, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2004 and competing as an American in his three most recent Olympics (his Olympic 1,500 medals came while representing Kenya in 2000 and 2004).
“What I’ve accomplished in track is something different compared to what I’m about to prepare myself for,” Lagat said. “I used to think the marathon is going to be something so hard, I don’t even think I would like to try that. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking this is something I can do, but how am I going to do it?”
As someone simply checking a to-do box or as a genuine elite contender?
After clocking the half marathon in Houston at 1:02, it was “easier to make that next step,” said Lagat, although he was realistic about his inexperience as a distance runner and knows the training commitment required to compete in one of the major marathons in a field that includes three World Marathon Majors champions.
After the announcement about his marathon debut Aug. 23, Lagat left his wife Gladys in charge of their 10- and 12-year-old children for much of September and October to join veteran marathoners Abdi Abdirahman, who also lives in Tucson, and Mexico’s Juan Luis Barrios for altitude training in Flagstaff.
“They know how to prepare, they know everything about it,” Lagat said. “These are the most important guys to learn from and they are my friends so they are going to tell me everything. There will be no secrets being hidden.
“It’s not like the 5,000 meters or 10,000. It’s definitely not 1,500 meters because every single time we go for training, I always find myself 200 meters ahead that first mile. But before halfway, they will be passing me. Then when we finish, they say did you see the way you started, you went a little too hard.”
Lagat’s response: “But you guys are starting at almost 7 minutes (for the first mile). That’s boring. I don’t want to do that.
“Patience is the most important I learned (along with the proper way to take fluids while on the run). They tell me this thing is long, no rush, but make sure you close strong.”
Li, who will be in attendance to cap his 22nd year working with Lagat, believes 2:12 is possible especially if “we get a little bit of luck” weather-wise and some tailwind. “He’s an unbelievable, natural athlete. Twenty years ago, I didn’t think he could run a 10K then he wins Peachtree (in July) and broke a world masters record (in 2015).
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s not to rule anything out. It really depends on how well his body holds up. His motivation is the last thing I would be worried about.”
Others with Arizona ties in the New York elite field include 41-year-old Abdirahmam, a four-time Olympian; 2018 Arizona State Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Desiree Linden, a two-time Olympian who won the Boston Marathon in April; and Scott Smith and Stephanie Bruce (2018 Peachtree women’s champion) of Northern Arizona Elite based in Flagstaff.