World Champion Runner Bernard Lagat
By Brian Price
Prior to the 2011 Millrose Games, Bernard Lagat trained at The Armory Track and Field Center in New York City. A banked track allowed him to prepare for the elevated turns at Madison Square Garden's short track the next day. His feet, with each light step, hit the track without a sound. His breathing, so controlled, never seemed to necessitate the expansion of his chest. For a "light" five-minute-mile pace, his form was perfect.
Lagat has built a name that is synonymous with longevity, success and class, and his American track and field career began at Washington State University. To family, coaches and fellow runners, he's a king.
After graduating from WSU with a degree in management information systems, he has since set the current American records in the indoor and outdoor 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000-meter races, as well as the indoor mile with a time of 3:49.89.
When he's not running, he's smiling and enjoying being a fan of Cougar football.
"When's Washington State football going to beat the Huskies? Man, they got us again this year! I can't believe it," he says.
Lagat was born in Kenya and fondly recalls becoming a part of the Pac-10 tradition.
"My coach in Kenya knew James Li, the Washington State coach at the time [now the distance and cross country coach at Arizona]," Lagat says. "Coach Li is my current coach now, and, at the time, had a scholarship to give and just like that I was a Cougar."
James Li's methods proved instrumental in providing the foundation for Lagat, helping him learn to understand his body mechanics and how to push himself.
"My coach's philosophy could be classified as less quantity, but more quality: short but intense. The 'easy jog' portion of the workout for him broke down to a six-minute mile. He doesn't believe in heavy mileage, like with big numbers at the end of the week. There was no calculating for 65, or, whoa, 69 miles at the end of the week. We would go by the feel of our bodies. Doing that helped me define workouts for myself that worked extremely well."
In addition to a strong relationship with Li, Lagat found he was able to acclimate with the help of a close friend.
"[Coming to America] as an 18-year old from Kenya was a big change but my friend Eric Kamau, who was my running partner in Kenya, was already over here and was able to show me the ropes."
As roommates, Kamau helped him with colloquial English and introduced him to the use of American condiments. "I had never had ketchup before," Lagat says.
Over the course of his career at Washington State, Lagat won four NCAA championship titles, was named Division-I National Indoor Athlete of the Year and Pac-10 Track and Field Athlete of the Year in 1999. Under Li's guidance, Lagat mastered his technique. "Both then, and now, I always want to design workouts so I'm peaking at the right time. Leading up to a race, I'm fresh and running at my best."
He often ran two or even three races, pushing himself to the limits, because it helped the Cougars in competition. "It's important to make sacrifices for teammates," Lagat says.
In 2000, Lagat left WSU to compete in the Sydney Games, where Kenya and Morrocco, who consistently produce the best runners in the world, added another chapter to their extremely intense rivalry. Lagat won a bronze medal and Kenyan teammate Noah Ngeny won gold.
After returning to school and graduating, Lagat continued his running career.
"My daddy ran and so did my mother," Lagat says. "Running is our family business and it's what they passed down to me."
Additionally, Lagat's sister, Mary Chepkemboi ran competitively and his brother, Robert Cheseret, ran at the University of Arizona and is currently training for the 2012 Olympics.
Lagat has been considered one of the top four 1,500-meter runners in the world nine of the last ten years and is a 1,500-meter record holder not just in America, but also in his native Kenya.
The gold medal has alluded him, but surprisingly, Lagat is content and at peace with his performance in Athens in the 2004 Olympics in which he came up short of first by only a few hundreds of a second to El Gerouj.
"That silver medal means more to me than anything else in my entire career. Why? Because it's mine. I gave it all that I had. All that a man could give. It wasn't enough to win the gold medal, but winning the silver was really the best moment of my life. There was nothing more that I could have done on that final stretch. The silver was meant for me and I appreciate that."
Lagat now makes his home in Tucson, Ariz., (to be close to Coach Li) with his wife, Gladys Tom, whom he met at WSU, his five-year-old son Miika, and his two-year-old daughter, Gianna. He's run several races with pictures of his children printed on the tongue of his spikes.
"I have a family with children that I need to educate and provide for so that is why I run," he says. "I'm the father and the head of the house. I need to be the rock for my family, or actually, my son calls me the manchie, which in Kenya means king. He comes up to me and tells me: 'Daddy, you are the king!'"
Lagat, fell short to Deresse Mekonnen of Ethiopia in the Wanamaker Mile, the main event of this year's Millrose Games. However, Lagat still holds the Wanamaker record time, 3:52.87 and in total wins, eight, from 2001, 2003, and 2005-2010. Of course, Lagat plans to compete next year in the 105th Melrose games and recapture his crown.
"This is my office and this, running, is my job," Lagat pauses to look around the track. "It's a 24-hour job whether it's training or taking care of myself or competing. I love what I do. Running is in my blood."