Bernard Lagat reacts after the men's 5,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track and Field on June 28, 2012 in Eugene, Ore.
NEW YORK – At age 38, Bernard Lagat is still breaking records. Just last month at the Millrose Games, he became the fastest American ever to run two miles indoors, in 8 minutes, 9.49 seconds. He also owns two Olympic medals at 1,500 meters and, last summer in London, placed fourth at 5,000 meters.
But the four-time Olympian has never raced a half marathon.
This Sunday, however, Lagat will stand beside some of the world’s fastest distance runners in Central Park as they await the start of the NYC Half, a 13.1-mile dash around the park, down Seventh Avenue, through Times Square, onto the West Side Highway and south to the finish line downtown.
Most of the younger elite men in the race increased their mileage a long time ago, like Lagat’s Olympic teammates Abdi Abdirahman (the reigning U.S. half-marathon champion) and Dathan Ritzenhein (the second-fastest American in history at this distance).
But Lagat stuck with track and became an elder statesman in spikes.
Now, as Lagat approached the longest race of his long career, he and his agent James “J.T.” Templeton sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss his latest transition. The following is a condensed version of that conversation.
On deciding to move up to 13.1 miles:
Lagat: We used to talk about the next challenge, JT, coach Li, and I. We waited until the Olympics to see how I felt, and if I would be mentally strong enough for that big of a challenge.
Templeton: In November, all our discussions internally were about this half. The important thing was that [he] was keen and motivated to do it. The Olympics didn’t fall into place for him, so there was still unfinished business. As the months went on, he said, ‘I want to run the half and I want to win the world champs in Moscow.’
Lagat: Since December I’ve been training for [this] really hard. It feels like I’m making the right decision.
How has your training changed as you approach the half marathon?
Lagat: Not much in terms of the focus. We always want to make sure we have speed at the end. On tempo runs, my pace is still hard. I’ll be using that strength, as always, to take me to the winning position.
What kind of mileage are you running now?
Lagat: I used to do five-mile tempo runs; I do eight-mile tempo runs now. An easy day used to be six miles; now an easy day is 10 miles. My long run is 14 miles. I’m still on the track once a week. I’m increasing the volume and maintaining the intensity.
Templeton: Coach Li believes the work will benefit him. [Bernard] did a 14 miler [in New York City two days after setting the two-mile indoor American record at Millrose] which wouldn’t have happened a year or two ago. The track form is still there, which is pretty reassuring.
Did you see the NYC Half two years ago when Mo Farah won in one hour, 22 seconds and Galen Rupp finished third (eight seconds later)? Did that motivate you to try this distance?
Lagat: I watched those two guys, Galen and Mo. They were MOVING! I’m thinking to myself, I do my tempo run in 4:50 something. These guys were going FASTER than that and they looked like they were comfortable. It’s the training that makes you feel like that. That gave me motivation. If I train to make sure I run comfortably like that, I will be ready.
Templeton: We’re not expecting an American record here. Coach Li says he’s getting under 61, just to put it in perspective.
Is running a half marathon more appealing than running 10,000 meters on the track?
Lagat: Oh yeah!
Templeton: Two years ago, we were thinking about doing a 10. But then we backed off. Twenty-five laps in spikes seems more of a risk than running a half marathon.
Do you have a long training route back home in Arizona?
Lagat: I have a perfect [14-mile training loop] near my house. In December, we did it in 79 [minutes]. We came back, 78. The last one we did with Abdi [Abdirahman] and Lawi [Lalang of University of Arizona], we did in 77.
What would make Sunday’s race a good race for you?
Lagat: My expectations are high. Every time I commit to a race, I want to do the best I can. I don’t want to just show up. Of course, this is new so I don’t want to say the only thing that will make me happy is to win. I could come in second or third and if I run a great time, I’m not going to be disappointed.
Is there anything that makes you nervous or afraid about the half?
Lagat: I hope that morning, my body will be feeling good and ready to go. God forbid, I have a cold. You don’t want that. I will be fine because this is business. Seriously. I expect a lot from myself. I’m going to do the best I can.
How are you able to be so calm?
Lagat: Being nervous is not something that I have. I don’t know why. Mentally, I tell myself I’m look forward to this. I can’t wait for this. The good thing is – with a half marathon, it’s not going to be like a two-mile. If there’s wind, I know I’m going to attack it. [Or] I will have somebody doing that for me. Somebody will get going and a group is going to go with them. If I’m in that group, all I can think about is feeling relaxed. Feel your strides. Don’t lose focus. Keep an eye open on everything, sudden moves, and just stay calm. Rather than thinking, oh man, I’ve only run downhill 5k and now there’s more [pain], if you shed that fear, it will never come back. Seriously. You just have to block it. Think about the strengths that you have instead of the weakness.
In the whole arc of your career, what distance do you most identify with?
Lagat: I was a miler that could actually handle the distance. I have that endurance with me. But it’s hard learning a new race. Everything is a challenge, training for it, learning [tactics]. When you step up to a new distance, you can’t make mistakes [at this level]. I’m making a change at age 38. I’ve been holding back longer than most people. At 30, you should be moving up anyway so I’m getting to a place I should have been – maybe – four years ago. I’ve been tested pretty well in my own event – which is the 15 – and then the 5,000. Now I’m looking forward to race people I normally don’t ever race. It’s a great opportunity to rub shoulders with these guys, listen to the same gun. It’s going to be unbelievable.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.