(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
EUGENE, Ore. — The first time Bernard Lagat went to the Olympics, the world was getting over the drama of Y2K, George W. Bush was President of the United States, and ‘N Sync topped the music charts with “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Lagat himself wasn’t even an American citizen yet, still representing his home country of Kenya after graduating from Washington State University.
Sixteen years later at the age of 41, Lagat secured a spot at his fifth consecutive Olympic Games by winning the Olympic Trials 5,000m here in a thrilling sprint in 13:35.50, raising the stars and stripes with pride. It took a last lap of 52.82 seconds to give Lagat his eighth national title at the distance.
“I was just telling myself, ‘Keep going, keep going, you can make it, you can do it’ and I kept telling myself that over and over again,” said Lagat, eyes wide with son Miika and daughter Gianna by his side. “When I started passing all the guys I was like, ‘Really it is happening!'”
Joining Lagat on the Olympic team are Nike Oregon Track Club Elite’s Hassan Mead (13:35.70) and the U.S. Army’s Paul Chelimo (13:35.92). Both are first-time Olympians and weren’t yet 10 years old when Lagat made his first Olympic team.
As expected, the race came down to a furious sprint over the final two laps. Yet few anticipated Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist, could prevail over the likes of younger stars Ryan Hill, Ben True, and Mead. Using the underdog mantra as motivation, Lagat had something to prove in front of 22,847 spectators, the largest audience in Hayward Field history.
The pace went out slow in 75 seconds for 400 meters, a walk in the park for the 16-man field. Portland’s Woody Kincaid and Saucony’s Brian Shrader wound up surging on the fourth lap, dropping an unexpected sub-60-second lap to open a 7-second lead. All of the main contenders stayed patient; they knew that Kincaid and Shrader’s 20-meter lead would shrink at some point, and neither athlete had the Olympic Games qualifying standard of 13:25.00.
The duo led through 3000 meters in 8:25.73 yet were tracked down, and dropped, by Galen Rupp in the subsequent laps. The pride of the Nike Oregon Project held the lead comfortably through 4500 meters.
While the pace had become quicker, all the other favorites were winding up the sprint and anticipating a killer last kilometer.
“I think nobody really wanted to expend themselves and be the one to reel him in because they knew six other guys would be sitting on him,” said Ben True of the strategy to wait and wait and wait some more.
Finally with 450m left the bubble burst and all hell broke loose. Rupp held the lead at the bell by eight steps on Chelimo, Mead, Eric Jenkins and True. Lagat was back in sixth, tucked between the lanky Mead and ahead of Hill.
The pack overtook Rupp down the backstretch; he wouldn’t be a factor in the finish, taking ninth in 13:41.09. Chelimo’s surge to the front was grueling, gaining the pole and gapping Mead, True, Lagat, and company.
Lagat, Chelimo’s elder by 16 years, kept one gear in his pocket coming around the Bowerman Curve and into the homestretch. With 50 meters left, Lagat and Mead went by Chelimo’s right shoulder and crossed the line first, separated only by 2/10ths of a second. Chelimo just held off the final charge by Eric Jenkins, outleaning him by just 6/100ths of a second.
Lagat’s wheels, as old as they may be, had carried him to victory and a fifth Olympiad. It’s all thanks to training under James Li with spry, motivated youngsters.
“I train with young guys, and I don’t believe I am old. If you believe you are old, then I am going to run like an old man,” he said, drawing a laugh from the media. “I am with Sam Chelanga, Stanley Kebenei, all these young guys, Lawi [Lalang] and Stephen Sambu. They push me every single day and you know when I train with them, at the end of the day, they tell me ‘Man you make us really feel bad.’ Because, you know, I don’t give up. I train hard with them and that is what you guys saw today.”
Lagat said he never doubted himself and not once thought he was too old to make it to Rio. DNF’s in the 5000m at the Prefontaine Classic and in the 10,000m here last week were reasons for some to doubt his ability. Lagat said that in both cases he left the track sick to his stomach with disappointment, a feeling that quickly turned to motivation.
“I said I’m not going to end running in Eugene that way. This is Track Town, and I can’t really leave that image with everyone. This is the image I wanted to leave. I was super excited when I won the race,” he said.
Even Mead, who qualified for his first Olympics in second, was blown away by Lagat’s ability.
“I liked my position even with three laps to go, with two laps to go,” Mead began. “I was trying to hold off Lagat a little bit but man! Hats off to him.
“I can’t put it into words man. The man’s inspiring. I thought I was going to win and he came out of nowhere. Trying to hold him off, I couldn’t hold him off. What he is doing is brilliant,” he said. “It’s brilliant for the sport.”
For as much as Lagat’s sprint was inspiring, the heartbreak and despair for top athletes such as Hill and True was devastating. The pair knew their kicks were strong, yet they simply could not find that extra gear when it mattered most. True was fifth in 13:36.40 while Hill was sixth in 13:38.36. Eric Jenkins took fourth by a hair in 13:35.98.
“I’m just really bummed,” said True. “I really thought that I could make the team, I really thought I could do well in the Olympic final. I still think I can run some real good 5000m times and compete on the Diamond League circuit. But it’s just heartbreaking not making the team. It’ll be another four years until I get a shot and that’s a long time. I’m just bummed.”
Hill was equally disappointed.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of shenanigans going on just cause everyone had different motives coming in,” said Hill, the IAAF World Indoor Championships 3000m silver medalist and defending 5000m national champion. “Some wanted it to go slow and some wanted to go fast. Everyone threw their best shot out there and I think I ended up trying to play all of the shots and it kind of wore me out by the end.”
Bernard Lagat’s son, Miika, wasn’t even sure his dad could pull off the win. Watching from a stairwell track-side, he bounced back and forth trying to see what happened on the final lap.
“I was kind of nervous,” Miika told RRW in a quiet voice. “It was kind of crazy. I’m very happy he won.”