“I have no regrets,” Bernard Lagat tells SPIKES on the eve of the final track race of his career. The 41-year-old is reflecting on two decades of international running during which he has won a whopping 13 global medals.
Maybe his most impressive feat is he still looks the same as when he started out – some might say even better. “In my university pictures I look way older than I look now, it’s awesome!” he grins.
For Lagat, who during the European season lives and trains in Tübingen, Germany, the decision to perform his swansong in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium was a no-brainer. It was on the same iconic blue track that he snared a pair of medals at the 2009 World Championships. First he won 1500m bronze with a great late burst, before dusting himself off for the 5000m where he would celebrate the “second favourite” moment of his career. The final produced one of the most gripping 5000m finishes in history, and Lagat missed gold by just 0.24secs behind Kenenisa Bekele.
He had found himself in similar situation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Lagat, then representing his native Kenya, challenged Hicham El Guerrouj in a dramatic 1500m finish. The pair drained the best from each other as the lead changed several times. Lagat had to settle for second, a mere 0.12 secs behind the world record holder.
But there is no bitterness or disappointment as he recalls those narrow defeats. No regrets.
Lagat counts the 2004 Olympic 1500m final as one of his top three races of his career
Lagat is the Kim Collins of middle distance running, one of athletics’ evergreens. When he won his first Olympic medal, 1500m bronze in Sydney 2000, this correspondent was still in primary school. He has competed in five Olympics, two for Kenya and three for the United States.
In 1996, aged 21, he moved to America to study at Washington State University. Between 2000 and 2004 he won five medals at world championships and Olympics for his home country, his 3:26.34 PB from 2001 is the second fastest 1500m time in history. In 2000 he graduated with a degree in management information systems.
Lagat received his American passport in May 2004. After competing for Kenya at the Athens Olympics he sat out his three years of international ineligibilty. He represented the USA at championships from 2007 onwards.
That year, in Osaka, he became the first athlete in history to win the 1500m/5000m double at a world championships. “The two gold medals in 2007 was, it was the best performance ever – according to me.
“I was able to represent the United States for the first time and I didn’t come home with just one but two medals. Gold medals.”
He went on to win six more global medals. When he qualified for his fifth Olympics by winning the 5000m at the US Trials this summer, ‘Lagat’ became synonymous with ‘legend’. In Rio he rolled back the years once more, finishing fifth in a 40+ age group record 13:06.78.
Lagat won 1500m and 5000m gold at the 2007 Osaka World Championships
Key to his longevity he says is “stability”: the same agent, the same sponsor, and his family. Lagat and his coach, James Li, have worked with each other since he arrived in America in 1996. His wife, Gladys Tom, is an athletic trainer and dietitian.
“Behind every successful man is a strong woman,” he says. “Me and Kim [Collins, 40, who is coached by wife Paula] are a testament to that.
“As we get older you have to listen to your body. If it says ‘I am not ready to train today’, don’t force it, just skip it. But also make sure that when you train, you train hard.”
Lagat’s longevity has influenced generations. Two-time Olympic champion and 800m world record holder David Rudisha calls him “a great inspiration”.
“I remember one time, I think it was just after 2012 in London, we were in Tübingen and I was doing session of 200s and 300s,” recalls Rudisha.
“It was amazing! He was always there trying to keep up with the speed – and he is more of a 5000m athlete!”
Twenty years. Thirteen global medals. Five world titles. One face.
In Berlin, Lagat lined up for the 3000m as the oldest in the field. The next oldest was 11 years his junior. Remarkably, the veteran finished second behind Augustine Choge. As he crossed the line in 7:43.63, a huge smile crept over his face. Then he mouthed a big DANKE to the crowd.
“I was starting to second guess,” says Lagat of his decision end his track career in Berlin. “The 2017 World Championships in London is really tempting.”
But he’s made his decision. His focus now is on the road. “It will involve less travelling. That means it will give me enough time to train and when we train, it’s going to be changing.
“It’s no longer going to be the intense track workouts, it’s gonna be volume-oriented and I’m gonna be up against tough guys, who are specialised only in road racing. It won’t be an easy thing for me, but I am gonna give it my best.”
Just as we are wrapping up our conversation, he suddenly looks up. “Actually,” he says. Then pauses.
“If I had one opportunity to go back, I would have run with Hicham El Guerrouj in the mile when he was breaking the world record [3:43.13] or when he was running 3:45, 3:44s. I would have loved to have been there.
“When he broke that world record with Noah Ngeny running the second fastest time ever, I said ‘nah, I’m not gonna run this weekend, I’m gonna chill’ only to remain in pain for a long time – including now. My personal best would not be 3:47, it is pathetically slow. That is the only regret I have.”
It’s a small scratch on a career as glittering as Lagat’s, but also testament to his attitude of always striving to be better. It is on the roads that his quest for success will continue.