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No one expected 34-year-old Lopez Lomong to sweep the 10k and 5k titles at this year’s USATF Outdoor Championships—least of all, himself.
“How the heck did I did even do that,” he says, still incredulous, over the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon the week after his historic double win. “I’m getting there. Very soon it might sink in.”
The Bowerman Track Club veteran, whose life story as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan is even more impressive than his status as a two-time Olympian, is the first man to win both the 10k and 5k at the national championships since Galen Rupp accomplished the feat at the 2012 Olympic Trials. His range is now legendary: No other man has ever won national titles over their career in the 10k, 5k and the 1500m. And despite entering the championship without the world standard in either event, his wins set two facility records: 27:30.06 for 10k and 13:25.53 for 5k.
Something to Prove
Lomong entered USAs as the defending champion in the 10k, but last year’s race was slow and tactical and injuries had hindered him from making a world or Olympic team since 2013. His main goal for USAs, then, was to defend that title and prove he could still place top three and make a team in a global championship year. The 5k, in which Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo was a two-time defending champion, was just supposed to be icing on the cake. (Lomong was also entered in the 1500m, but scratched).
“Winning the 10k last year, I knew it was an off year and a lot of people did not want to come and toe the line,” Lomong says. “I trained very, very hard, more than anybody else to make this team in the 10,000 meters. [Winning the] 5k… was a surprise.
“This [5k] is the title I’ve been trying to get for a long, long time,” he says. “The field was really stacked, a lot of people had the world championships time and I didn’t have it and obviously, running with a silver medalist like Paul Chelimo is a big fish to go get. In 2017, he took off from the beginning and controlled the whole race from the front. This year, my target was him.”
Lomong closed in a blazing 53.35 to outkick Chelimo in one of the most thrilling races of the entire championship event, 13:25.53 to 13:25.80. Chelimo has been a consistent podium contender at the world level for the past three years and Lomong’s kick now puts him in equal company.
About to Walk Away
As recently as two years ago, a resurgence of this magnitude seemed all but impossible.
Lomong has struggled with persistent sciatica, hip and IT band injuries, which all stem from a pulled hamstring sustained before the 2008 Olympic Trials. He made the team that year in the 1500m, but after moving up to the 5k to make the 2012 Olympic team, Lomong always got hurt at the wrong time. He placed sixth at USAs in 2015, 10th in 2016 and a well-beaten fifth in 2017.
“It’s so hard to do everything you can and you’re running really fast but something else is hindering you from making the team,” he says. “2017 in Sacramento, that moment was terrible. ‘Why don’t I walk away from the sport and do something else?’
“It came to the last 250 meters and people just passed me and I didn’t have a finish. What is going on? I put a lot of work into this and my injury is still disturbing me. It’s discouraging.”
Only the confidence of his coaches and the BTC community kept him afloat as he thought about quitting after that poor showing at the 2017 USATF Championships.
“Everything is going to click someday,” he told himself. “If I walk away from this sport, I want to be able to retire saying I did my best and this is what I contributed to the sport. I don’t want to have any regrets.”
Even this year, he says he’s only been fully healthy for about six months and skipped the indoor season due to the nagging injury.
Slowing Down, Going Longer
One benefit of growing older is gaining a better understanding of your body, and Lomong certainly seems to have figured out what works for him. He says he doesn’t need to cross-train much and can maintain his normal mileage—anywhere from 90-105 miles—if he simply slows down the pace.
He credits chiropractor John Ball, the go-to guy for many pro runners, with fixing him up last year, and thanks coach Jerry Schumacher for pushing him toward the slower, smoother 10k for the first time. He was “a little scared” of the distance at first, but now looks forward to chasing the 10k and 5k double in the 2020 Olympic Games.
But, first—worlds, where he poses an outside shot to medal in the 10k.
“If I run with a really good, sound mind and excitement, I think I will do well,” Lomong says of Doha, where Qatar will host the IAAF World Championships at the end of September. “I want to beat as many people as possible. If I’m healthy, I can run with anybody on the world stage. That is the dream, to stay healthy. Whatever the position I’m gonna finish, I will be happy about it.”