Monday, March 15, 2010

Lagat Wins 300m in Doha

DOHA, Qatar -- As the laps ticked down and the pace remained steady, Bernard Lagat just went with the flow, and patiently held his position. All the while, he was sure about one thing.

He was winning this race.

In his mind, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. He could sense it after just two laps around the Aspire Dome.

After a brilliantly executed race strategy, which included a swift and decisive move with 220 meters remaining, Lagat cruised down the final straight, smiling and waving to the crowd as he crossed the finish line in 7:37.97 to win gold in the men's 3000m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
The title for Lagat was his first since 2004, when he won the 3000m while running for his native Kenya. That year he became the first Kenyan to win a World Indoor title at that distance. This year, he became the first American to do the same. In the process, the 35-year-old also became the oldest man in history to win gold at a World Indoor Championships.

"It feels so good," Lagat said. "I missed two championships and I knew I wanted to come and do it the way I did in Budapest. I wanted to win for the United States. I felt so good the entire race."

Distance races at championship meets often unfold strategically due to the lack of pacemakers often seen on the professional circuit. Watching those tactics play out is the most entertaining part.

Lagat's execution was different.

It was virtuoso.

He played this field like harp, and it was truly a masterpiece.

It all started with a bit of simple advice from Lagat's coach, James Li.

"He told me to get out, be positive and don't lose contact with the guys who are leading," Lagat said.

At the opening gun, Lagat made a break from his starting position on the extreme right, all the way to the inside rail by the start of the first turn. His eyes immediately began scanning the bibs of the runners in front of him to determine who was running where.

"At the beginning I knew I wanted to run through the first 400 meters and see where everybody is," Lagat said. "By the time they are showing 13 laps to go, I know exactly how the race is going to unfold. If I can't see the big guys up there I know they are either waiting for me or waiting until the last minute."

From there, Lagat sat behind the leaders, content to let them do the early work, as has become his trademark.

"I like to be towed," Lagat joked. "It's a championship and the champion isn't crowned until you cross the finish line. There is no need to do work when I don't feel like I have to. Sometimes I feel like, ‘Hey, if somebody wants to lead, perfect. I'll follow you.' If nobody wants to go to the front, then fine. I'll go all the way to the back and follow everybody. I just react from there."

Lagat said his goal was to run relaxed in the third position for as long as possible. With about six laps to go, he moved up a spot and drafted off leader Tariku Bekele of Ethiopia, the 2008 World Indoor 3000m champion. Though Bekele didn't make any surges, his steady clip enabled him and Lagat to open a gap on Sergio Sanchez of Spain and Sammy Mutahi of Kenya.

But Bekele was unable to shake Lagat.

"I was, expecting it to be a little faster," Lagat said. "I was expecting there to be splits of 28 or 29s, but there was nothing like that. When they showed me four laps to go, I knew that was just 800 meters and that all I needed to do was stick close to Bekele and follow him all the way. With 800 meters to go, as a miler, if they haven't put me away by that point, then it's too late. When I saw that gap, I knew it was only going to be him and me and that I was going to get him on the last lap."

Lagat picked off Bekele with a swift move with just over a lap to go. Bekele was unable to respond and Lagat continued to pull away with seemingly little effort. Sanchez surged up from fourth place late to take second and Mutahi passed Bekele for third.

"That was me going for the win," Lagat said "My coach told me to stay in the pocket position. As we approached the last lap, I just told myself, ‘Go win it.' I can go into races with the experience I gained in the longer distances and the speed I have developed from the 1500m. Today was mostly experience. I knew some of the guys I was running against have run 7:31 and that's good, but in a championship race it's anybody's playing field."

The precision with which Lagat performed is not something that one is born with or a skill learned overnight. It usually takes a humbling experience followed by years of honing.

"I like to use the term ‘I was forced to,' because when I was running with Hicham El Guerrouj, I had no other choice but to master tactics real quick," Lagat said. "If I didn't master it, then I wasn't going to place anywhere near him."

Lagat got his baptism by fire during his first season as a professional, when he found himself matched up against the Moroccan El Guerrouj, arguably the greatest middle distance runner of all time.

"It was the first time I ran a 1500m against him in Zurich in 1999," Lagat said. "I ran 3:30 and I wasn't ready for him at all. When the race started going, I was just hanging in there. I was running in third and El Guerrouj is going with the pacemakers and I was like, ‘Whoa!' At the end, I felt like that was the hardest race of my life.

"Then I changed my running strategies. I said, ‘You know what? This is never going to happen again to me. When this guy starts going with pacemakers, I'm going to be the one reading his number.' My philosophy every time I run a championship is I'm going to read his number, and if time allows and I'm strong that day, I'm going to pass him."

That philosophy and Lagat's victory should serve as a model for his young American teammate Galen Rupp, who finished fifth in a personal-best 7:42.40. Because Rupp never got near the front early on in the race, he was not in position to challenge for a medal during the race's decisive moments.

"My coach was telling me all along to sit in the back and be as relaxed as I can be, close at the end, and finish hard," Rupp said. "I'm pretty young and I'm still getting there. I'm not at the top level yet. But I'm better than last year, so I am getting there. Hopefully I'll keep getting better as I run in more of these races. Having a guy like Bernard to run with is great. He's been through everything and he is pretty honest with me."

Lagat said that he is confident Rupp will improve with time and more racing, and vowed to do all he can to help expedite that process.

"Galen is a good kid and every time I talk to him, he looks up and you can tell he is listening," Lagat said. "He's young and he's learning. After today, I think now he knows that at an event like this one, you have to run from the front for you to be with the guys. For him, this was a learning experience. I'm glad he was in the final because Galen Rupp is going to be different come 2011 in Daegu.

"He knows that in order for him to get medals like Bernard did, he needs to be in the front with the guys fighting to exchange leads or stalking the leaders like I do. When I run with him in Europe this summer, I'm going to be telling him, ‘Galen, run up at the front.' I'm going to tell him to do what Bob Kennedy used to do. He was hanging with the Kenyans up front and you can see how successful he did."

Rupp could do the same by hanging with Lagat.