EUGENE – Bernard Lagat refuses to show his age, but his incredible running skills continue to take a toll on younger competitors.
“I’ll retire before he does,” 24-year-old Eric Jenkins said after the 41-year-old Lagat burst past five runners in the final 200-plus meters to win the 5,000 meter race Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Olympic Trials at historic Hayward Field.
Lagat, who first ran at Hayward nearly 20 years ago as a Washington State Cougar, turned the 13th and final lap in a stunning 52.24 seconds. He’s headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for his fifth Olympic Games, He doesn’t seem the least bit surprised.
“I train with young guys,” he explained. “I don’t believe I’m this old.
“If you believe you’re old, you’re going to run like an old guy. The young guys push me every single day.”
Vice versa, too. Lagat, who announced earlier this year he will switch to road racing next year, won his eighth national 5,000 title in 13:35.50. Maybe it was his ninth 5,000 title: He’s won so often for so long, his total was listed as eight or nine in various reports.
“He’s such a nice guy,” Jenkins said. “I get along with him really well.
“He’s always a good person to talk to before a race. He’s got the good energy.”
These remarks came from a fellow who finished one spot out of a trip to the Olympics when Lagat’s stunning kick pushed Jenkins into fourth place. Obviously, all those daily workouts back home in the searing heat of Tucson paid off for Lagat. Growing up in Kenya’s high elevations didn’t hurt, either.
Hayward Field is the cathedral of track and field in the United States. Lagat was disappointed when he dropped out of the Prefontaine Classic 5,000 on May 28 at Hayward (illness) and the Trials 10,000 last week (exhaustion).
“I said, ‘I’m not going to end running in Eugene that way,’” Lagat said. “This is Tracktown (USA). I can’t really leave that image with everybody.
“This is the image I wanted to leave.”
A crowd of 22,847 – largest in Hayward history – roared in appreciation for the diminutive Lagat as he literally jumped for joy at the end of one of the most memorable races in his remarkable career. Lagat is set to become the oldest U.S. runner in Olympic history.
Lagat will be joined in Rio by Kara Winger, a graduate of Skyview High School in Vancouver, WA. Winger, the national record holder in the women’s javelin, placed third with a throw of 189-11.
The top three advance as long as they have hit the Olympic standard of 203-5 during the assigned period. Winger, who set the U.S. record of 218-9 in 2010, had already qualified.
Winger (formerly Patterson), a six-time national champion, said winning the Trials was not nearly as important to her as going to her third Olympics.
“That’s all that matters,” she said.
The Purdue graduate said changing winds played havoc with throws.
“It was really weird,” she said. “It was a crosswind, then a tailwind, then it was a crosswind the other way, then it was a headwind sometimes.”